The Sovereign Remedy of Books

Edmund Wilson, The Pleasures of Literature:

With how sure an expectation of solace, amid the turmoil and perplexities of our time, do I turn, when the fires of evening are lit, to my silent companions of the library! Here the din of the city dies away; here the feverish antagonisms of men reveal themselves sub specie aeternitatis. Here may I be rapt as by a magic carpet to those miraculous isles of Greece “lily on lily, that o’erlace the sea”; or to journey with the returning Ulysses among the enchantments and terrors of Homer’s golden day; or I may bid imagination run riot with Shakespeare and his carnival fellows of the spacious days of great Elizabeth, assuming the motley of their bawdy humors, the purple of their splendid passions, the mourning of their fantastic revenges; or I may prowl with Dickens or Balzac among the mysteries of the dark modern cities or lurch with George Borrow along the hedgerows; or I may revel in the thousand and one tales, more enthralling than the Arabian Nights, of Voragine’s Golden Legend, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters or Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex.

What a sovereign remedy is a book for the distempers both of the mind and of the body! How it protects us against sordidness and boredom! Shall I ever forget the exquisite delights of my first perusal of Congreve’s plays, as I rode back and forth on the elevated, the subway or the electric car, in my days as a “cub reporter” on one of our great metropolitan dailies an exercise which, I like to believe, had the effect of tempering my style against the pressures of newspaper writing? Or the ecstasy of my discovery at college, and at almost the same moment, of Dante, the greatest poet, and Plato, the greatest proseman, of all time? how, cycling alone in the Princeton lanes, leafy and fragrant with May, I would declaim the ringing tercets of the former! how, to the fluttering of the pages of my lexicon, the paragraphs of the Symposium or the Phaedo would commence to grow incandescent with a radiance that seemed steadily to glow more brightly till the radiance of morning itself made luminous the Jersey murk!

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