Does our recreational reading matter? We could consider the whole realm of recreation and entertainment in a free and virtuous society, but for the purposes of this essay I shall focus on a particularly important form of recreation: reading.
Reading is obviously one of the most essentially human things we do. Reading makes possible cultural advancement and the pursuit of truth as an historical and inter-generational endeavor. When we are not reading for work, or study, or for the gathering of necessary information and education about events in the world, is the question of what we read for relaxation irrelevant, a matter of personal preference without significance for life? Certainly in an age of increasing television (and now internet) viewing—analyzed and criticized from Marshal McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage (1967) to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1986)—maybe we should just be grateful that folks are doing any reading at all! But is there reading that is bad for us? I think we can readily assent to that notion, and most of us could easily identify the extreme genres of “literature” that qualify, particularly those that encourage vicious habits in thought and behavior.
The Roman maxim, mens sane in corpore sane (a sound mind in a sound body), and the Greek ideal of arête (excellence) built on the virtues of self-knowledge and self-control, along with the cardinal virtues (wisdom,courage, prudence. justice) all come to mind as potential guides as to how recreational activities in general, and, recreational reading in particular, should be related to our pursuit of happiness in life, in the context of ordered liberty.
Aristotle certainly thought that recreation had its place in the pursuit of happiness and the good life. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle first wants to dispel the notion, that many people seem to have, that recreation and amusements exist as ends in themselves—fun for fun’s sake—or even that amusement is happiness, actually constitutes happiness. In such a view, stringing together pleasurable experiences define the pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of more and greater pleasurable experiences. For Aristotle, mere amusement, in reading or whatever, could not possibly be an end in itself, Aristotle argued, first because that’s what children think. Second, because it seems paradoxical to work hard for the sake of amusement.
Third, Aristotle argues that people who place such emphasis on entertainment frequently neglect other important affairs, like family or finances or even their own health. No, mere recreation cannot possibly be valued for its own sake, as an end in itself.
Does that make amusement bad? Not at all! The question is, if entertainment isn’t a good in itself, what is entertainment good for? How does recreation, reading for recreation, fit in with a life aimed at the higher things in life, the good life happiness?
The very word “recreation” means literally “re-creation.” We make ourselves new, as it were, as a result of it. Certainly in addition to reading for study or for acquiring technical information, reading for relaxation is an important way to rest one’s mind and to prepare us to return to our primary duties, refreshed and ready to concentrate on tasks at hand. Reading for recreation turns out to be serious business.
In 1921, Fr. Antoine-Gilbert Sertillanges wrote a little book called The Intellectual Life, and it is one of those classic works that people of a certain age and temperament regret that they had not read when they were younger, when they might have been able to take some of its profound lessons to heart, and to have avoided much personal and professional floundering around in pursuit of the wisdom contained within its pages.
It is a demanding book to be sure, a painstaking handbook on the pursuit of knowledge. Fr. Sertillanges sets high standards to say the least, but in outlining the path of life-long learning, where else would you want him to set the bar?
Reading is the universal means of learning and the essential act, one might say, of the intellectual life. As Fr. Sertillanges puts it,
We never think entirely alone: we think in company. in a vast collaboration; we work with the workers of the past and of the present. The whole intellectual world can be compared, thanks to reading, to a great editorial or mercantile office, where each one finds in those about him the initiation, help, verification, information, encouragement, that he needs.
He adds that the first rule of reading is “read little,” which is to say read judiciously. Those who pride themselves on a passion for reading are at risk of exhausting the powers of an over-stimulated soul, “kept in a state of disturbance, in uncertain currents and cross-currents.” It is the same danger faced by the person who pursues with an inordinate passion any other activity that threatens to monopolize ones soul. Celebrity news? Daily political news?
He sums up, “never read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.” Rather than be the voracious reader, better to get our in the fresh air, and reflect on the book of nature!
But for all of Fr. Sertillanges’ seriousness, he does appreciate the necessity of reading for distraction, in other words, for fun.
Reading for fun is good in so far as it permits us to do better the other things in life that help us to be flourishing human beings, physically, socially, and spiritually: not all recreational readings are created equal.
