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Reading for a Grandfather

A young girl (much respected by the Easy Chair) who had always had the real good of her grandfather at heart, wished to make him a Christmas present befitting his years and agreeable to his tastes. She thought, only to dismiss them for their banality, of a box of the finest cigars, of a soft flannel dressing-gown, a bath robe of Turkish towelling embroidered by herself, of a velvet jacket, and of a pair of house shoes. She decided against some of these things because he did not smoke, because he never took off his walking coat and shoes till he went to bed, and because he had an old bath robe made him by her grandmother, very short and very scant (according to her notion at the chance moments when she had surprised him in it), from which neither love nor money could part him; the others she rejected for the reason already assigned. Little or nothing remained, then, but to give him books, and she was glad that she was forced to this conclusion because, when she reflected, she realized that his reading seemed to be very much neglected, or at least without any lift of imagination or any quality of modernity in it. As far as she had observed, he read the same old things over and over again, and did not know at all what was now going on in the great world of literature. She herself was a famous reader, and an authority about books with other girls, and with the young men who asked her across the afternoon tea-cups whether she had seen this or that new book, and scrabbled round, in choosing between cream and lemon, to hide the fact that they had not seen it themselves. She was therefore exactly the person to select a little library of the latest reading for an old gentleman who was so behind the times as her grandfather; but before she plunged into the mad vortex of new publications she thought she would delicately find out his preferences, or if he had none, would try to inspire him with a curiosity concerning these or those new books.

"Now, grandfather," she began, "you know I always give you a Christmas present."

"Yes, my dear," the old gentleman patiently assented, "I know you do. You are very thoughtful."

"Not at all. If there is anything I hate, it is being thoughtful. What I like is being spontaneous."

"Well, then, my dear, I don't mind saying you are very spontaneous."

"And I detest surprises. If any one wishes to make a lasting enemy of me, let him surprise me. So I am going to tell you now what I am going to give you. Do you like that?"

"I like everything you do, my child."

"Well, this time you will like it better than ever. I am going to give you books. And in order not to disappoint you by giving you books that you have read before, I want to catechise you a little. Shall you mind it?"

"Oh no, but I'm afraid you won't find me very frank."

"I shall make you be. If you are not frank, there is no fun in not surprising you, or in not giving you books that you have read."

"There is something in that," her grandfather assented. "But now, instead of finding out what I have read, or what I like, why not tell me what I ought to read and to like? I think I have seen a vast deal of advice to girls about their reading: why shouldn't the girls turn the tables and advise their elders? I often feel the need of advice from girls on all sorts of subjects, and you would find me very grateful, I believe."

The girl's eyes sparkled and then softened toward this docile ancestor. "Do you really mean it, grandfather? It would be fun if you did."

"But I should want it to be serious, my dear. I should be glad if your good counsel could include the whole conduct of life, for I am sensible sometimes of a tendency to be silly and wicked, which I am sure you could help me to combat."

"Oh, grandfather," said the girl, tenderly, "you know that isn't true!"

"Well, admit for the sake of argument that it isn't. My difficulty in regard to reading remains, and there you certainly could help me. At moments it seems to me that I have come to the end of my line."

The old gentleman's voice fell, and she could no longer suspect him of joking. So she began, "Why, what have you been reading last?"

"Well, my dear, I have been looking into the Spectator a little."

"The London Spectator? Jim says they have it at the club, and he swears by it. But I mean, what books; and that's a weekly newspaper, or a kind of review, isn't it?"

"The Spectator I mean was a London newspaper, and it was a kind of review, but it was a daily. Is it possible that you've never heard of it?" The young girl shook her head thoughtfully, regretfully, but upon the whole not anxiously; she was not afraid that any important thing in literature had escaped her. "But you've heard of Addison, and Steele, and Pope, and Swift?"

"Oh yes, we had them at school, when we were reading Henry Esmond; they all came into that. And I remember, now: Colonel Esmond wrote a number of the Spectator for a surprise to Beatrix; but I thought it was all a make-up."

"And you don't know about Sir Roger de Coverley?"

"Of course I do! It's what the English call the Virginia Reel. But why do you ask? I thought we were talking about your reading. I don't see how you could get an old file of a daily newspaper, but if it amuses you! Is it so amusing?"

