What’s not to love? In the early 1910’s (13-14, to be exact), Arthur Quiller-Couch delivered a set of lectures at Cambridge for the (only five or so years old) English Literature Chair; they have been compiled, and recently republished, as On the Art of Writing. The previous holder of the chair? A.E. Housman–so it was a tough act to follow.
Quiller-Couch makes it through his lectures with grace and humor. Although few of the lectures focus on the act of writing itself, the entire book is filled with intimate connections to some great English authors: Shakespeare, Housman, Johnson and others.
The first three lectures (and the final) have the most to do with the process of writing itself. Couch goes over what to imitate (the great authors) and what to avoid (jargon and elaborate overwriting). His finest lecture, though, traces the history of Cambridge (and universities in general) from its inception to the time of his lectures with a stirring invocation for all students to study their native language and to remember that literature
….is alive, and traffics not with cold celestial certainties, but with men’s hopes, aspirations, doubts, loves, hates, breakings of the heart; the glory and vanity of human endeavour, the transience of beauty, the capricious uncertain lease on which you and I hold life, the dark coast to which we inevitably steer; all that amuses or vexes, all that gladdens, saddens, maddens us men and women on this brief and mutable traject which yet must be home for a while, the anchorage of our hearts?
Much of loving books lies in recognizing the elements that inspired that quote. A fact that Quiller-Couch was well aware of, and communicated with such passion to his students.