In the matter of reading for relaxation, choice seems much less important. Relatively (to the three other kinds of reading he distinguishes) indeed it is so; but let no one imagine that it is all the same to find distraction in this or in that, when the object is to come back in the best conditions to what is our raison d’être. Certain kinds of reading are not recreative enough, others are too much so, to the detriment of the recollection that must come afterwards; others again may divert you, in the etymological sense. ..that is turn you aside from your path.
He was acquainted with “a man who rested from a laborious piece of work by reading Zeller’s History of Greek Philosophy: it was a distraction but not a sufficient one. Others read highly spiced or fantastic stories which provide a complete change of mental scene; for others their light reading is an indulgence in temptations which discourage them from work and harm their soul. … If books are your servants like other objects that you use in daily life, those in particular that play only an accessory part must be made to serve. Do not sacrifice yourself to your fan…” [Translation for those of us in Texas in 2008: "Do not sacrifice yourself to your air conditioner."]
One thing alone, according to St. Thomas, gives real rest: that is joy.
So Fr. Sertillanges concludes on reading for distraction:
Read something that you like, that does not excite you too much, that does not harm you in any way: …have the intelligence to read, among the books that are equally effective in resting your mind, what will also be useful otherwise, helping you to develop your personality, to adorn your mind, to be a man.
That seems like pretty solid advice!
And that brings us to a case study: the works of PG. Wodehouse as recreational reading. Note that Wodehouse is pronounced “Wood-house” — it is a British thing. Wodehouse wrote some 96 books, novels and collections of short stories over his 73-year writing career. He also wrote one musical comedy for Broadway, and lyrics for some 30 other musicals. He was working on his latest novel when he passed away in 1975 at the age of 93. Wodehouse has a fan following that includes some the 20th century’s greatest English writers, including T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, John Lecarre’ and even Salman Rushdie! There are Wodehouse Societies in virtually every English-speaking country, and in several non-English-speaking countries.
What accounts for his fame and popularity? He famously once said that: “There are two ways of writing. One of these is a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.”
He chose the former, and in the process created a fictional universe–situated roughly in pre-WWI England’s aristocratic circles, between London and a few country estates, with occasional forays to Hollywood and New York City—that is marvelously intricate and rich in derail, with a boggling array of characters all at once totally absurd and totally credible, in short, a universe whose ability to distract “can never stale” (as one commentator put it) or fail to lift readers out of their real life humdrum immediacies and cares.
That Wodehouse’s “musical comedies without music” distract is beyond contention, but do they distract constructively, would Fr. Sertillanges approve?
The Wodehouse universe is actually composed of five or six constellations, geographic nexuses that serve as a backdrop for certain characters and their antics, but I would say there are three main ones.
Blandings Castle stories feature the adventures of the Threepwood family, headed by the odd Lord Emsworth. whose main cares in life are taking care of his prize winning pig, the Empress of Blandings, and arguing with his Scottish gardener over the best remedy for aphids on his roses. He is the archetype of anachronistic nobility, and in some ways the epitome of the spirit of the times that Wodehouse brings to life. Like all of his characters, whatever his flaws, he remains human, and, in this case, endearing. Emsworth is regularly derailed from his preferred pastimes by his bullying sister, Lady Constance Keeble, by the meddlesome secretary imposed on him by this sister, the horn-rimmed glasses-wearing Rupert Baxter, by his bumbling second son, Freddy, or from the chaos-inducing visits of his younger, bon vivant brother, Galahad (Gally for short). Blandings is a mythical oasis, capturing the charm and innocence of the pre-war Edwardian age and is the center-piece of much of the rest of the Wodehouse universe.
There is a story set in the neighborhood of Blandings concerning two baronets or something with adjoining estates who spend most of their energies competing with each other over pointless matters. Somehow, the latest field of battle was over who could grow the largest and most impressive moustache. One baronet’s face is described as looking like a pair of spectacles peering over a zareba—classic Wodehouse choice of words that sound funny in their own right, even when you don’t know what they mean! Then you look up zareba, and you find that it is “An enclosure of bushes or stakes protecting a campsite or village in northeast Africa” and it’s even funnier. Zareba shows up in a half dozen other Wodehouse stories, and each time it’s like seeing an old friend. In fact Wodehouse had a ton of stock expressions and similes that he uses over and over in all of his works. Each time they show up with a little different twist though. Angry Aunts floating into a room like a galleon under full sail, angry girlfriends with little blue flames issuing from their nostrils, etc.