"It's charming, but after one has read it as often as I have one begins to know it a little too well."

"Yes; and what else have you been reading?"

"Well, Leigh Hunt a little lately. He continues the old essayist tradition, and he is gently delightful."

"Never heard of him!" the girl frankly declared.

"He was a poet, too, and he wrote the Story of Rimini—about Paolo and Francesca, you know."

"Oh, there you're away off, grandfather! Mr. Philips wrote about them; and that horrid D'Annunzio. Why, Duse gave D'Annunzio's play last winter! What are you thinking of?"

"Perhaps I am wandering a little," the grandfather meekly submitted, and the girl had to make him go on.

"Do you read poetry a great deal?" she asked, and she thought if his taste was mainly for poetry, it would simplify the difficulty of choosing the books for her present.

"Well, I'm rather returning to it. I've been looking into Crabbe of late, and I have found him full of a quaint charm."

"Crabbe? I never heard of him!" she owned as boldly as before, for if he had been worth hearing of, she knew that she would have heard of him. "Don't you like Kipling?"

"Yes, when he is not noisy. I think I prefer William Watson among your very modern moderns."

"Why, is he living yet? I thought he wrote ten or fifteen years ago! You don't call him modern! You like Stevenson, don't you? He's a great stylist; everybody says he is, and so is George Meredith. You must like him?"

"He's a great intellect, but a little of him goes almost as long a way as a little of Browning. I think I prefer Henry James."

"Oh yes, he's just coming up. He's the one that has distinction. But the people who write like him are a great deal more popular. They have all his distinction, and they don't tax your mind so much. But don't let's get off on novelists or there's no end to it. Who are really your favorite poets?"

"Well, I read Shakespeare rather often, and I read Dante by fits and starts; and I do not mind Milton from time to time. I like Wordsworth, and I like Keats a great deal better; every now and then I take up Cowper with pleasure, and I have found myself going back to Pope with real relish. And Byron; yes, Byron! But I shouldn't advise your reading Don Juan."

"That's an opera, isn't it? What they call 'Don Giovanni.' I never heard of any such poem."

"That shows how careful you have been of your reading."

"Oh, we read everything nowadays—if it's up to date; and if Don Juan had been, you may be sure I would have heard of it. I suppose you like Tennyson, and Longfellow, and Emerson, and those old poets?"

"Are they old? They used to be so new! Yes, I like them, and I like Whittier and some things of Bryant's."

At the last two names the girl looked vague, but she said: "Oh yes, I suppose so. And I suppose you like the old dramatists?"

"Some of them—Marlowe, and Beaumont and Fletcher: a few of their plays. But I can't stand most of the Elizabethans; I can't stand Ben Jonson at all."

"Oh yes—'Rasselas.' I can't stand him either, grandfather. I'm quite with you about Ben Jonson. 'Too much Johnson,' you know."

The grandfather looked rather blank. "Too different Johnsons, I think, my dear. But perhaps you didn't mean the Elizabethans; perhaps you mean the dramatists of the other Johnson's time. Well, I like Sheridan pretty well, though his wit strikes me as mechanical, and I really prefer Goldsmith; in his case, I prefer his Vicar of Wakefield, and his poems to his plays. Plays are not very easy reading, unless they are the very best. Shakespeare's are the only plays that one wants to read."

The young girl held up her charming chin, with the air of keeping it above water too deep for her. "And Ibsen?" she suggested. "I hope you despise Ibsen as much as I do. He's clear gone out now, thank goodness! Don't you think Ghosts was horrid?"

"It's dreadful, my dear; but I shouldn't say it was horrid. No, I don't despise Ibsen; and I have found Mr. Pinero's plays good reading."

"Oh," the girl said, getting her foot on the ground. "'The Gay Lord Quex'; Miss Vanbrugh was great in that. But now don't get off on the theatre, grandfather, or there will be no end to it. Which of the old, old poets—before Burns or Shelley even—do you like?"

"Well, when I was a boy, I read Chaucer, and liked him very much; and the other day when I was looking over Leigh Hunt's essays, I found a number of them about Chaucer with long, well-chosen extracts; and I don't know when I've found greater pleasure in poetry. If I must have a favorite among the old poets, I will take Chaucer. Of course, Spenser is rather more modern."

