Henry Miller at his best is a virtuoso writer. He can write about anything and it is entertaining. He is with words like Jerry Garcia was with guitar: you didn’t really give a damn whether he was actually playing a song or not; he could go on jamming for hour after hour and have the audience completely enthralled.
There are sections like that in “The Books in my Life”, but unfortunately to get to them you have to read through a lot that is not Miller’s best. Don’t get me wrong: even Miller’s mediocre work is better than almost anybody else’s. But it’s not Miller’s best, and that’s the point. When Miller gets going, nothing can stop him. He hops, skips, dances, jumps through hoops, spreads wings and soars, dives down into the sewer and comes up smelling like roses. For me, his best work is in the “Tropics”: “Tropic of Cancer” especially, and to a lesser extent “Tropic of Capricorn” and “Black Spring”. After those, there are “The Rosy Crucifixion”, “The Colossus of Maroussi”, and “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch”. This book, “The Books in my Life” does not quite make it into such esteemed company, although certain sections do.
In one of the most entertaining sections Miller compares Walt Whitman with Dostoyevsky. Now there’s an odd couple! But he does it with wit and insight and erudition. The sections on Blaise Cendrars, Rider Haggard, and Jean Giono are also interesting – not for their literary insight but because of the way that Miller launches off and writes of that which he knows best: himself. As he points out in the introduction, this volume is part of his autobiography, the story of his life which he has been telling in every book he has written. It was supposed to be the first of several volumes on the books he’s read, but to my knowledge this, the first, is the only one that saw print, perhaps the only one he wrote.
What it reads like, actually, is a blog post, and as I read it I had the feeling that Miller would have made a great blogger. Apart from his books he loved to write voluminous letters, and I think he would have embraced the opportunity to present them to the world on the Web. He never was one to hold back.
One of the final sections is titled “Reading in the Toilet”. At last, I thought: a kindred spirit – for I myself find the toilet one of the best places in the world in which to sequester myself and absorb good literature. Imagine my shock and disappointment to find out in his essay that he is against the practice. He believes that the voiding of the bowels should be a single-minded pursuit, unaccompanied by reading material. Reading this was one of the few times I have ever been disappointed in Miller. How could he fail to see the singular pleasure of killing two birds with one stone by accompanying the mundane task of the daily throne-sitting with the pleasure of a great read? Ah, well. What can one say? No one sees eye-to-eye about everything.
Another thing that struck me was that despite the fact that Henry Miller has been such an important influence on me as a writer, we have such dissimilar tastes in literature. At the back of the book there is a list of one hundred books that influenced Miller most. Not one of my own favorites, a list of fourteen of which I recently posted, is included therein. Not that it matters. Miller wrote this book in 1950, and I made my list in 2011; that’s a gap of 61 years. Much of what is available to me he would never have heard of.
Would I recommend this book? Well yes, but with a qualification. It is not a good introduction to Miller, because as I said, he is not at his best. If you’ve never read Miller before, start with “Tropic of Cancer”. That will really plaster your face in it. That’s where he burst out into the world newly born as a writer for the first time, still dripping with blood and amniotic fluids but dancing and singing and shouting for all he is worth. And he’s worth a lot, good old Henry Miller.
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