I left college with a bachelors and a long and growing reading list, with works by authors ranging from Aristophanes to Adorno. But, during a visit to a used bookstore, my attention was caught by the worn blue spine of a Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night. I’m drawn to old things. Old professors, old languages, old books often seem to have the most to offer, and Gaudy Night did not disappoint me. A notice on the copyright page assures the reader that the book was produced in accordance with wartime standards, and the worn pages exhaled evidence of a previous reader’s smoking habit. I was sold. Whitman and Woolf were pushed aside, for the time being, by Harriet Vane and the Honorable Lord Peter Wimsey. I thought it would be little more than a pleasure read, a short break before I got into the serious stuff, but soon I found that my expectations, and my reading habits, were being re-written.
Rewritten because I had graduated with, not only a reading list, but also some terrible reading habits. I had trained myself to gallop through books and journals, armed with multicolored hi-liter pens and a stack of Post-its. Technology had only accelerated my slide. Thanks to Google Books, I could ditch the hi-liters and give the impression of having painstakingly combed through Fear and Trembling—“impressive reading and research,” one professor commented—with only a few minutes of scrolling. I had perfected the skill of tweaking, recasting, challenging, interpreting—a skill that had saved my life more than once in the over-caffeinated hours of early morning. But I had sold the soul of the literature for it.
I had reduced the texts I encountered—books, poetry, films—to great mountains of useless shale, through which ran a few veins of useful ore, raw materials for my current project. My task: to excavate the ore and purify it into argument. Literature became useful. Utilitarian. Impoverished.
Then I was arrested by Sayers. For here, rising from smoky war-ration pages, was the languid, scholarly “Paradise” of the fictional all-female Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Here was the loving intellect, and women who would rather forfeit a career than commit academic dishonesty. Here was a staid and traditional world, one with room for worship, good food, leisure on the river, and serious scholarly pursuit. A veritable academic paradise, with a devilish snake in the grass. The story opens as Harriet Vane, a young mystery writer, returns to her Shrewsbury College for a class reunion. During the weekend, she hears of obscene drawings, death threats, and strange notes plaguing the college. She decides to stay and solve the mystery, and is eventually joined by the right honorable Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’s foppish, aristocratic detective (Wodehouse meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).
I charged into Gaudy Night with my accustomed habits, but the mystery slowed me down. Which descriptions were mere setting, and which were vital clues? Were Sayers’s literary epigraphs at the opening of each chapter hints, or just whimsical flourishes? I found myself going back to the pages I had skimmed, sifting them carefully for clues. I started to read more slowly. I kept track of the characters, weighing the evidence pro and con. In the process of careful attention, I found myself savoring eccentricities and details that had nothing to do with the central mystery. A paragraph that sensuously evokes the rhythm of study and leisure at Oxford so caught my fancy that I read it out loud to my patient roommate:
Mornings in Bodley, drowsing among the worn browns and tarnished gilding of Duke Humphrey, snuffing the faint, musty odor of slowly perishing leather … ; long afternoons, taking an outrigger up the Cher, feeling the rough kiss of the sculls on unaccustomed palms, listening to the rhythmical and satisfying kerklunk of the rowlocks, watching the play of muscles on the Bursar’s sturdy shoulders at stroke, as the sharp spring wind flattened the thin silk shirt against them; or, if the day were warmer, flicking swiftly in a canoe under Magdalen walls and so by the twisting race at King’s Mill by Mesopotamia to Parson’s Pleasure; then back, with mind relaxed and body stretched and vigorous, to make toast by the fire. And then, at night the lit lamp and the drawn curtain, with the flutter of the turned page and soft scrape of pen and paper the only sounds to break the utter silence between quarter and quarter chime.
Sayers herself lost patience with academia, and left it for a life of novel writing, burn-out romances, and, eventually, theology. But folded into her narrative are small prose-hymns to Oxford, “an old-fashioned city, with inconvenient buildings and narrow streets … ; but her foundations were set upon the holy hills and her spires touched heaven.”
I wanted to discover the culprit before Harriet and Lord Peter did. But speedreading, highlighter pens, and search boxes could not help me in my investigation. Nor could I, à la research paper, simply gather some persuasive evidence, plus a little easily-refutable counter-evidence, and solve the case on my own terms. One of the characters was the culprit, despite false leads and red herrings, and no linguistic acrobatics on my part could change that fact. I was forced to linger and puzzle over details, details that were for the most part superfluous, pure whimsy.
I will not commit a spoiler. Suffice it to say that I was duped by a red herring and that Lord Peter beat me to the poison pen, thereby restoring order at Shrewsbury. But it was no loss. Sayers had illuminated my bad habits and pointed me back to more patient, loving kind of reading. And perhaps of living?
Life is something of a mystery, and how can I know, in the present moment, what is holding out a clue to its meaning? In an intelligently created world, nothing is superfluous. Objects of beauty and love are hints, clues to the divine. It took a blinding thunderbolt to arrest Saul’s zealous gallop down Damascus road, but not all of us will be so fortunate. We may have to slow down—or even stop—of our own accord to hear the still, small voice. My post-college reading list is little more than a check-list—and it may get dusty as I turn my whole approach upside-down. I may never get around to Adorno.
I’m learning, slowly, to slow down in my pursuits and to leave space for serendipity. I’m discovering, thanks to Dorothy Sayers and the ebullient Lord Peter, the efficacy of whimsy.
Veery Huleatt is a Junior Fellow at First Things.