"Yes, but I can't bear his agnosticism, can you? And I hate metaphysics, anyway."

The grandfather looked bewildered; then he said, "Now, I'm afraid we are getting too much Spenser."

The girl went off at a tangent. "Don't you just love Mr. Gillette in 'Sherlock Holmes'? There's a play I should think you would like to read! They say there's a novel been made out of it. I wish I could get hold of it for you. Well, go on, grandfather!"

"No, my dear, it's for you to go on. But don't you think you've catechised me sufficiently about my reading? You must find it very old-fashioned."

"No, not at all. I like old things myself. The girls are always laughing at me because I read George Eliot, and Dickens, and Thackeray, and Charles Reade, and Wilkie Collins, and those back numbers. But I should say, if I said anything, that you were rather deficient in fiction, grandfather. You seem to have read everything but novels."

"Is that so? I was afraid I had read nothing but novels. I——"

"Tell me what novels you have read," she broke in upon him imperatively. "The ones you consider the greatest."

The grandfather had to think. "It is rather a long list—so long that I'm ashamed of it. Perhaps I'd better mention only the very greatest, like Don Quixote, and Gil Blas, and Wilhelm Meister, and The Vicar of Wakefield, and Clarissa Harlowe, and Emma, and Pride and Prejudice, and The Bride of Lammermoor, and I Promessi Sposi, and Belinda, and Frankenstein, and Chartreuse de Parme, and César Birotteau, and The Last Days of Pompeii, and David Copperfield, and Pendennis, and The Scarlet Letter, and Blithedale Romance, and The Cloister and the Hearth, and Middlemarch, and Smoke, and Fathers and Sons, and A Nest of Nobles, and War and Peace, and Anna Karénina, and Resurrection, and Dona Perfecta, and Marta y Maria, and I Malavoglia, and The Return of the Native, and L'Assomoir, and Madame Bovary, and The Awkward Age, and The Grandissimes—and most of the other books of the same authors. Of course, I've read many more perhaps as great as these, that I can't think of at the moment."

The young girl listened, in a vain effort to follow her agile ancestor in and out of the labyrinths of his favorite fiction, most of which she did not recognize by the names he gave and some of which she believed to be very shocking, in a vague association of it with deeply moralized, denunciatory criticisms which she had read of the books or the authors. Upon the whole, she was rather pained by the confession which his reading formed for her grandfather, and she felt more than ever the necessity of undertaking his education, or at least his reform, in respect to it. She was glad now that she had decided to give him books for a Christmas present, for there was no time like Christmas for good resolutions, and if her grandfather was ever going to turn over a new leaf, this was the very hour to help him do it.

She smiled very sweetly upon him, so as not to alarm him too much, and said she had never been so much interested as in knowing what books he really liked. But as he had read all those he named—

"Oh, dozens of times!" he broke in.

—Then perhaps he would leave it to her to choose an entirely new list for him, so that he could have something freshly entertaining; she did not like to say more edifying for fear of hurting his feelings, and taking his silence for consent she went up and kissed him on his bald head and ran away to take the matter under immediate advisement. Her notion then was to look over several lists of the world's best hundred books which she had been keeping by her, but when she came to compare them, she found that they contained most of the books he had mentioned, besides many others. It would never do to give him any one of these libraries of the best hundred books for this reason, and for the reason that a hundred books would cost more of her grandfather's money than she felt justified in spending on him at a season when she had to make so many other presents.

Just when she was at her wit's end, a sudden inspiration seized her. She pinned on her hat, and put on her new winter jacket, and went out and bought the last number of The Bookworm. At the end of this periodical she had often got suggestions for her own reading, and she was sure that she should find there the means of helping her poor grandfather to a better taste in literature than he seemed to have. So she took the different letters from Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia, and up-town and down-town in New York, giving the best-selling books of the month in all those places, and compiled an eclectic list from them, which she gave to her bookseller with orders to get them as nearly of the same sizes and colors as possible. He followed her instructions with a great deal of taste and allowed her twenty-five per cent. off, which she applied toward a wedding-present she would have to give shortly. In this way she was able to provide her grandfather for the new year with reading that everybody was talking about, and that brought him up to date with a round turn.

William Dean Howells