Henry Miller: more on reading influences and touching again on the reading crisis

One can almost never go wrong with a New Directions Book. We’ve a stack on the shelves, including, among our favorites, Williams Carlos Williams’s “Selected Poems,” (NDP131); Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind (NDB74); Pound’s “Selected Poems,” (NDP66); Djuna Barnes’s “Nightwood,” (NDP98); Borges’s “Labyrinths,” (NDP186);  Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust,” (NDP125).

One NDB we haven’t look at in some time but that came to mind when thinking of reading influences is Henry Miller’s “The Books in My Life,” (NDP280). The subject isn’t books though as much as it is Henry Miller, which is fine with us. He makes this clear early in his preface: “The purpose of this book…is to round out the story of my life. It deals with books as vital experience. It is not a critical study nor does it contain a program for self-education” (pg. 11).

In other words, a book about books for the common reader? Well, maybe, but Miller leads with a double challenge: “One of the results of this self-examination…is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more. I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ‘well-educated’ man – yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of ‘books.’ But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully” (pg. 11).

Henry Miller is a talker, a conversationalist, so easy reading, but this book is dated and full of obscure references with signs we may not understand pointing down back roads that look like dead ends. There are funny passages, including, we thought, the very title of Appendix III, a long list of “Friends who supplied me with books,” and we were suddenly reminded that a friend gave us our copy, years ago, with the comment, “It’s notable for how bad it is.”

Our friend had marked this passage, on page 29, characteristically surprising coming from Henry Miller: “The writer is, of course, the best of all readers, for in writing, or “creating,” as it is called, he is but reading and transcribing the great message of creation which the Creator in his goodness has made manifest to him.” Miller may be the least of common writers, if there is such a thing as a common writer, but he’s a perfect match for Woolf’s common reader. He sways back and forth, moving forward in much the same way that Woolf suggests in her definition of a common reader, without regard for anything other than what seems to suit his own needs.