Philip Marchand’s Reading Life

George_Eliot
George Eliot: a crucial figure in Marchand's reading life.

The National Post, formerly my employer and still an occasional publishing outlet for my stray essays, is rather like a Dickensian heroine: abandoned by a feckless father (a jailed genteel social climber no less, rather like Little Dorrit’s dad) the paper lives an orphan’s precarious existence, fending off creditors, the poorhouse, and even death itself. Yet like the spunky star of a Victorian cliff-hanger, the Post always manages to escape at the last minute from the numerous threats against its existence.

The paper’s most recent near-death scrape happened a few weeks ago. For many reasons I’m happy to see that the paper has once again outwitted fate, but chiefly because the Post is the current home for Philip Marchand’s book review column.

Because he’s a literary jack-of-all-trades, Marchand doesn’t quite have the profile that he deserves. He’s written 5 books, all in completely different genres: Just Looking, Thank You (Tom Wolfe style reportage), Marshall McLuhan (a superb biography), Deadly Spirits (a wry noir crime novel), Ripostes (literary criticism), and Ghost Empire (a unique mixture of history and travel writing).

Rare for a newspaper writer, Marchand is extremely well read, although he rarely shows off his erudition but rather uses it to inform his take on new books. Marchand’s one rival among newspaper reviewers is the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda, similarly learned. But Dirda tends to be a bit of a dandy with a love of eccentric minor writers. Marchand, by comparison, brings a greater moral seriousness to his reviews. Marchand manages to be worldly without being cynical and morally concerned without being self-rightous. His recent reviews can be found here.

Below is an excerpt from one of Marchand’s best columns, his reflections on his life as a reader:

Congratulations, anyone reading this column. You’ve overcome the toughest intellectual challenge of your life, and you did it by the age of three. You acquired language. You’ve also overcome the second-toughest intellectual challenge of your life, which is learning to read. I don’t know exactly how old I was when this happened to me, but I will never forget the moment when I looked at a page of a book — there was a drawing of a forest, I recall, and a sentence beneath that illustration — and suddenly, looking at that sentence, the simplest possible sentence it must have been, I understood. I had cracked the code. The sentence spoke to me. Something huge opened up in my life, of great but not unambiguous good.

As I grew older, I acquired a love for books. The reason I loved them was simple: They were an alternate world, a refuge from living in the real world. It was hard sometimes to be accused of “always having your nose in a book,” but I needed that refuge. People who do not need this refuge, or have other means of coping with life, are often rightly suspicious of avid readers. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a cheerfully unintellectual squire says of a retired naval officer, who is often engrossed in books, “His reading has done him no harm, for he has fought as well as read. He is a brave fellow.”

That’s not just a philistine talking. From time to time, we all have to take our noses out of a book and fight, so to speak — go to that job interview, put up the storm windows. There is a famous Twilight Zone episode in which a bookworm is a sole survivor of a nuclear war and is delighted because he now has all the time in the world to read books without being pestered by other people — until he discovers his reading glasses are smashed. Moral of the story: If you are determined to cling to this particular refuge, always and everywhere, the gods will punish you.

*****

No literary snobbery, no judgment of the ages, sways our childhood reading. Unlike the late Susan Sontag, I was not enchanted by Kafka and Proust in my adolescence. Instead I devoured Landmark Books, a series of histories published by Random House for “young readers” between 1950 and 1970. I remember nothing of the content of these books — they simply created or reinforced an intoxicating sense of history as another refuge from living, so potent in its charms, so loosely connected with facts, that I spent numberless hours daydreaming about what would now be known as “counter-history.” In these daydreams, I altered histories of whole countries into more satisfactory shapes.

Somewhat different was the effect of historical fiction on my young imagination. History enacted by invented characters, it turned out, was more lasting in its impression than real history. I remember the characters and events of James Michener’s 1959 novel, Hawaii, which I consumed as an adolescent reader, more vividly than I remember the characters and events of War and Peace, which I read just 20 years ago. I also remember Michener’s characters with much more clarity than any real personage out of the Landmark Books. Such was the lesson that I didn’t fully absorb until years later, the lesson that fiction — even the kind produced by Michener — ultimately has more impact on memory than non-fiction, because fiction is designed to have this impact. It bypasses reality directly to order the imagination, whereas history must deal as best it can with the hopeless mess.

Fiction also did something else. In 10th grade English class we were assigned George Eliot’s Silas Marner, and in that novel I remember being startled to read Eliot’s description of a character’s train of thought. “Instead of trying to still his fears,” Eliot wrote of a man who was in trouble, “he encouraged them, with that superstitious impression which clings to us all, that if we expect evil very strongly it is the less likely to come.” Until I read that sentence, I assumed I was the only person in the universe who entertained this superstition. It was a logical fallacy — bad things take you by surprise, therefore if you expect them they will stay away — that I thought was my own.

Eliot’s remark about her character truly did demonstrate the power of fiction to heighten reader awareness and broaden human sympathies. The day I read it, I felt less alone, less freakish. A woman of the Victorian Age had reached out to a young teenager living during the presidency of John F. Kennedy and planted the seed of a notion in his brain — that books could be a liberation as well as a refuge.

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