Friday, March 9, 2012

Fun between the covers with long-dead strangers

A.N. Whitehead: fond of a
good gag, and wary of
humourless believers
My usual Canberra Times column is up today, 'Fun between the covers with long-dead strangers'.

I'm arguing for the particular pleasure of reading biographies.  A sample:
One of the great joys of literary life is eavesdropping on fine conversation. I do not mean ''Pass the salt'' or ''Watch the toast'' - the basic to-and-fro of domestic life. I mean instead the wit and wisdom of history's great talkers. 
Every Sunday evening, for example, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead hosted conversations at his home. The discussions, which included his wife Evelyn and scholarly friends, are intelligent and very well informed, but they are also warm, generous and funny. Take his observation that ''deeply and truly religious persons are very fond of a joke'', and that he was suspicious of hyper-solemn clerics. Simultaneously a quip, a sincere profession of feeling, and a criticism of the wowserism that too often passes for piety. 
We expect scholars like Whitehead to have their moments of eye-twinkling mirth, but not authors like Emily Dickinson, usually taken as the archetypal hermit. The caricature is of a quiet, dour wallflower - yet she was anything but. One friend remembered Dickinson at the doorway, being asked about the big-boned housekeeper, mischievously nicknamed the ''Colossus''. ''She has rode,'' she quipped back, with a clever play on the ancient Greek statue. 
Squeezed between professional and domestic labours, fine words can be rare, as can hours for good conversation. Biography collects these gems, scattered here and there over the centuries, and saves them in its textual treasury.

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