Tuesday, February 02, 2010

People, Places, and Books

Last week I went to a bookstore that specializes in used books. I had a list of titles and authors I wanted to find, but my search was fruitless.

However, I did find a book and author unfamiliar to me: People, Places, and Books by Gilbert Highet. I opened the book and scanned the table of contents. The first chapter was "Henry Fowler: Modern English Usage." Fowler's book happens to be a favorite of mine, so I continued looking at the chapters to see if anything else sounded interesting. "Dickens as Dramatist," "Oxford and its Press," "Sailing to Byzantium," "The Making of Literature," "Books and Cooks," and "Prison Books" all sounded interesting. I bought the book.

There are thirty chapters, each on a different topic. The chapters I noticed were among those I enjoyed, but I was delighted to discover a chapter on C.S. Lewis's science fiction, a chapter on The Great Books, and one on well-written science books. At the end of each chapter Mr. Highet gives a bibliography so one can find the books to which he refers. Pure bliss for a bibliophile!

After I read the book I went back and read the dust jacket (which, if I'd read in the bookstore I would have had no doubts about the book). Here is the publisher's description:

"Rarely do graceful ease and wisdom blend so happily as in these pages where a man of consummate good taste and charm discourses lightly on important matters--on interesting, worthwhile books and on the men and women who write them. For Gilbert Highet, unlike the exclusive cliques who would make literature the private domain of the few, believes that the best books and authors have a lot to say to all of us, provided, as he puts it, 'we will use our minds.'

"It was with this thought that the distinguished writer and scholar early in 1952 began a series of radio talks on literary subjects which within a short time won him a vast audience of listeners among people of every calling and profession. Requests poured in from all over the country urging him to make his talks available in printed form, and the present book is Gilbert Highet's response to these urgings. It contains some thirty of his talks, but since he is not here tied to the time schedule of a radio station he has been able to add to, revise, and enlarge upon his thoughts on many subjects, and generally suit his book to the needs of the reader as his talks were suited to those of the listener.

"But the warm, human quality of his voice remains the same on the printed page as it was over the air, for this quality is inborn and springs from his genuine love and understanding of the world of books and art and ideas. In this world he reigns supreme and travels with assurance and ready wit from this subject to that, from one place to another. He speaks of the art of writing and the art of reading, of different types of books--novels, biographies, histories, dramas-- and of the stories behind their stories. He tells of why certain books came to be written, and of what their authors were trying, though not always successfully, to say; of some very modern writers who hide their thoughts behind a curtain of incomprehensible language and of some very old writers whose work is as fresh today as they were in their own day; of best sellers and of books that might well be better known.

"And as we follow him on his travels we too come to be a part of this magic world of books and ideas and come to share with him in the delights and joys it has to offer. This is the prize that waits us at the end of our journey with Gilbert Highet--this realization that there is a wealth of pleasure and satisfaction to be gained by all of us from the rich storehouse of our own literature and that of former ages."

And who is Gilbert Highet, anyway? I'd never before heard of him, but I did look on PaperBackSwap and saw a few books authored by him. Here's what I found out about Gilbert Highet:

Gilbert Highet was born on June 22, 1906 in Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated from Oxford University in 1932, and began teaching at Columbia University in 1938. He was married to Helen MacInnes (I remember reading some of her suspense novels when I was in junior high!) and he died on January 20, 1978.



Blogger hopeinbrazil said...

What a great find!

10:10 PM  
Blogger Sherry said...

Wow! I must find this book. I'm a fan of Helen MacInnes's novels, even though they're a bit dated with all that Cold War espionage. I knew when I started reading your review that I recognized the name "Highet" from somewhere. Did he write fiction also?

10:45 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I don't know, Sherry. He taught at Columbia for a number of years and wrote some academic-sounding books, but I don't know about fiction.

Be fun to find out!

11:04 PM  

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