It was love at first sight – truly.
The book stood out from the others on the bookshop shelf in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar.
The word play in the title made me laugh (you only need to change one letter (s to b) in the German to get to the saying live and let live). The jacket illustration made me laugh as well. I knew I could recreate it. And so I did, once I had reclaimed my reading sofa from the unruly TBR.
But the clincher was when I flicked through and discovered the book-culling poem by Eugen Roth. What other treasures was I going to discover?
As it turned out a great many because Daniel Kampa’s selection of prose and poetry about the joys and frustrations of readers, writers, booksellers and critics is inspired. The renowned Nikolaus Heidelbach has also illustrated the book, and those illustrations are as quirky as some of the pieces. Sometimes they match the text, oftentimes they do not. But they do form a couples of series: the first of human readers, the second the imaginary animal reader. Heidelback obviously has a high opinion of the cat’s intelligence, whilst he feels the canine to be a less sophisticated beast. (Grrrr.)
The reading itself consists of 51 pieces of prose and poetry from authors around the world. Old favourites (Böll, Chekhov, Zweig) plus many, many more I had not read before. So in addition to introducing me to German authors (Mascha Kaleko, Joachim Ringelnatz, Eugen Roth, Kurt Tucholsky) I have also read the following for the first time: Chilean Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Book (II), Czech Jaroslav Hasek being very mischievous at a book group, French Marcel Proust spending a day reading and Italian Italo Calvino putting his protagonist reader through hell on a beach! The English-speaking literary world is also represented with pieces from Nathanael Hawthorne, A A Milne, Flann O’Brien, Henry David Thoreau.
As I was reading, I kept wishing that the book was in English, so that I could quote extensively here. As it is, I’ve found two of my favourite pieces online: A A Milne on his library, which has made me less worried about the shall-we-call it random nature of my book piles; and Flann O’Brien’s satirical piece on book-handling services for the rich, whose pristine libraries need to look a little more used.
I was reading the book throughout January. A slower pace than is usual for me, not because of the German – there was only one piece that made my brain ache – Karl Schimper’s poem Ein Leser. Rather I kept taking diversions. So an extract from Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop sent me to the shelves to read the whole thing as well as the prequel Parnassus on Wheels. Then last night I made a beeline for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, because, after the piece noted above, I needed another fix.
Lesen und Lesen Lassen is a 5-star delight from the first page to the last. (In fact, that pithy little 4-line epigram from Goethe on the final page deserves 6 stars!) I expect I shall refer to this anthology time and again – particularly when I need a pick-me-up. Plus there are the reading trails it has opened up. In addition to those already taken, I used January’s purchase allowance on 2 books that I can no longer live without: Eugen Roth’s Menschlich/Merely Human and Flann O’Brien’s Best of Myles.