Reading certain things in certain places

The great Laudator has a fun entry today about the best places in which to read certain authors.

I resonate mightily with this a amusing post, since I have fond memories of a summer sitting in the sun reading 19th c. English novels for a course for my minor, of going to famous places in Italy and reading Latin texts with Fr. Foster, such as the poem about the Fons Bandusiae at Horace’s villa… with bottles of white wine chilling the very spring, of reading Patrick O’Brian while crewing a boat in the North Atlantic, Edward Rutherford’s London in London, Dante’s Inferno in Monteriggioni and other parts of Tuscany.

One could have a lot of fun with this.

Here’s the Laudator and his guest contributor:

In Part XII of The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1931; rpt. New York: Avenel Books, 1981), Holbrook Jackson asks and answers the question How Bookmen Conquer Time and Place. Topics include Of Reading Places (section II, pp. 236-239) and The Association of Book and Place (section III, pp. 239-241).

D.B.Wyndham Lewis, On Straw and Other Conceits (1927; rpt. Hartford: Edwin Valentine Mitchell; New York, Coward-McCann Incorporated [1929]), pp. 30-32, has some thoughts on this question:

It is evident that to extract the essential soul and flavour of certain books one should endeavour to read them in the exact surroundings in which they were conceived, or in surroundings as nearly similar as may be; for the clear air, the sky, the water are, as it were, mixed with the writer’s mind and woven into the very stuff of his imaginings. But whereas there are plenty of books pointing out What To Read and Why To Read, there is as yet, I think, no guide showing Where To Read. I have therefore drawn up from my own experience, haphazard, a modest and sketchy list which may serve as the foundation for such a Guide, though it clearly touches only the edge of the fringe of a vast and absorbing subject.

SHAKESPEARE. One would naturally read Shakespeare in a Warwickshire meadow in buttercup time; or else in the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel.

RONSARD. To derive the greatest solace from the poetry of Ronsard one must read him lying on the banks of the Loire, at about sunset of a June evening, upon the grass, with a flask of the wine of Vouvray, or Chinon, or Bourgueil at hand; and with the soft air and the murmur of flowing water there should be mixed the gracious voices of girls.

Some demand, in addition, a lute, and a distant voice singing “Bonjour mon coeur, bonjour ma douce vie,” the words by Ronsard, the music by Orlando de Lassus.This seems (as Samuel Butler said about dumb-bells — see above) academic.

KIPLING (MR.). The works of this famous author are most profitably read in the Crystal Palace on Empire Day, during a massed Brass Band Contest; if that can be arranged.

CONGREVE naturally demands to be read in the Sunken Garden at Hampton Court, on the William-and-Mary side of the palace — not the Cardinal’s.

HERRICK should be read in a Devon lane in the time of violets.

TCHEHOV. To extract the best from this author and his English imitators, their work should be read in a dimly lighted dissecting-room; the corpse rather damp and the surgeon and his assistants rather sick of it, in a moody, gaga sort of way.

RABELAIS must be read among the rich lands of the Chionnais in Touraine, on the edge of a white road with cornfields and vineyards on either side. But let there be a farmyard near, with a ripe and aromatic muck-heap in it, the scent of which must be borne to you on the wind; and let there be also loud bursts of rustic laughter and a bottle of Chinon.

One could swell the list indefinitely, in many cases with two, three, or four alternatives each. There is one English man of letters, for example, who holds stoutly that the only place to read the Bucolics of Vergil is at a café-table opposite the Bourse in Paris, when the money-grubbers are howling their damnedest. My own theory is that the Bucolics are best read in the barber’s parlour at the Cosmopole, with a menial squirting costly unguents on the hair and the Rich all round one being polished and trimmed. Again, most of the modern “analytical” novelists need nothing better than a room filled with stale tobacco-smoke: but what kind of room? And again, there may be a law against reading Mr. M******* M***’s prose in the Elephant House at the Zoo.M.M. is probably John Middleton Murry.

Fun, no?  I am sure you could come up with some of your own, real or imagined.

Your own Kindle, and a thermos of Mystic Monk Coffee or Tea could make this a lot easier, too, though the aesthetic of the book is hardly to be discounted.  And so many good things to read are available for free through the Kindle, classics of poetry and novels.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. albinus1 says:

    I read Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven (about the boyhood of Alexander the Great) while traveling through Macedon and visiting sites there with the summer program of the American School of Classicsl Studies.

    When I accompanied a group of students to Italy a few years ago, we read Pliny’s Vesuvius letter to Tacitus at Stabiae, while dark stormclouds gathered over the top of Mt. Vesuvius, not too far away across the Bay!

