“I seldom can have anything particular to say; I scarce go out of my own house, and then only to two or three very private places, where I see nobody that really knows anything—and what I learn comes from newspapers, that collect intelligence from coffee-houses—consequently, what I neither believe or report.”
Horace Walpole, Private Correspondence (1820)
This line appears in the last letter of Horace Walpole, which he dictated six weeks before his death, in 1797, at the age of seventy-nine. It came to mind when I read Bonald’s latest post on the fatuity of reading the news and gloating over one’s shallow knowledge of current events. Our newspapers may print more than the tittle-tattle of coffee houses, but that does not mean they print better. I will nevertheless say a word in defense of idle reading.
I first wrote this line down because I am often, like Walpole, conscious that I do not have anything particular to say. I am not seventy-nine years old, but I also scarcely go out of my house, and then only to very private places where I see nobody that really knows anything. If it were not for the dubious information I obtain by idle reading, I would be an almost perfect blank of nescience, an almost perfect void of taciturnity.
Walpole’s line therefore reminds me that my interest in idle reading is very largely an interest in having something to say. I have found that life demands a great deal of idle talk from a man, and that I must consequently show considerable industry to gather material from which to make this idle talk. This is especially so since I suffer from the usual male inability to chatter. Because we lack the natural capacity to babble about our hair, we men must cultivate a capacity to babble about the politics of Surinam, the history of toothpicks, or the gruesome beasts that dwell in the Marianas Trench.
It embarrasses me to recall the learned gravity with which I have unshipped my superficial knowledge and trivial opinions; but it doesn’t embarrass me as much as it would have embarrassed me to sit silent and hold my tongue. As I said, life demands a great deal of idle talk from a man. To this I now add that a man should be embarrassed by an inability to supply this idle talk. This is because idle talk can be act of charity. Hence Idle talk is a duty, hence idle reading also.