I used to have a habit of jotting down choice passages from books I’ve read. After Diana Athill’s Stet: An Editor’s Life (London: Granta Books, 2001), a lead from the article on editors being an endangered species, I’m tingled into doing it again:
Although for all my life I have been much nearer poor than rich, I have inherited a symptom of richness: I have a strong propensity for idleness. Somewhere within me lurks an unregenerate creature which feels that money ought to fall from the sky, like rain. Should it fail to do so — too bad: like a farmer enduring drought one would get by somehow, or go under, which would be unpleasant but not so unpleasant as having blighted one’s days by bothering about money. Naturally I always knew that one did in fact have to bother, and to some extent I did so, but only to the least possible extent. This meant that although I never went so far as to choose to do nothing, I did find it impossible to do anything I didn’t want to do. Whether it was ‘cannot’ or ‘will not’ I don’t know, but it felt like ‘cannot’; and the things I could not do included many of the things a publisher had to do.
… I felt the pull of mystification: ‘I can’t understand this — probably, being beyond me, it is very special.’ This common response to not seeing the point of something has a rather touching humility, but that doesn’t save it — or so I now believe — from being a betrayal of intelligence which has allowed a good deal of junk to masquerade as art. Whether that matters much is another question …
The latter books (Tahiti) was by a man who could not write. He had clumsily and laboriously put a great many words on paper because he happened to be obsessed by his subject. No one but a hungry young publisher building a list would have waded through his typescript, but having done so I realised that he knew everything it was possible to know about a significant and extraordinary event, and that his book would be a thoroughly respectable addition to our list if only it could be made readable.
‘Thinking up’ books on demand is one of the idlest occupations in all of publishing. If an interesting book has its origins in a head other than its author’s, then it either comes in a flash as a result of compelling circumstances, or it is the result of someone’s obsession which he has nursed until just the right author has turned up. Books worth reading don’t come from people saying to each other ‘What a good idea!’. They come from someone knowing a great deal about something and having strong feelings about it. Which does not mean a capable hack can’t turn out a passable book-like object to a publisher’s order; only that when he does so it ends on the remainder shelves in double-quick time.
I supposed people who choose to work with books and are good at their jobs are not inevitably likeable, but they very often are; and if you see them every day over long periods of time, collaborating with them in various ways as you do so, they become more than likeable. They become a pleasing part of your life.
… the central reason why books have meant so much to me. It is not because of my pleasure in the art of writing, though that has been very great. It is because they have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of my own experience and have greatly enlarged my sense of the complexity of life: of its consuming darkness, and also — thank God — of the light which continues to struggle through.
They were both great gossips — and when I say great I mean great, because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form: a passionate interest, lit by humour but above malice, in human behaviour. … much more often we would talk with glee, awe, with amazement, with horror, with delight, about what people had done and why they had done it. And we munched up our own lives as greedily as we did everyone else’s.