“Now that the reading fit is on me again” is a phrase that leapt out at me earlier this week, in Saul Bellow’s “To Jerusalem and Back”, his 1976 work subtitled “A Personal Memoir”. It’s exactly how I feel when going through a reading binge. I did not expect to find the same sentiment expressed by a Nobel laureate who also served as a professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago for 30 years. He wrote those words about halfway through that academic appointment, just before he won the Nobel Prize.
He uses the phrase specifically about a three-volume study “The Venture of Islam” by his late colleague Marshall Hodgson: “Now that the reading fit is on me again, I intend to buy the three new volumes”. Having read more books in the last two months than in the previous year I am also planning which ones to buy and read next, although there are plenty of volumes on my bookshelves, and in my e-Reader, to keep me going for a few years to come. “To Jerusalem and Back” was one such volume, a “Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic” edition printed in 1998. It had sat on one bookshelf or another for the last 20 years. I hadn’t even read the first page until this month.
As a teenager I read most of Bellow’s fiction, prompted initially by the inclusion of “Herzog” and “Henderson the Rain King” on the reading list we were given for A-Level English. Most of the list was in the form of a chronological guide to the English novel, beginning with “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and ending with Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, but there was a selection of other works by people from outside these islands. I can remember more items from the list that we had been given two years earlier (which prompted this piece) than from the later one, but Dostoyevsky was certainly there (“Crime and Punishment” and “The Idiot”, but not “The Brothers Karamazov”) and so was Tolstoy (“Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace”). With both of these authors I read the first book on the list before I turned 17, but have still never read any of the others. Gunter Grass was also there, “The Tin Drum” definitely and (I think) “Cat and Mouse”. During my late teens I worked my way through just about everything by Grass and Bellow. “Dog Years” and “Herzog” are both mentioned in this piece from 2016, which mentions a binge-reading time in Spain, just before I started university. As usual, I offer the following qualification when noting that I have read a specific book: I was awake, my eyes were open, and they passed across every word of every page. How much I can recall about those words varies enormously. In some cases (“A Passage to India” for example) I remembered almost nothing, even within a month of reading it. In others, like Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” (another book on that A-Level reading list that’s just come to mind) whole chunks of it have returned to my thoughts frequently over the last 40 years.
I also expect “To Jerusalem and Back” to return to my thoughts frequently in the years ahead, and will mention it again soon on these pages. It’s as good as anything I have read for many years.