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On Reading In Bed Post by :ear1less Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :4461

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On Reading In Bed

Among the few legacies that my father left me was a great talent for sleeping. I think I can say, without boasting, that in a sleeping match I could do as well as any man. I can sleep long, I can sleep often, and I can sleep sound. When I put my head on the pillow I pass into a fathomless peace where no dreams come, and about eight hours later I emerge to consciousness, as though I have come up from the deeps of infinity.

That is my normal way, but occasionally I have periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night. My sleep is then divided into two chapters, and between the chapters there is a slab of unmitigated dreariness. It is my hour of pessimism. The tide has ebbed, the water is dead-low, and there is a vista of endless mud. It is then that this tragi-comedy of life touches bottom, and I see the heavens all hung with black. I despair of humanity, I despair of the war, I despair of myself. There is not one gleam of light in all the sad landscape, and the abyss seems waiting at my feet to swallow me up with everything that I cherish. It is no use saying to this demon of the darkness that I know he is a humbug, a mere Dismal Jemmy of the brain, who sits there croaking like a night owl or a tenth-rate journalist. My Dismal Jemmy is not to be exorcised by argument. He can only be driven out by a little sane companionship.

So I turn on a light and call for one of my bedside friends. They stand there in noble comradeship, ready to talk, willing to remain silent, only asking to do my pleasure. Oh, blessed be the name of Gutenberg, the Master Printer. A German? I care not. Even if he had been a Prussian--which I rejoice to think he was not--I would still say: "Blessed be the name of Gutenberg," though Sir Richard Cooper, M.P., sent me to the Tower for it. For Gutenberg is the Prometheus not of legend but of history. He brought down the sacred flame and scattered the darkness that lay on the face of the waters. He gave us the Daily Owl, it is true, but he made us also freemen of time and thought, companions of the saints and the sages, sharers in the wisdom and the laughter of the ages. Thanks to him I can, for the expenditure of a few shillings, hear Homer sing and Socrates talk and Rabelais laugh; I can go chivvying the sheep with Don Quixote and roaming the hills with Borrow; I can carry the whole universe of Shakespeare in my pocket, and call up spirits to drive Dismal Jemmy from my pillow.

Who are these spirits? In choosing them it is necessary to avoid the deep-browed argumentative fellows. I do not want Plato or Gibbon or any of the learned brotherhood by my bedside, nor the poets, nor the novelists, nor the dramatists, nor even the professional humorists. These are all capital fellows in their way, but let them stay downstairs. To the intimacy of the bedside I admit only the kindly fellows who come in their dressing-gowns and slippers, so to speak, and sit down and just talk to you as though they had known you ever since you were a little nipper, and your father and your grandfather before you. Of course, there is old Montaigne. What a glorious gossip he is! What strange things he has to tell you, what a noble candour he shows! He turns out his mind as carelessly as a boy turns out his pockets, and gives you the run of his whole estate. You may wander everywhere, and never see a board warning you to keep off the grass or reminding you that you are a trespasser.

And Bozzy. Who could do without Bozzy by his bedside--dear, garrulous old Bozzy, most splendid of toadies, most miraculous of reporters? When Bozzy begins to talk to me, and the old Doctor growls "Sir," all the worries and anxieties of life fall magically away, and Dismal Jemmy vanishes like the ghost at cock-crow. I am no longer imprisoned in time and the flesh: I am of the company of the immortals. I share their triumphant aloofness from the play that fills our stage and see its place in the scheme of the unending drama of men.

That sly rogue Pepys, of course, is there--more thumb-stained than any of them except Bozzy. What a miracle is this man who lives more vividly in our eyes than any creature that ever walked the earth! What was the secret of his magic? Is it not this, that he succeeded in putting down on paper the real truth about himself? A small thing? Well, you try it. You will find it the hardest job you have ever tackled. No matter what secrecy you adopt you will discover that you cannot tell yourself the whole truth about yourself. Pepys did that. Benvenuto Cellini pretended to do that, but I refuse to believe the fellow. Benjamin Franklin tried to do it and very nearly succeeded. St. Augustine was frank enough about his early wickedness, but it was the overcharged frankness of the subsequent saint. No, Pepys is the man. He did the thing better than it has ever been done in this world.

I like to have the Paston Letters at my bedside, too. Then I go off to sleep again in the fifteenth century with the voice of old Agnes Paston sounding in my ears. Dead half a thousand years, yet across the gulf of time I hear the painful scratching of her quill as she sends "Goddis blyssyng" to her son in London, and tells him all her motherly gossip and makes the rough life of far-off Tudor England live for ever. Dear old Agnes! She little thought as she struggled with her spelling and her pen that she was writing something that was immortal. If she had known, I don't think she would have bothered. She was a very matter-of-fact old lady, and was too full of worries to have much room for vanities.

I should like to say more about my bedside friends--strapping George Borrow sitting with Petulengro's sister under the hedge or fighting the Flaming Tinman; the dear little Boston doctor who talks so chirpily over the Breakfast Table; the Compleat Angler that takes you out into an eternal May morning, and Sainte-Beuve whom I have found a first-rate bedside talker. But I must close.

There is one word, however, to be added. Your bedside friends should be dressed in soft leather and printed on thin paper. Then you can talk to them quite snugly. It is a great nuisance if you have to stick your arms out of bed and hold your hands rigid.

(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On Reading In Bed

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