Robert Frost, writing with, I presume, a fountain pen, is distracted by a tiny dot of a bug running across his page. He moves “to stop it with a period of ink,” but holds off, and watches as it reaches his still-damp words, pauses and turns to flee. He lets it be, impressed that he’s dealing with an intelligent being:
I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise.
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.
I read a lot — often, in fact, advise young writers asking for tips that if their significant others aren’t complaining they “read all the time,” they aren’t reading enough. Much of what I read, unfortunately, arrives on the internet, where Opinion and Nastiness rule as double sovereigns. But small piles of books and magazines here and there around the house, attest at least to my good intentions. The magazines, when I’ve exhausted them, I leave either on the “free table” at our church’s weekly free lunch or in medical waiting rooms, where oftentimes the liveliest reading is The Journal of Urology or Gastroenterology Today. The books I’m certain I won’t be going back to for future reference, go to the library or friends who can be cajoled into taking them.
Some, however, stay with me, for the same reason Mr. Frost let the “considerable speck” live: They evince preternaturally gifted minds at work.
Oftentimes on Facebook appears the query, “What’s your favorite book?” or “Who’s your favorite author?” What silly questions! It’s like asking, “If three of your children were drowning, and you could rescue only one ...” My life would hardly end without Joseph Conrad on the bookshelf behind me, but what would it be like without Captain MacWhirr, in the chart room of the steamer Nan-Shan in the middle of the South China Sea, gazing incredulously at “the fall of a barometer he had no reason to distrust,” and thinking, “There must be some uncommonly dirty weather knocking about.” And I’d survive without Conrad’s most beautiful story, “Youth.” But such a life would be a Christmas tree without lights.
Likewise, Huckleberry Finn, with his dubious reflections on “civilization” and the power of prayer. The pioneer writer in American vernacular, Twain broke us forever of our Victorian formalism; and his wit, self-effacement and irony endeared him to those of us whose parents disapproved of him.
Tennyson and Cavafy I don’t even have to take off the shelf. From long acquaintance, I can recite my favorites — in the shower, on the trail, or when sleepless: “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades for ever and forever when I move.” And so it does. Standing once on the beach in Nettuno, Italy, just at dusk in a flat calm, I could discern no horizon; sea and sky were seamless. At that moment, it was easy to feel why ancient navigators embraced the unknown.
Another old friend on the shelf, a facsimile edition of a Charles Dickens manuscript, written with a quill pen, is so blotted and altered and covered with circles and arrows it’s astonishing a typesetter, working by lamplight, could possibly make sense of it. But little Bob comes in, anyway, “with three feet of his comforter dangling before him, and Tiny Tim upon his shoulder,” and all is well again.
What started all this, just this morning, was another paperback, tired and beat-up and obviously read a few times. (Like the Velveteen Rabbit, when you’ve been loved, you’re also much worn.) It’s the memoir Ulysses Grant wrote and dictated, literally in his dying months, of his days in the military: from his reluctant journey to West Point as an entering cadet to beyond the end of the Civil War.
Grant’s humor and writing style are surprises. A horseman since boyhood, but an infantryman by vocation and sent to Mexico, he describes hilariously his unit’s city-bred “teamsters” training unbroken Mexican mules to harness. “There never was a time during the war when it was safe to let a Mexican mule get entirely loose,” he concludes. “Their drivers were all teamsters by the time they got through.”
Robert E. Lee, after outwitting almost every general the Union threw at him, found unnerving Grant’s habit of declining to take a rest day after hard engagements, instead continuing to press relentlessly. There’s a clue to that in Grant’s description of crossing a flooded river on horseback on his way to visit his sweetheart some years before: “One of my superstitions had always been when I started to go any where, or to do any thing, not to turn back or stop until the thing intended was accomplished.” So, just as the general once said he’d take Vicksburg if it took all summer, I’m looking forward to marching again through his years in uniform, even if it takes the rest of the winter. On all his pages glows a bright display of mind.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.