Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Reader's Tastes

Noticed the other night in The Diary of John Quincy Adams, selections edited by Allan Nevins, entry for
September 24, 1829:
In the evening I read several of Madame du Deffand's letters. It belongs probably to the effect of age upon the taste and judgment that these letters are more interesting to me than any novel. They are records of realities. In youth it was directly the reverse--fairy-tales, the Arabian Nights, fictitious adventures of every kind, delighted me. And the more there was in them of invention, the more pleasing they were. My imagination pictured them all as realities, and I dreamed of enchantments as if there was a world in which they existed. At ten years of age I read Shakspeare's Tempest, As You Like It, Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, and King Lear. The humors of Falstaff scarcely affected me at all. Bardolph and Pistol and Nym were personages quite unintelligible to me; and the lesson of Sir Hugh Evans to the boy William was too serious an affair. But the incantations of Prospero, the loves of Ferdinand and Miranda, the more than ethereal brightness of Ariel, and the worse than beastly grossness of Caliban, made for me a world of revels, and lapped me in Elysium. With these books, in a closet of my mother's bed-chamber, there was also a small edition, in two volumes, of Milton's Paradise Lost, which, I believe, I attempted ten times to read, and never could get through half a book. I might as well have attempted to read Homer before I had learnt the Greek alphabet. I was mortified, even to the shedding of solitary tears, that I could not even conceive what it was that my father and mother admired so much in that book, and yet I was ashamed to ask them an explanation. I smoked tobacco and read Milton at the same time, and from the same motive--to find out what was the recondite charm in them which gave my father so much pleasure. After making myself four or five times sick with smoking, I mastered that accomplishment, and acquired a habit which, thirty years afterwards, I had much more difficulty in breaking off. But I did not master Milton. I was nearly when I first read the Paradise Lost with delight and astonishment. but of late years I have lost the relish for fiction. I see nothing with sympathy but men, women, and children of flesh and blood.

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