IN LITERARY CIRCLES one often hears the phrase “eminently readable.” We can find this kind of readability even in famously difficult texts, like Joyce’s Ulysses, and sometimes supposedly readable authors, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, aren’t readable at all — when he starts using words out of their proper context, for instance, giving them private meanings that don’t really gibe with what you might see in the dictionary. Non-readability sometimes descends into anti-readability, where nouns become verbs and the words of stories are deployed to make shapes — actual shapes, like triangles — rather than narratives, and you tend to see more white on the page than, oddly enough, text. But as interested — obsessed, you might say — as the world is with readability, what ought to mean infinitely more is this: re-readability, a rarefied qualification, in my mind, and one that is indicative of the work of E.F. Benson. Eminently re-readable, Benson is an early 20th century English writer we should all know better, given how he’s done his best to know us.
More than the other arts, literature is most often a one-and-done experience. A Radiohead album gets numerous shots, in all probability, to win over its listener, and you’ve probably seen each of your favorite movies more times than you’ve read your favorite book. Part of the reason is the time issue, naturally, and because it takes more work to read a text than to sit through a film. The timeless compact between reader and writer is based on a participatory element, because what happens, ultimately, happens in your mind, with the images projected inward, rather than outward, so there’s a greater capacity for immersion. More effort is involved, and while all this heightens the challenge for anyone who attempts to create literary art, the rewards, too, are correspondingly greater.
But what about the prose work that functions like that favorite film of yours, or maybe like some of your closest friends? The prose you hang out with, in effect, which you can read any night, never mind that you’ve hung out with it a couple hundred times? A prose work — or a body of work — that you might use as your time-traveling device, when you feel like getting away for a while from your job or whatever you have going on in your life. A work that’s like a second home, that you dash away to on weekends, and never gives you a feeling of déjà vu or repetition, always reads fresh — sometimes fresher than the time before.
A few elements need to be in place for a work to have this kind of re-readability. It’s probably helpful if it’s not the most gutting, soul-churning work out there — work that just lays into you and makes you cancel your plans for the evening after reading it. And you probably want something long on atmosphere. Few literary ventures are more successful than the partnership of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and they are virtually peerless in their re-readability. You’re not hung up, each and every time, on the whodunit; you’re there in that room, with those men, hanging out with them, everyone enjoying each other’s company, having another cup of coffee, making another offhand quip. It’s the literature of immersion, of pulling up a chair, and nearly as good at it as Conan Doyle was his contemporary, E.F. Benson.
If you know E.F. Benson, you almost surely know him for one of two things: either his ...read more