Then there are the stories recounted by Mr. Mulliner at the Angler’s Rest, a pub in yet another mythic oasis in the English countryside. The various patrons and visitors to the pub are identified only by their choice of drink. Sometimes his cohorts would like to tell stories of their own, but resistance is futile, as Mr. Mulliner is able to derail any challengers and launch into tales of the vast Mulliner clan with their impossible adventures and romances.
Similar in structure are the golf stories that “the Oldest Member” of a mythic golf club frequently foists on hapless passers-by. The locale seems beyond time and space and worldly concerns. There the sport is considered more of a religion than anything else.
After all golf is only a game,’ said Millicent. Women say these things without thinking. It does not mean that there is any kink in their character. They simply don’t realize what they are saving.
Wodehouse’s golfers see the sport as a profound metaphor for life:
I have never put a club into the hand of a beginner without something of the feeling of a sculptor who surveys a mass of shapeless clay. I experience the emotions of a creator. Here, I say to myself, is a semi-sentient being into whose soulless carcass I am breathing life. A moment before, he was, though technically living, a mere clod. A moment hence he will be a golfer.
I want to focus for the rest of this essay on the constellation around the Drones Club in London, a lively association of young men with more money than brains, with too much time on their hands while waiting for their next allowance from the uncle or aunt that serves as trustee over their funds. A certain Archibald is typical:
Even at the Drones Club, where the average of intellect is not high, it was often said of Archibald that, had his brains been constructed of silk, he would have been hard put to it to find sufficient material to make a canary a pair of cami-knickers.
Out of this milieu of wastrels comes Bertie Wooster, joined early on by his gentleman’s personal gentleman, Jeeves. The Jeeves and Bertie stories are perhaps the best known of the Wodehouse cycle, with a number of representations on stage and screen. Wodehouse’s butlers are in large part responsible for the image of the English butler that we have in America.
Parker made no comment. He stood in the doorway, trying to look as like a piece of furniture as possible—which is the duty of a good butler.
Bowles, like all proprietors of furnished rooms in the Sloane Square neighborhood, is an ex-butler, and even in a plaid dressing gown he retained much of the cold majesty which so intimidated me by day.
Jeeves entered—or perhaps one should say shimmered into—the room.., tall and dark and impressive. He might have been one of the better class ambassadors or the youngish High Priest of some refined and dignified religion.
Jeeves has virtually entered the English language as referring to the archetype of the English valet, yet Jeeves stands alone. He is a walking encyclopedia, a master of observation and deduction on the level of Sherlock Holmes, as astute an analyst of human nature, or of what he calls the psychology of the individual, as any mortal man. And he needs every ounce of his mental powers to rescue Bertie or his friends from the range of fixes they get themselves into—usually having to do with undesired accidental engagements or desired engagements frustrated by some over-bearing aunt or uncle holding the keys to the trust fund.
Bertie is the antithesis of Jeeves. One wonders how he musters enough intelligence to get up in the morning—and then one remembers that Jeeves pours his bath and brings him his Earl Grey, or his own secret hangover remedy, to get Bertie in motion every day. Bertie is a good egg, however, through and through, despite what his imperious Aunt Agatha thinks—she considers him somewhere below a useless blight on humanity. Wodehouse had a thing about aunts. The mere arrival of Bertie’s Aunt Agatha, especially if unexpected, could turn Bertie into a gelatinous mass of jangled nerves. She had an impressive way about her: “She gave a sniff that sounded like a nor’easter ripping the sails off a stricken vessel.”
If Bertie would only not try to “fix” the problems that his Drones friends create for themselves, he could live the relatively quiet, and pointless life of a younger Lord Emsworth—only then there would be no incredibly complicated messes, involving layer upon layer of confusion and dramatic tension growing from chapter to chapter, for Jeeves to unravel and move to the inevitable happy ending.
