YOU wake one morning feeling rather queer; your head aches a little and your back; there is a scratching at the back of your throat and an itching in your nose, but that is all; only the whole day you are rather irritable and you swear at everything, even when you really have neither cause nor reason. But towards evening a ton weight descends on you from nowhere, all your joints go soft, all your flesh tingles sensitively; the patient sneezes wildly about a dozen times, and here it is!
With weeping eyes, crumpled up in a heap of misery, surrounded by wet handkerchiefs which are drying in every corner, the humiliated and streaming creature in slippers by the stove snorts, blows his nose, barks, drinks some infusion or other, sneezes and coughs, skulks about the room, avoids everybody. He has a slight temperature; instead of a head he has a heavy, painful ball; with limbs as though lamed and a handkerchief to his nose he is a dreadful sight.
Creep away on tiptoe, all you who see this unhappy man; your noisy and happy gambols torture him; he needs solitude, extinction, and dry handkerchiefs. He would like to take off his head, hang it up by the chimney and dry it; he would like to take his humiliated body apart into its several members and set each piece down in a different place. He would like ... he would like . . . ah, if he at least knew what he wanted! If there were anything worth wanting! If only there were anywhere in the universe something warm and comforting which would give this poor, heavy bead the relief of forgetfulness. Sleep? Yes, if there were no chaotic and disagreeable dreams. Lay a patience? Yes, if it ever came out! Read? Yes, but what? And this pitiful human ruin gets up, turns round, and staggers to his bookshelves.
Bookshelves, many-colored rows of a thousand backs, I want to find in you a little book which will comfort me, who am accursed. No, to-day somehow I could not bear you, you fat, scientific book; for my brain is dull and stupid. I should like to read something which will not remind me of my dullness and slow-wittedness; something easy, amusing, to pass the time away. . . .
Away with you, humorous tales, out of my sight! To-day I could not bear the vulgar malice with which you hold up a stricken man to ridicule; I, too, am stricken by fate and I could not enjoy the spectacle of us unfortunates suffering from ridicule and exposed to the whim of the scoffers. And you, heroic romances, would you not carry me off to distant ages and epic times when there were no colds, among whole and glorious men, who slay a base rival in less time than I blow my nose? But the hand held out to the heroic book trembles weakly; I could not believe in great and magnificent deeds to-day; man is a small, weak creature, severely tried and loving peace. . . .
No, leave me in peace to-day, heroism and honor, noble sentiments and laurels of fame; away with you, amorous passions and intoxicating kisses of royal beauties. How can a man think of such things with a wet handkerchief to his nose? Good heavens, no, that’s not what. I want. Give me a detective novel for me to sharpen my wits on; give me an absorbing shocker which will carry me breathlessly along the exciting trail of some dreadful secret — no, that is not what I want, either; to-day I do not care for crimes and underground passages and evil people. Show me the gentler face of life, reveal people to me in their intimate everyday life. Only for God’s sake no psychology! I have not the patience to linger over feelings and motives; for some obscure reason psychology is always rather painful and harrowing —as if we had not enough suffering of our own! Why do people write books at all?
And that one there — it’s too realistic for me; I want to forget life to-day. That one is sad and disillusioned at bottom. That one is cruel towards humanity and demands all manner of self-torture and redemption. That one over there is superficial, pretentious, and clever — away with it! That one is too high up. And that yellow one is bitter and jaundiced. In each of them is something which hurts. Why are books almost all written by wicked and unhappy people?
The man with a cold hesitates in front of his many-colored bookcase, shivering with chilliness and self-pity. Where can he find something . . . something really good . . . genial towards us unfortunates . . . and comforting? Something which does not wound in any way . . . does not hurt a man in his smallness and humiliation?
And then he reaches to the end of the shelf and takes out a book which he has read at least a dozen times before when he was thus depressed by the suffering of body and mind, snuggles down in his armchair, takes a dry handkerchief, and heaves a sigh of relief before he begins to read.
What is the book? Perhaps our old friend Charles Dickens.