Our book today is E. M. Forster's great essay collection Abinger Harvest, first published in 1936. My Penguin paperback is stamped "Bradford, Faculty of Architecture, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria" but is still in good shape for all that, and certainly the wear-and-tear it received in its travels from Africa has been equalled over the years by the handling I've given it myself - because this is a book to read and re-read, and I have done so.
Books like Abinger Harvest serve as salient reminders that occasional prose written on deadline and often for money can still constitute art. Forster wrote almost all of the pieces in this collection on spec of some kind - to satisfy an importuning editor friend, to produce a quick check, even to assuage the minor guilt of having a stack of publisher copies of books sitting on the desk unreviewed. And yet every word in this book is worth reading, which proves the depth of Forster's soil, rather than the strength of his fertilizer.
The book is split up into discrete sections - books, current events, the past in general, the East in particular - and none of the separate essays comprising those sections is very long ... browsing here is as easy as falling out of a tree, and happy, aimless wandering to and fro is positively encouraged. You can skip from ruminations on Babur to chess to a frolicsome celebration of the author's own centenary ("There can be no doubt that his contemporaries did not recognize the greatness of Forster. Immersed in their own little affairs, they either ignored him, or forgot him, or confused him, or, strangest of all, discussed him as if he were their equal. We may smile at their blindness, but for him it can have been no laughing matter, he must have had much to bear, and indeed he could scarcely have endured to put forth masterpiece after masterpiece had he not felt assured of the verdict of posterity ..."). There is a great encomium on his friend T. E. Lawrence that ends with a humble enough hope:
Now that he is gone away, he has to come into the open, which he dreaded, he has to be analysed, estimated, claimed. A legend will probably flourish, and, twisted from his true bearings even further than Nelson, Lawrence of Arabia may turn into a tattoo master's asset, the boy scout's hero and the girl guide's dream. Committees have already been formed by his more influential friends, directing public enthusiasm about him into suitable channels. They will protect him from the sharks, and this is a good thing, and let us hope that they will save him from the governesses as well.
There is his self-consciously breathless outburst on Jane Austen:
I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. My fatuous expression, and the airs of personal immunity - how ill they set on the face of, say, a Stevensonian! But Jane Austen is so different. She is my favourite author! I read and re-read, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, I greet her in the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers.
And there is a magisterial dismissal of Marco Polo that's hard to refute:
Yet it is not a first-rate book, for the reason that its author is interested in novelties, to the exclusion of human beings. Herodotus was interested in both, and he is a great traveller in consequence. Marco Polo is only a little traveller. He could bring back thrilling statistics, he could also discourse quaintly about oddities ... but he could not differentiate between men and make them come alive, and the East that he evoked is only a land of strange customs. He could manage men and conciliate them and outwit them, but they never fascinated him.
And there is the famous essay on young Captain Edward Gibbon in 1761, marching across Kent in formation:
The garden where I am writing slopes down to a field, the field to a road, and along that road exactly a hundred and seventy years ago passed a young officer with a rather large head. If he had turned the head to the right, he would have seen not me, not the garden, but he would have seen the elms that still border the garden - they were already recognizable trees. And on his left, outrunning him as it had outlived him, ran a little stream called the Tillingbourne. The gorse and the may were just over when he passed, the dog-roses coming out, the bracken rising, but although he was unusually observant he has left no record of these events. 'June was absolutely lost' is his only comment; June, which he might have spent reading Stabo, he was condemned to spend marching across Kent, Surrey, and Hants.
And so on - the quoting could go on for the whole of the book. "A miscellany can have no value as an offering," Forster claims in his introductory note, but he's wrong: this has been one of my favorite extended exercises in literary journalism for a long, long time, and it still repays re-reading. Forster writes, "The individual who has been rendered sensitive by education will not be deserted by it in his hour of need." I'd like to think he's right about that, but even if he's wrong, that individual will never be deserted by him. His polite little roster of novels give perpetual joy, and for its flash and lightly-worn learning, Abinger Harvest stands as the equal of any of them in also imparting joy - and it's a better, more flexible joy, constantly widening as you read not only what he's written but what he's written about. This is a book to grow with through your whole reading life; find yourself a copy, if you haven't already made its acquaintance.