A RAKE AT READING
“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 rakes in their shameful senescence, that I have had a good time.”
– Robertson Davies, The Merry Heart
I first started reading Robertson Davies when I was in my early 20s. My Grandma Mackenzie—a former librarian and avid reader—recommended him to me. Here’s a photo of her and Grandpa Mackenzie. I believe this was taken in Michigan—the fall colors in the photo below certainly look like it.
Incidentally, Grandpa has a beard that’s kinda similar to that of Robertson Davies. True story–when my sister was little, she asked him why his hair all fell down. Grandpa Mackenzie was also bald, though you can’t quite tell that from this photo as he loved his tam o’ shanters. Robertson Davies, in contrast, appears to have had a gloriously full head of hair.
I started with Davies’ first book in The Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business, and it remains one of my very favorites. It’s a Bildungsroman—and there is nothing I love more than the story of how a noble yet flawed someone comes to “be”. I won’t spoil too much of the journey, but there is magic and miracles, heartbreak and longing, and above all, someone who is trying to find some sense of purpose as he bumbles through the journey of life.
And then there is the matter of Fifth Business. I had no idea what this even meant when I started reading, but the book defines it as: “Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”
“Who are you? Where do you fit into poetry and myth? Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business.
You don’t know what that is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep in Europe you must have a prima donna – always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.
So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices…”
To me—especially the me of my early 20s, still smarting and barely emancipated from the awkwardness of late adolescence—identifying as Fifth Business meant identifying as the “nerd”. The odd-one out. In fact, I’m still uncertain if I ever will be fully emancipated from the awkwardness of anything, and I will always and forever identify with feeling a bit on the outside looking in, feeling like someone’s Fifth Business. Except, I now understand that this is its own special type of magic. A world of wonders that Robertson Davies helped me to see.
Back to being a rake at reading. That particular quote was taken from The Merry Heart, a compilation of essays and lectures by Davies. I can’t tell you how heartened (oooh, a pun) I was to hear someone else admit to just reading whatever was the most FUN at the moment. Because sometimes, what I really want to do is just curl up with a favorite Rosamund Pilcher novel (that’s right), rather than the latest and greatest Novel that the NYT Book Review is fawning all over.
I hate to say it, but I’m only getting started with flowery romance novels from the 80s. My kindle shows that I have downloaded 700+ books as of 2012 (thank you, Traverse Area District Library). Honestly? I can’t remember the names of most of the books, much less the authors. It’s embarrassing to admit that, but I am neither writing papers on these books nor reading them for anything else than enjoyment in the moment.
10+ years ago, when I moved from Vermont to Michigan, I posted a scrap of paper on the fridge of my new apartment that read: “I WILL NOT BE INERT”.
This Davies takeaway is from The Cunning Man, which observes that “an inert mind is a greater danger than the inert body, for it overlays and stifles the desire to live.”
In moving away from my family and former life in Vermont, I was doing the opposite of being inert. I was instead liberating myself from a dead-end job, a broken heart, and what I perceived as the puritanical coldness of New England. Bred in the bone, the Midwest was calling me home.
When I attempted to explained this concept to a newish Michigan friend, she misunderstood and said, “I will not be a… nerd?”
She might have been on to something. At any rate: while I will always be a nerd, hopefully I won’t be an inert one.