Clive James is dying of leukemia, but he is not about to stop reading. Hence, his 2015 book, Latest Readings (Yale University Press). The man lives on and the reading continues, and while we’re here, we should express our gratitude for the joie de vivre his work has given us over the years. He is a literary treasure.
This book, admittedly slim, is really a series of notes and ruminations about reading. Time passes, and the winged chariot is on its way, so James relocates his home and library to Cambridge where he can read and write until the very end. His main contact to get his literary fix is Hugh’s bookstall, “known to its devotees both literary and academic as one of the great bookstalls on earth.” James finds himself buying second copies of books that he either once had in his library and gave away, or that he could not immediately lay his hands on resulting in a need to possess that is every bit as addictive as morphine. He reads in “no particular order,” plowing through works both serious and trivial. When it is the end, all pretenses fall. What do you want next? Where does your mind take you? Approaching death is the great liberator to James so he can read willy-nilly to his heart’s contentment.
His essays are intriguing, his writers important to the world: Hemingway, Conrad, Patrick O’Brien, Anthony Powell, Shakespeare and Johnson. Some he touches upon and moves on; others, he circles back to in later essays in the book, drawing every nuance and subtlety he can milk from the prose. And like the good critic and reader he is, James brings us along, relating his readings to life, wisdom, experience.
Hemingway’s style “was a virus,” he writes, a line that still makes me laugh out loud. “Younger would-be writers took it as the sound of truth, of real experience lived and assimilated. The facts say that he was at his most persuasive when making things up.” One can hear the air whistling out of the balloon of ego and reputation. “He wanted us to admire the bravery with which he rewrote his latest manuscript for the 323rd time.”
His humor is tempered by the seriousness of his quest to read well, and the sunset advancing to twilight. “The provenance of art can never be as morally elementary as we wish it,” he writes toward the end of the book. “Art grows from the world…This cruel but consoling fact really shows up when you start the slide to nowhere. The air is lit by a shimmering tangle of all the reasons you are sad to go and all the reasons you are glad to leave.”
For a reader, the book is short enough to be read in a sitting, and rewarding as such memoirs often are when written by a writer passionate about reading to readers who share the author’s loves. It is not an earth-shattering book, but it is a necessary and wise one, and we must toast Clive James now before twilight becomes night and he slips away into the darkness that awaits us all. It is comforting to know that we will still have his books, his life and thought available to us long after he is gone.