Reading for Rest

IN the sick-room of a friend of mine, during an illness in which both reason and life seemed menaced, there might have been seen at any time of the anxious day, or the long miserable night, some pallid watcher with an open book, reading in low, tense, half-despairing tones:

One cup sugar,

Two cups butter,

Three cups flour,

Two eggs; —

Beat well and pour in buttered pan — or the like. And so it went on, day after day and night after night, until dawning recovery suffered the solace of the Cook Book to be withdrawn.

Why there was recourse, in the first instance, to the Cook Book in a rather bookish household, I do not know. But the very felicity of such a choice proclaims it of the family of happy accidents. Premeditation would, beyond doubt, have hit upon something more relevant to the case, and more in keeping with the sufferer’s known tastes — which were, above all, for poetry and didactic philosophy.

What more natural than to turn to the magic of rhyme and metre, of noble imagination or sweet fancy, for soothing for her, or to the wells of wisdom for sustaining thoughts ? — if indeed any profane literature, in an hour so momentous, commended itself as fit.

It was, it must have been, accident — accident at its happiest. In some desperate moment, some moment which the need of doing something and the seeming impossibility of doing anything to bring respite to the sufferer, combined to render intolerable — somebody, for the sake of a mere futility of action even, must have picked up the Cook Book which happened to be at hand, and begun to read it.

Hopelessly enough, one may well imagine, sounded forth in the moan-broken stillness of the darkened room the first few formulæ for cake and pie, sweetmeat and pickle; but when the tale of cups of flour and cups of butter, of milk and eggs and sugar and vinegar, of pinches of salt and dashes of lemon, came to its melancholy close, a faint voice from the bed commanded, “Go on,” — and ever. “Go on,” as the reading ceased; until at last during all her waking hours there was no attempt at cessation.

Would any other book have served the purpose as well ? I trow not. Casting a mental eye over the entire field of literature, so far as it is known to me, I can think of nothing which could have taken the place of that immortal Cook Book.

Immortal, I say — and yet I must own I do not even know its name, nor whether to Marion Harland, Mrs. Rorer, Miss Parloa, Mrs. Glasse, or my own beloved Miss Leslie, belongs the glory of its composition. Nor does it matter. Common to all cook books are those gentle unh arrowing enumerations of cups of flour and sugar and butter, of pinches of salt and dashes of lemon—those placid directions to sift and beat and scald and peel and core — to squeeze through colanders and whip to a froth — those pleasant, not too poignant appeals to the imagination in the shape of description of the delectable dishes which result from such concords of sweet ingredients. Any cook book, I maintain, under the circumstances which I have described, would have served better than any other book; even a cook book quite destitute of that toothsome description which may undeniably be so charming.

As a very young reader, I was fond, I confess, of cook-book literature; and it was these glowing descriptions which above all pleased my naïve imagination, warmed the cockles of my innocent young heart, and constituted the favorite passages of one of my favorite books. With something of tenderness I yet look upon that early-Victorian volume, yclept The Book of New Receipts for Cooking: a work which is of a scope to which the modesty of the title does rank injustice; embracing as it does not only formulæ for delectable dishes and drinks of delight, —for Orange Flummery and Gooseberry Champagne, for Roblis, Hyppocras, Nectar, Lemon Honey, and Thatched House Pie, Quince Florentines and Rose Meringues, for Partridges in Pears and Moore Fowl Pudding, and other cates too numerous to mention — but directions for working slippers, coloring artificial flowers, preserving autumn leaves, embroidering military standards, hemming bobinet, washing silk shawls, lining straw bonnets; for making a coat dress sit into the figure for destroying the BeeMiller and purifying the atmosphere of a room, for saving stair carpets and applying eye-stones, for extracting glass stoppers and using the new Self-Sealing Envelopes — to be had with handsome ornamental stamps; or, for those to whom that novelty did not appeal, for correctly folding and sealing according to the old established method. There are full and informing articles upon Crossing the Sea, setting forth among other things the merits of a garment called a Mandarine, and the inadvisability of quilled or fluted capborders — which should be replaced by simple gatherings of Mantua or Lutestring; and upon Household Tools — showing the indispensable necessity of “glue, chalk, putty, paint, cord, twine, and wrapping-paper of different sorts” to the happiness of every family, and the importance of care that the supply is not suffered to run out, “lest the deficiency might cause delay and inconvenience at a time when most wanted,” — and other practical subjects; to say nothing of interpolated scraps of poetry and philosophy of a cheerful and soothing nature. To all of which I did once upon a time seriously incline, not knowing how largely its very irrelevancy contributed to the high serenity of mind which its perusal engendered.

