The first obligation of one who lives by writing is to write what editors will buy. In so doing, how often one laments that one cannot write exactly what happens. Suppose I were to try it–for once!
I have been lying on the bed–where the landlady has put a dark blue spread, instead of the white one, because I drop my tobacco ashes–smoking, and thinking about a new friend I met today. His name is Kenko, a Japanese bachelor of the fourteenth century, who wrote a little book of musings which has been translated under the title “The Miscellany of a Japanese Priest.” His candid reflections are those of a shrewd, learned, humane and somewhat misogynist mind. I have been lying on the bed because his book, like all books that make one ponder deeply on human destiny, causes that feeling of mind-sickness, that swimming pain of the mental faculties–or is it caused by too much strong tobacco?
My acquaintance with Kenko began only last night, when I sat in bed reading Mr. Raymond Weaver’s very pleasant article about him in a recent Bookman. My last act before turning out the light was to lay the magazine on the table, open at Mr. Weaver’s essay, to remind me to get a copy of Kenko the first thing this morning. Happily to-day was Saturday. I don’t know what I should have done if it had been Sunday. I felt that I could not wait another day without owning that book. I suspected it was a good deal in the mood of another bachelor, an Anglo-American Caleb of to-day–Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith, whose whimsical “Trivia” belongs on the same shelf.
This morning I tried to argue myself out of the decision. It may be a very expensive book, I thought; it may cost two or three dollars; I have been spending a lot of money lately, and I certainly ought to buy some new undershirts. Moreover, this has been a bad week; I have never written those paragraphs I promised a certain editor, and I haven’t paid the rent yet. Why not try to find the book at a library? But I knew the only library where I would have any chance of finding Kenko would be the big pile at Fifth avenue and Forty-second street, and I could not bear the thought of having to read that book without smoking. I felt instinctively (from what Mr. Weaver had written) that it was the kind of book that requires a pipe.
Well, I thought, I won’t decide this too hastily; I’ll walk down to the post office (four blocks) and make up my mind on the way. I knew already, however, that if I didn’t go downtown for that book it would bother me all day and ruin my work.
I walked down to the post office (to mail to an editor a sonnet I thought fairly well of) saying to myself: That book is imported from England, it may be a big book, it may even cost four dollars. How much better to exhibit the stoic tenacity of all great men, go back to my hall bedroom (which I was temporarily occupying) and concentrate on matters in hand. What right, I said, has a Buddhist recluse, born either in 1281 or 1283, to harass me so? But I knew in my heart that the matter was already decided. I walked back to the corner of Hallbedroom street, and stood vacillating at the newsstand, pretending to glance over the papers. But across six centuries the insistent ghost of Kenko had me in its grip. Annoyed, and with a sense of chagrin, I hurried to the subway.
In the dimly lit vestibule of the subway car, a boy of sixteen or so sat on an up-ended suitcase, plunged in a book. I can never resist the temptation to try to see what books other people are reading. This innocent curiosity has led me into many rudenesses, for I am short-sighted and have to stare very close to make out the titles. And usually the people who read books on trolleys, subways and ferries are women. How often I have stalked them warily, trying to identify the volume without seeming too intrusive. That weakness deserves an essay in itself. It has led me into surprising adventures. But in this case my quarry was easy. The lad–I judged him a boarding school boy going back to school after the holidays–was so absorbed in his reading that it was easy to thrust my face over his shoulder and see the running head on the page–“The Light That Failed.”