Commuting With and by Books

In a way I am always glad to be carried past my station: it adds to the list one more of those books which are the solace and refreshment of the spirit. The material consideration, of course, presents a negative side. It is exhilarating to have discovered a book which can make you forget the plainness of contemporary life, as it goes riding along with you to its various commonplace destinations; on the other hand, whilel have never dared compute the exact amount, I am conscious that these trips I have to make back from Purdy’s Station and Golden’s Bridge effect a sizable addition to the already cruel cost of my commutation ticket. Reading the Book of Kings, I got as far as Croton Falls the other evening, and barely caught the down train, the last before midnight. I find these lapses embarrassing to explain to the conductor; many passengers go by their stations, but mostly — poor world-worn souls! — because they have fallen asleep. To go all the way to Croton Falls because you are reading the Bible does not sound plausible. I think this particular conductor, who has a small, literal eye, would not concede the possibility even had my book been some such absorbing affair as, let us say, Sherlock Holmes.

As a matter of fact, however, Sherlock Holmes could not have done it. The detective story has never failed to get me home on time and no excess fare, for I can always manage to finish with it by the time we reach Hartsdale. A professional book-reviewer taught me the depraved trick of reading story-books right down the middle of the page; and I defy any modern novelist, save, perhaps, dear old De Morgan, to keep his grasp on me beyond Crestwood; I am done with most by Scarsdale.

This is not the whole explanation, however. The commuter’s measure of literary worth is of no value for the modern books; none of them, even the best, can draw one into complete forgetfulness of all the detailed reality that is round about one. This is not to say that modern books are poor, but only that they are too near us, too much of our external world, to be able to use a full leverage in lifting us out of our grooves. I have never been carried past by Shelley, Dickens, Emerson, or Ibsen, but Troilus and Cressida has left me with two stations too many. A friend made me a gift of a mellow copy of Tarkington’s Diarie of English Travell, and that night the train was delayed, and I waited over an hour in the rural solitude that is Purdy’s. As I explained earlier, Kings took me all the way to Croton Falls, giving me time to get well into Chronicles, with the attendant opportunity of skipping past home on the way down again. The last time I read Othello was in the days before I was a commuter; I want very much to read it again, but I do not dare; my only leisure time is during these evening train-rides, and I am sure that Othello would never release me short of Brewster; and the midnight train would have gone, and I don’t know what I should do.

There is something more than merely refreshing in the complete change that books which are both good and old infallibly afford. To pass into their different world, familiar in that human nature is the same there as here, but different in all its shows and outward movements, is more than mere relief, more than the feeling of the country housewife who begs to wash her hostess’s luncheon dishes because they are different from those she has been washing three times a day for forty years; it is more, too, than that mere curiosity which seeks in novelties a superficial sort of freshening up. There is a deep desire in most of us for a temporary change, not only of our place but of our time; but it is the thirst for knowledge, not any empty hankering for change itself, which prompts it. Sir James Barrie’s latest play, Dear Brutus, concerns itself with the supposition of possible second chances — an interesting and genuinely dramatic theme, but can we think of it as a universal one? In this best of all possible worlds, the number of those who sincerely believe that they could have done better with another chance is actually small: most of us are hopelessly satisfied, not with our lot, perhaps, but with ourselves, and cannot but believe that our extraordinary talents will some day find recognition. On the face of it, I suppose this is a beneficent arrangement, in that it keeps us looking forward rather than back; but I have frequent qualms as to whether this business of straining the vision ahead is quite the educative process that poets and some statesmen would lead us to believe.

At all events, I feel that Barrie’s assumption makes us out to be a little more occupied with our small selves than truly we are, and that he would have touched on a deeper and far more general desire had he portrayed his unhappy artist transported, not to the path he might have taken twenty years earlier, but to a wholly different century — let him have a week-end with Cellini, for example, and see how his principles of art and life would resolve themselves in the companionship of that active and gifted person. I do sincerely believe that most of us, shallow and vain as we are, are at bottom more concerned about the nature of truth and beauty than about our own personal failures or successes; the awful terror does not come when werealizethat we are not as good as we ought to be or might have been, but when we become suddenly aware that we are not sure what goodness is.

Our own time furnishes its particular pattern of those noble ideals toward which man’s life-endeavor always moves, but patterns are imperfect; if only we could slip back into another day, when great spirits defined law and justice and beauty according to their vision, should we not gain their image too, and by adding it to our own, know more of the truth than any men before us had been able to know? You reach a little uncertainly for the beauty in a Rodin statue or a Turner landscape, for you do not know what of these is imperishable and what only the myriad externals of modern life and habit ’in your eye,’as the artists say. How much firmer your grasp would be if, still with your modern understanding, you could mingle for a few hours with some holiday crowd moving under the clear sky of Greece up the gray road to the Acropolis! You abhor tyranny and greed, and have convictions about forms of government; but as you read through the old records, something whispers in your ear, ‘Circumstances alter cases.’ If only you could slip back to the days of the Medicis or the Maccabees, and learn just how much the circumstances matter, how much they can amend and what they leave intact and abiding!

There is no going forward to ascertain these things; we like to speculate how the world will be arranged a hundred years from our own period, but when we endeavor specifically to project ourselves, the result is something such as Mr. H. G. Wells furnishes, and enriches us all by precisely nothing. Shakespeare was a prophet, and we may enlarge our time’s vision by his; but he did not make fanciful excursions into the future; he wrote historical plays, knowing that such truth as man can see is visible there and here, but not yonder.

We have to stay in our time; the spirit tugs at the fetters, but this material world is not the inconsequential thing some would have us believe. There is this much allowed us, however: the great men of the future can reach out no hand to us, but those of the past can, by the dear grace of books, open the gate to our eyes if not to our feet; we do not go through and mingle with the crowd, to be sure, but at least we can look on, and when the gate swings shut, and we come back, our own life is a little clearer and sweeter. And it has been no small guidance to discover what sort were the men who have been able to perform this office; for they are not all such as we judge great men and skilful artists. Lord Bacon was a greater mind by far than John Bunyan; he can yet give us many valuable precepts and much illuminating analysis, but he never takes us away — we only sit by the car-window and turn his pages. The men who can make us ride past are not always artists, not always learned men, often parochial and partial in their understanding; ticking them off in my memory, I cannot find any common denominator of them save only sincerity, whole freedom from the taint of self-consciousness, absolute inability in anything to dissemble or deceive. To discover this eternal criterion of literary worth, there is, of course, no need to go back to the seventeenth century, or the third century, or to any other time than our own; but if the journey can reinforce the realization, it is not wasted.

If only it could be an actual journey, however; if only the body could follow whore the spirit flutters to go, how infallibly could we wield the criterion, how wise, how good, how helpful we should be! Commuters, indeed! Is not that what we all wish to be, above everything else? One would not leave forever family and dog and garden and all the indisputable joys of this present existence, even in the interests of the truth; but to go off in the morning and spend the day a thousand years and a thousand miles away, and come home afterwards on the evening express — what magnificent fullness of life would that not be! what gratifying richness, what satisfaction of an appetite now half-fed with near-glimpses and baffling shadows! And not the least of the advantages would be the fact that we should no longer need to read on the way out, and so would never fail to get off at our proper station — so perverse is the human desire to have its cake and eat it too, that in the midst of this glittering fancy I find myself complaining, ‘But I should miss reading on the train.’