Interestingly, love stories form the driving force of the great majority of the Bertie and Jeeves stories, as all of Wodehouse’s tales. Wodehouse’s women are almost always forces to be reckoned with, for good or for ill. Honoria Glossop, one of Bertie’s occasional fiancées, was described by Bertie as “one of those large, strenuous, dynamic girls with the physique of a middle-weight catch-as-catch-can wrestler and a laugh resembling the sound of the Scotch Express going under a bridge.” This is just the sort of girl that his Aunt Agatha would want him to marry—and just the sort Bertie feared would want to “improve him” or some such foul thing.
Certainly the strength of Wodehouse’s characters, the simultaneous absurdity and familiarity that one finds in them, is one of the keys to the power of Wodehouse’s stories to pull readers in, add on top of that his fantastic ability to develop plot complications, where multiple characters struggle against seemingly unsolvable situations, digging themselves deeper as if in quicksand the more they strain chapter by chapter! We know that there will always be a happy ending, but until the last few pages it seems impossible. There is suspense in reading a Wodehouse story that one just never gets over, no matter how many short stories or novels one has read, and more remarkably, even after having read the same story a number of times. The twists and turns still draw the reader into the life of the characters and their sense of anguish, shock, chagrin, relief and yes, joy.
One of the main ways that Wodehouse is able to draw readers into his world and into the life and feelings of his characters is undoubtedly his exquisite mastery of English. Critics can be cited who put Wodehouse very much on the level of the greatest writers in English. His similes and metaphors, for instance, have a frequently explosive effect with their ability to conjure up and twist any or all of the five senses at a time, creating powerful images with an amazingly small number of words.
Gussie was looking so like a halibut that if he hadn’t been wearing horn-rimmed spectacles, a thing halibuts seldom do, I might have supposed myself to be gazing on something a.w.o.l. from a fishmonger’s slab.
He was uttering odd, strangled noises, like a man with no roof to his mouth trying to recite ‘Gunga Din’
Stilton Cheesewright is a man with a pink face and a head that looks as if it has been blown up with a bicycle pump.
He looked haggard and care-worn, like a Borgia who has suddenly remembered that he has forgotten to put cyanide in the consommé, and the dinner gong due any minute.
His eye, once so kindly, could have been grafted on to the head of a man-eating shark and no questions asked.
It is interesting, is it not, that this ability and even appetite of ours to laugh at ourselves, at our foibles as we see them portrayed in such stories, if not unique to the Western Tradition, is certainly developed more highly and consistently across the ages in the Western world than in any other civilization.
So how does all of this help “you to develop your personality, to adorn your mind, to be a man”?
Certainly Wodehouse’s works adorn the mind with beautiful writing, his mastery of the language, mastery of character development, and mastery of plot intricacies and denouements, and with his humor that is never nasty or sarcastic. For all of the absurdity of his dramatis personae they are real to us especially because we can identify with the complexity of their situations, their anxieties and passions, the foolish ambitions, exaggerated expectations, the whole range of human foibles that they all display. For all of the seemingly frivolous quality of Wodehouse’s “musicals without music,” his characters, like us, are muddling through, and we are relieved, with hope renewed when the good are rewarded and the baddies are punished or outsmarted.
Excellence is admired, baseness derided. Wisdom and prudence are frequently highlighted by their absence from the scene. Courage is often on display, if at times helped on by a quick one. The joy that one feels at the resolution of all the problems in the last few pages of a Wodehouse novel never fails. The universe that Wodehouse creates is a just universe, under an eventually benevolent Providence. The virtuous are rewarded and the vicious punished, but we are never left with a sense of self-satisfaction or smugness, it’s always a close and tense call in a Wodehouse plot.
Would Fr. Sertillanges approve of Wodehouse’s stories for recreational reading? Most assuredly: In all of the hilarious and endlessly repeated plots, like leitmotifs of some great symphony, we are distracted, amused, refreshed and even made better men by the humorous examination of our infinitely fallible human nature–well, maybe not counting Jeeves—offering the self-knowledge that should help us to be humble, one of the first conditions of wisdom.
Dr. Thomas Behr is the Faculty Director of the Liberal Studies program at the University of Houston.