  2. Ben Trovato says:

    Ah, but where should one read WDTPRS?…

  3. Ben Trovato: It is also available on Kindle! Non è vero?

  4. danphunter1 says:

    I once read Melville’s “Typee” whilst sitting in hammock under the tree’s on the beach in Hanalei, Kauai with the cool trade winds blowing across the beach while drinking a Kona Beer out of a cocoanut.

  5. Tim Ferguson says:

    How about reading and translating the Office of Corpus Christi in the ruins of the castle on the top of Rocca Secca. Then singing the Eucharistic hymns… [That qualifies!]

  6. Legisperitus says:

    danphunter1: I’m with you if it’s Hula Hefeweizen.

  7. pseudomodo says:

    I would read Agatha Christie in the dining room with Colonel Mustard..with the candlestick, the knife and the revolver….

  8. Inigo says:

    Try reading H.P. Lovecraft in an abandoned insane asylum, preferably with a dripping tap, and an old gramophone playing the same part of the same song over and over again in a distant corridor.

    You could also try having the smell of freshly rotting corpses nearby, with a noose around your neck. But this is strictly optional.

  9. Pachomius says:

    Surely one should read Rabelais in an easy chair?

    I’d like to read Satire I.9 on the Via Sacra, but I think I must have a talent for reading things in the wrong contexts. I read Brideshead Revisited for the first time and The Great Gatsby while ill with flu and bedbound; I read Dorian Gray largely on the train, and Guliver’s Travels usually before bed and after a long commute.

  10. danphunter1 says:


    …or Crowleys “Book of Law”, spending an evening in Boleskine House and watching the shadows move about the sand garden.

  11. Art says:

    You’ll also need a whippoorwill & frog chorus that rises and falls with the chanting in the background along with a book about non-euclidean geometry.

    As for me, any of the Don Camillo books in the Piazza Matteotti in Brescello, Italy.

  12. PostCatholic says:

    Salinger on a bench opposite the carousel in Central Park. Wodehouse in a comfy club chair in the Connaught Hotel’s bar, with one of their wonderful martinis at your elbow. Henry James on the second floor of the Boston Athenaeum near the windows overlooking the burial ground. Joyce on the pier at Dun Laoghaire, looking out at the snotgreen sea. Douglas Adams–well, I think we missed our chance but waiting at the Ostend Hoverport in Belgium would have been fitting.

  13. Maltese says:

    I read “Old Man and the Sea” sitting in a small park next to the Basilica Cathedral, Saint Francis of Assisi, in Santa Fe (or, Fanta Se, as a crusty old priest referred to it!) What a beautifully written novelette!

    I read “Oliver Twist” on the beach in Nice, France, to distract my eyes!

    I’m not so much into fiction these days (even though I have a BA from the University of Michigan in English Lit); but I have been caught reading + Lefebvre’s “Open Letter to Confused Catholics” poolside with my five kids. My wife just rolls her eyes (though Catholic, she is not into the Traditionalist thing)!

  14. Daniel says:

    I believe there are two places in which it is best to read Chesterton. Either one should be at Top Meadow, Beaconsfield, surrounded by children, or one should be walking down Fleet Street, surrounded by reporters. I think either one captures the essence of Chesterton.

  15. RichardT says:

    Surely Chesterton should be read in the pub? Perhaps the Mitre, which is not far from Fleet Street.

  16. RichardT says:

    I find Sterne’s “Sentimental Journey” perfect for reading whilst travelling; it reminds me that the frustrations of travel are nothing new, and that the philosophical mind can always benefit from them.

    Lawrence Durrell’s Corfu books have to be read under an olive grove with a bottle of thin wine, otherwise the urge to travel there brings on an overwhelming sense of disappointment with were you are.

    But I was partly put off the whole “reading a book in the right place” business by seeing dozens of people reading “Room with a View” in the queue for the Uffizi.

  17. don Jeffry says:

    I read the Lord of the Rings sitting in the turrets of Castello Montebello in Bellinzona:

  18. medievalist says:

    “One Life in the Day of Ivan Denisovich”

    In the snow. At 5 a.m. With the neighbour banging a pipe on your railing. Accompanied by thin fish gruel, preferably drunk from a wooden spoon.

  19. Maltese says:

    Chesterbelloc is always a good combo! Anything by those two fellow is perfect reading for an English man-of-letters! I read “Path to Rome” by Belloc recently and couldn’t contain my laughter at certain portions!

    I read his Bad Child’s Bood of Beasts to my kids!

    It’s actually very funny English humor!

  20. AnAmericanMother says:

    Donn Byrne in a corner in a quiet Irish pub.
    I disagree on Kipling — should be read sitting in a sunny gap in a hedgerow in the English countryside. At least his late short stories – his best work (except for Kim – which I suppose should be read in Mumbai . . . )
    Jane Austen while drinking tea in a very proper drawing room.
    Mark Twain on any working waterfront – river preferred.
    Hawthorne in an old New England house on a rainy day. Louisa Alcott ditto – on a sunny day.
    Faulkner at any County Line Bar between the Fall Line in GA and the Mississippi.