It was not my friend’s good fortune, probably, to have the benefit of dear Miss Leslie’s placid old-world precepts and directions to soothe her mind into something of repose like the sound of gentle rain to one under shelter; but whatever degenerate modern successor it was that was pressed into service, it at least promoted the same end — as nothing else, I feel sure, could have done.

And yet, I have myself found a strange restfulness in a newspaper from two days to two weeks old — a restfulness which I find in one quite new only in the columns of Houses for Rent and News from the Suburbs. I have no occasion or desire to rent a house, nor does my acquaintance extend its bounds to the suburbs. And that, as Uncle Remus would say, “is what make I say what I does.” I love to read of the enjoyable time that wras “had ” at the surprise party that was “tendered” Miss Mamye Smith; of the notable meeting of the Happy Hour Society and its delightful programme, consisting of “ Father, Dear Father, Come Home,” “Ten Nights in a Bar-room,” and “The Drunkard’s Child ; ” of Miss Jennye Jones’s two days’ visit to the city, and the painting of Mr. Sam Baker’s front fence; of the indisposition of Mrs. Sickles’s cow, and the recovery of the Brown family from the measles. I welcome it all, and not alone for the sake of occasional quaintnesses; it is chiefly because it is so utterly and delightfully irrelevant.

Irrelevancy, I insist, is the first requirement in that reading for rest to which even the most reverent lover of the printed page is sometimes driven. It is indeed, if taken in a sufficiently wide sense, almost the totality of requirement. There needs to be added to it only a clarity of expression which demands no labor of the understanding; though something of monotony is undeniably an added advantage.

It was lists of ingredients which charmed my nerve-racked friend to rest, like a chanted spell; and lists of names — unknown names — are to myself, when tired, a sweet nepenthe. I do not indeed at any time share the aversion for mere enumeration of a certain young person of my acquaintance, who ingenuously confessed to me that when she read her Bible she always “skipped the Begats.” I find, on the contrary, a drowsy pleasure in any catalogue when I am not urged forward by a too-impetuous curiosity; a pleasure to the inner ear remotely akin to that of poetry, and to the mind something as it were processional, which is distinctly agreeable. Is not all primitive literature full of catalogues — testifying to something of æsthetic value in them to the unsophisticated taste, as their prevalence in Walt Whitman also testifies ?

The Cook Book is for me spoiled in these latter years, because I have sometimes, albeit lightly, dabbled in cookery. I cannot read now of cups of flour and cups of sugar, of beating eggs and creaming butter, with that absolute detachment, that sense of being wholly outside of the range of appeal,which is essential in really restful reading. But there are always Houses for Rent, always News from the Suburbs; always, in a word, that in the world of print which will gently titillate the tired brain and demand from it nothing but tolerance.

The lightest of novels prods one with something of appeal, essays some intimacy of approach not always tolerable.

If there are those who find restfulness in the reading of “best sellers,” I am not of them. Fiction frets me if poor, and stimulates me if good; in either case fails of the soothing effect of advertisements foreign to any need of mine; mild items of news about people totally unknown to me; descriptions of processes which I have no idea of undertaking and sequences of indifferent names.

May I not modestly suggest to restcure enthusiasts that herein lies suggestion of a new cult ?