Persuasions #12, 1990 Page 3
Message from the President
Travel allows us time for seeing new places, meeting interesting people,
getting new ideas about our world. It
is a time for opportunity, for adventure, for insight.
But travel can be intellectual as well as physical. We don’t have to leave home to have our minds and our experiences broadened and stimulated. Thomas Carlyle wrote: “All that Mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of Books.” Travel books take us to strange and exotic places; biographies introduce us to fascinating people; histories help us understand the present as well as the past. And novels – no one has given a better description of the value of novels than Jane Austen: “some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”
Many of Jane Austen’s characters read: Elizabeth Bennet surprises Mr. Hurst by preferring to read rather than play cards, and in the same scene, Darcy “cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library;” Fanny’s books were a constant source of comfort to her, “she had been a collector from the first hour of her commanding a shilling;” and Anne Elliot is sufficiently well-read in many subjects to recommend to Captain Benwick “such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering” to fortify his mind.
Jane Austen does not generalise, however – merely
being a reader is not an indication of an exemplary character.
Isabella Thorpe introduced Catherine Morland to Gothic novels, one cause
of Catherine’s subsequent distress; Marianne’s outlook on life might have
been more practical if she had not “idolised” Romantic poets; and a clue to
Emma’s character is the fact that she spends so much of her time drawing up
lists of books she means to read. Even
Sir Walter Elliot found in one book “occupation for an idle hour and consolation in a distressed one.”
Jane Austen’s letters are full of references to reading and books: “My father reads Cowper to us in the evening,” “we set fairly at it and read half the first volume,” or “Our family … are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so.” Radio and television and our active social lives have almost entirely replaced this delightful custom of family reading. In books we can find companions for any occasion – to ease our distress, banish our loneliness, share our good times and our bad. Without books, our lives are poorer.