Saturday, June 29, 2013

Review: The Merry Heart

The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading Writing & the World of BooksThe Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading Writing and the World of Books by Robertson Davies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a collection of speeches given by Robertson Davies over the years. Each is introduced with a short explanation of the occasion on which the speech was given. The first piece is called A Rake at Reading and it sets the tone for the collection. Davies begins with a quote from Logan Pearsall Smith: "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading" then goes on to explain his own position. 
"...when I read for my own satisfaction, I read just as I please. That is why I have called this address "A Rake at Reading." The phrase comes from a letter written to a friend by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The word rake, in the middles of the 18th century when Lady M made her confession to the Countess of Bute, still meant to roam or stray, but I think she also meant it to have a hint of what was dissolute and irresponsible.  So-- I confess I have been a rake at reading. I have read those things which I ought not to have read, and I have not read those things which I ought to have read, and there is no health in me -- if by health you mean an inclusive and coherent knowledge of any body of great literature. I can only protest. like all rake in their shameful senescence, that I have had a good time."(p. 2-3)
I love Davies' novels--they are funny and full of wonderful unusual words and insights about people and their pursuits--and his speeches were just as fabulous. By the time I finished this volume it was bristling with post-its marking quotes and ideas I wanted to go back to. Among the things that struck me (the piece each idea comes from is in brackets):
"I have already said that the novel is wholly personal in its appeal; one reader, with one book, encounters the mind of one author." (p.138) [The Novelist and Magic]Novels need not be all that realistic: "I was not a photographer, catching in black and white what the lens of the camera could see; I was a painter in oils, including what I, as an author, could see." (p139) [The Novelist and Magic]The writer as a religious man: "Not as the expounder of a creed, or the zealous supporter of a cause, but as one who approaches life with care, and indeed with reverence; who examines everything he can as carefully as he can; he in not afraid of a paradox or an outright contradiction in what he finds, and in some cases is one who points the way to the thoughts and preoccupations of the future." (p.142) [The Novelist and Magic]"I was a Canadian, and I grew up believing that Canadians were different--a lower order of being, incapable of morality in its highest reaches. One of the satisfactions of being a Canadian is that one is not expected to be a good example." (p.191) this comment relates to the virtuous children of the literature of his youth. [Literature and Moral Purpose]"By an educated class I certainly did not mean people of substantial means with university degrees; I meant anybody who knew how to use a public library and did so with zeal and devotion." (p234) [Reading]"My dear friends, science can do many wonderful things, but it cannot comfort the afflicted, or ease a heavy heart, or give expression to the topmost joy of which life is capable. That is what poetry can do." (p290) [Convocation Address]"As you make your way in the world, practicing your profession, finding friends, finding companions in domesticity, bringing up children, trying to put substance by to guard you against the blows of fate, you will certainly be tempted to neglect the one person who is, beyond all others, your deepest concern and whose well-being is of overwhelming significance every day of your life. I mean your Innermost self."  (p.287) [Convocation Address] I love the phrase "companions in domesticity"!
I wholeheartedly agree with Davies' advice about reading. I would throw a bit of history and some other non-fiction into the pile.

"Perhaps this is the point at which I should advise you, if you are reading for pleasure, to read several books at once, and to keep on your table a book of poetry, as well as a novel, some essays, and perhaps a play or two. The notion that you have to read solemnly through one book before you can allow yourself to take up another is simple Puritanism,  probably left over from childhood." (p226) [Reading]

The only thing that keeps this book from being a 5-star read is a speech given to a group of doctors about physicians as humanists which went on too long and was a bit boring. This is my 13th book for the 6th Annual Canadian Book Challenge. It also counts toward the Books About Books Challenge.


  1. I can't believe I haven't read this collection yet. I have read A Voice from the Attic, with lots of bookish pieces in it, you might also like that one.

    1. I will definitely add A Voice from the Attic to my reading list, thanks for the suggestion!


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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