Idle Talk is a Duty, Hence Idle Reading Also

“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.

7 thoughts on “Idle Talk is a Duty, Hence Idle Reading Also

  1. Ephemeral political facts were a staple of conversation at Old City Hall, Oswego’s best tavern, before it closed — never to open again. But only in the beginning, when two people were just starting to become acquainted with one another. As greater familiarity emerged and A got some sense of B’s interests, and vice versa, the interchange became richer and rose to a higher level. Wen I first met my late friend Dick Fader, we conversed about local politics. When we discovered that both of us were Mars-fanatics, fighter-plane devotees, and Shakespeare readers, well, the conversation elevated itself.

  2. It is good to find a friend who loves what you love, but we must also equip ourselves for decent sociability with strangers. I think my unwillingness to carry a small stock of sports trivia is probably a moral flaw, since without this small stock I am unable to show decent sociability with many men.

  3. I agree. It is not wrong to lack interest in sports, but it probably is wrong to take pride in this lack of interest. I can see that the lack of interest in somethings is discreditable and cause for shame. Lack of interest in God, for instance, or lack of interest in postings on the Orthosphere. But I wonder if lack of interest is ever really meritorious. I would count a man fortunate if he lacked an interest in pornography, for instance, but I would think that same man vain if he made this the basis for pride. I try to be grateful for my good traits, few as they are, and not to be proud.

    Since anti-sports snobbery is so common in academia, I’ve taken to hiding my disinterest in sports. I’m not about to take up proletarian pastimes, but I wouldn’t mind if my colleagues had the impression that I spend my weekends hunting, bowling and attending stock car races. This is almost certainly a moral flaw, but I can’t help myself.

  4. 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.

    I think the alternative to babbling about those things is to cultivate a capacity to encourage other people to babble about them. I have found–in trying to hide my own inability to chatter–that asking questions is a useful way to remain a participant in a conversation without bringing any knowledge to it.

    I also suffer from a dearth of sports knowledge, likewise television shows and such, though in both cases I have passively heard enough about enough to be able to participate in a conversation without steering it. These are basic cultural bonds that loosely hold society together–more like a safety pin than stitching, because it forms temporary bonds just long enough to decide whether anyone wants to make something more permanent.

    Idle reading is like sports or television in that it forms those bonds with other people who read, and is likewise unintelligible to people who don’t know about those books. The side benefit of idle reading is that it grows ones brain more than tv shows or sports, so allows one to add more value to more conversations over time than having binge watched eight seasons of nondescript promiscuous teenagers learning life lessons.

    • You are right that we should cultivate an ability to help other people talk about themselves. Because we have all been the victims of garrulous and narcissistic bores, we may have grown blind to the timid people who need encouragement to open their mouths. I can’t bring myself to follow the fortunes of sports teams, but I do understand the games well enough to talk about them for a while. And that’s often enough for sociability. I don’t watch television, but I postpone as long as possible the declaration (always supercilious), “I don’t watch television.” I think I wrote a post in defense of desultory reading some years back.


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