Keynes was a voracious reader. He had what he called ‘one of the best of all gifts – the eye which can pick up the print effortlessly’. If one was to be a good reader, that is to read as easily as one breathed, practice was needed. ‘I read the newspapers because they’re mostly trash,’ he said in 1936. ‘Newspapers are good practice in learning how to skip; and, if he is not to lose his time, every serious reader must have this art.’ Travelling by train from New York to Washington in 1943, Keynes awed his fellow passengers by the speed with which he devoured newspapers and periodicals as well as discussing modern art, the desolate American landscape and the absence of birds compared with English countryside.54‘As a general rule,’ Keynes propounded as an undergraduate, ‘I hate books that end badly; I always want the characters to be happy.’ Thirty years later he deplored contemporary novels as ‘heavy-going’, with ‘such misunderstood, mishandled, misshapen, such muddled handling of human hopes’. Self-indulgent regrets, defeatism, railing against fate, gloom about future prospects: all these were anathema to Keynes in literature as in life. The modern classic he recommended in 1936 was Forster’s A Room with a View, which had been published nearly thirty years earlier. He was, however, grateful for the ‘perfect relaxation’ provided by those ‘unpretending, workmanlike, ingenious, abundant, delightful heaven-sent entertainers’, Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and P. G. Wodehouse. ‘There is a great purity in these writers, a remarkable absence of falsity and fudge, so that they live and move, serene, Olympian and aloof, free from any pretended contact with the realities of life.’ Keynes preferred memoirs as ‘more agreeable and amusing, so much more touching, bringing so much more of the pattern of life, than … the daydreams of a nervous wreck, which is the average modern novel’. He loved good theatre, settling into his seat at the first night of a production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country with a blissful sigh and the words, ‘Ah! this is the loveliest play in all the world.’55Rather as Keynes was a grabby eater, with table-manners that offended Norton and other Bloomsbury groupers, so he could be impatient to reach the end of books. In the inter-war period publishers used to have a ‘gathering’ of eight or sixteen pages at the back of their volumes to publicize their other books-in-print. He excised these advertisements while reading a book, so that as he turned a page he could always see how far he must go before finishing.A reader, said Keynes, should approach books ‘with all his senses; he should know their touch and their smell. He should learn how to take them in his hands, rustle their pages and reach in a few seconds a first intuitive impression of what they contain. He should … have touched many thousands, at least ten times as many as he reads. He should cast an eye over books as a shepherd over sheep and judge them with the rapid, searching glance with which a cattle-dealer eyes cattle.’ Keynes in 1927 reproached his fellow countrymen for their low expenditure in bookshops. ‘How many people spend even £10 a year on books? How many spend 1 per cent of their incomes? To buy a book ought to be felt not as an extravagance, but as a good deed, a social duty which blesses him who does it.’ He wished to muster ‘a mighty army … of Bookworms, pledged to spend £10 a year on books and, in the higher ranks of the Brotherhood, to buy a book a week’. Keynes was a votary of good bookshops, whether their stock was new or second-hand. ‘A bookshop is not like a railway booking-office which one approaches knowing what one wants. One should enter it vaguely, almost in a dream and allow what is there freely to attract and influence the eye. To walk the rounds of the bookshops, dipping in as curiosity dictates, should be an afternoon’s entertainment.
Richard DavenportHines