  21. marthawrites says:

    Not highbrow, but the experience of reading one or more of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries each time we’ve visited Venice has made the stay more interesting: I feel like a walking tour guide when I describe current social situations there to my husband.

  22. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Perhaps one should read Hans Kung or Hans Urs Von Balthasar riding on a cork-screw rollercoaster, or on a brakeless merry-go-round?

    His Holiness Pope Benedict in a chapel during adoration?

  23. John Nolan says:

    Sadly it impossible to read Kipling in the Crystal Palace as it was completely destroyed by fire on the last day of November 1936.

  24. FranzJosf says:

    I had happened to buy a murder mystery, called North From Rome (can’t remember the author), before my first visit there, which book had it’s culmination in Assisi, where I was also going. Anyway, I began the book sitting at a table in the Piazza Navona, not knowing before hand that the initial murder happened there. As I was reading, I could look right over the the building described in the book. Kinda cool.

  25. Michaelus says:

    Well I miss the experience of reading any 19th century Russian fiction during my long train rides into Grand Central in the morning – it was pure time travel to get out on the platform still surrounded by Stavrogin, various Karamazovs, many Akaky Akakievichs and catching a glimpse of Anna and Vronsky…

  26. I wanted to read Plotinus’ On Beauty, and was seeking a suitable reading place.

    Wandering in a dangerous, fog-shrouded landscape, I was led to a tower with a small door at its base. Entering, I found that this tower seemed to be much larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside. While the interior of ground floor of the tower seemed very familiar, the view up the tower was dizzying due to its great height; I could not see how far up it went. It was something of an art gallery, its walls painted a brilliant white, with a multitude of artworks.

    I noticed that the artworks at ground level were superficially beautiful (such as paintings of popular actresses and musicians) but otherwise depicted shallow, vain, or vicious people. A ladder in this gallery led upwards; as I ascended, the works of art became more beautiful, and depicted people who had more character and virtue. The gallery was illuminated by a single light, in the summit of the tower, and as I climbed higher, the light became brighter and blinding, so much so that my vision darkened as I attempted to look at it. I strained to see what works of art were above me; they were icons of Saints. I found it impossible to continue climbing higher without assistance.

    I finished the book and found myself back in the dingy waiting room where I started, but still had indelible memories of those brilliantly illuminated icons.

  27. yatzer says:

    Does reading about child wellness while spreading peanut butter from a 5 lb. carton in the kitchen count?

  28. irishgirl says:

    Oh, reading all these posts is so cool!
    In all my travels in Europe (which I sorely miss doing) I never thought of reading a great work of literature in an appropriate setting. Usually I would be sitting in a train station poring though a guide book on the way to the next place I was going to visit. : )

  29. digdigby says:

    I read HARPO SPEAKS (a delicious autobio) at Katz’s Deli with a pastrami and Dr. Brown. I even remember the part I read. Harpo was among the guests vacationing with his best friend Alex Woollcott on the Riviera and Alex insisted that Harpo put aside his loud and hideous sport coats and finally buy some true evening wear.
    He sent Harpo to the finest tailor in Nice with exhaustive instructions on the cut, type of buttons, drape, where the trousers should break on his shoe etc. Harpo followed Alex’s instructions to the letter. Except he had the whole ensemble made from green pool table felt. And wore it for the entire season. How I wish I was reading this book for the first time. Note the 106 5-star reviews in Amazon.
    Smell and taste of the pastrami, Dr. Brown’s Cream, the yiddish-inflected shouts mixed with Spanish and ‘hood. Alive.

  30. tealady24 says:

    Well, I would love to read “Little Women” for the umpteenth time at Orchard House, in Concord MA; up in Louisa’s bedroom at the little desk where she wrote it.
    And at Portland Head Light in Maine, what better to enjoy than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Lighthouse”!
    This is fun!

  31. Paulus says:

    Crewing a boat in the North Atlantic? A boat? A rowboat maybe? A submarine perhaps? Nothing less than a ship of the line will do.

    Now where would I like to read Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham……ah, right before bedtime to my grandson in his room.

  32. My late mother lived in the Jericho area of Oxford, and was greatly delighted to read an INspector Morse novel, in which the victim – a lady of easy virtue – also lived in Jericho, and shared my mother’s name: Anne Scott.

  33. Mary Ann says:

    Reading the new best seller by Richard Paul Eveans, “Micheal Vey, Prisoner of Cell 25” sitting among the floor exhibits at the Resonance Research Corporation in Baraboo, Wisconsin (manufacturer of electrical exhibits for science museums).

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