Books and Personalities
I was thinking earlier this morning in an idle moment – well not altogether idle, because I was looking out the window, because it was one of those staggeringly beautiful autumnal mornings when it has partly cleared up after rain and clouds and the air is bright and clear and hard like diamonds or ginger ale or I don’t know what, and the sun is at just the right angle so that it makes the windows on the boats in the marina wink and twinkle which they certainly don’t do most of the time, and the light and shadows on the water and the peninsula look much more light and shadow-like than usual – one of those mornings. I was thinking, while staring at all this, about the difference – the subjective difference, the cognitive difference, the difference in our heads – between people one knows in real life and people one knows via the written word. That thought led to the related and equally familiar thought about books and their authors and how we think about them. To what extent we have ideas of their ‘personalities’, and how accurate or inaccurate such ideas may be. How some writers have (seem to have, via their writing) more ‘personality’ than others, and how that does not necessarily correlate with the quality of the books. A writer can have bags of personality and write crap books, or have none at all and write dazzlers. And what do we mean by personality, and how does it differ from character, and does the same apply. Can a writer have no discernable character and write brilliant books? Offhand I would say no – I don’t think so. The brilliance, the brilliant-book-writing, is the character, or part of it. But it’s not the personality, so much. Why? I don’t know why. Because personality is more adventitious, and so more beside the point? More just one of those things, like curly hair or buck teeth? Whereas character is more basic, and more important. But I can’t swear that’s not just a mere matter of labeling, rather than a genuine distinction.
Emerson and Carlyle met briefly when they were comparatively young, and had an immediate rapport. They sustained this friendship for years via letters; then Emerson made another trip over, and they found they didn’t like each other at all. Emerson found Carlyle a savage misanthropic terror; Carlyle found Emerson full of moonshine and endlessly talking (one knows the type).
I wouldn’t much want to meet either of them, myself. There are some writers I would want to meet; others I would want to observe but not meet; others I wouldn’t want to meet or observe. But what’s odd about it is that the groups don’t correlate with either favourites or hierarchies. It’s not that I want to meet all the best (in my opinion) writers, or all the ones I like the best. No. There’s something interesting about that fact…but I’m not sure what.
Shakespeare, Keats, Chekhov. Them I would like to meet. Emily Bronte, Byron, Montaigne – them I would like to watch, but not meet. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, George Eliot, Austen – I don’t even want to observe, let alone meet. And yet Austen is possibly my very favourite novelist and the one I think is the best. And Wordsworth is one of my favourite poets – but I would go out of my way not to meet him. Hazlitt, now – yes, I would want to meet Hazlitt. I would be frightened, but I would want to. Thoreau. I would like to meet Thoreau. Emerson said walking with him was like walking with a tree. He sounds like exactly my kind of person. I’m a tree myself. Two trees taking a walk; it sounds very agreeable, in a chilly sort of way.