Partly for pleasure, because it’s a habit and I’m just as uncomfortable if I don’t read as if I don’t smoke, and partly to know myself. When I read a book I seem to read it with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning for me; and it becomes part of me; I’ve got out of the book all that’s any use to me, and I can’t get anything more if I read it a dozen times.
– Phillip Carey, a character in Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham in response to the question “Why d’you read then?” He has just ridiculed his friend for reading and re-reading Plato, calling the effort “a laborious form of idleness.”
I can identify with the first reason: chain reading. Not only am I never without something to read, I’m never without options of reading materials to choose from depending on my mood at the time. Should more than a day or two pass without my finding time to read at some length, I find my own perception of the quality of my life much depressed.
And I would say I read most novels, including a book like Of Human Bondage, for more or less the very reasons as put forth by Phillip: for pleasure and in pursuit of those rare, indelible morsels that stick with me.
As a philosopher, I’m also given to that “laborious form of idleness” necessary to understand great texts and their authors. I don’t admire Phillip’s flippant dismissal of the effort it requires to really give a dense text its due consideration. Phillip is feeling fatalistic and disenchanted with how his carefully constructed philosophy of life has failed him, so he lashes out at others for hoping to learn from others’ writings and guide their own actions accordingly.
This is only my second Maugham novel. I read The Moon and Sixpence while I lived in Ha’apai and was impressed by the freedom of the Paul Gauguin character. The title might have been a clue, but the central character in Of Human Bondage is as unlike Paul Gauguin as possible. Gauguin is depicted discarding meaningful human attachments – family, friends, and familiar society – for the sake of his freedom and art. Phillip Carey is depicted – pathetically – as throwing away his freedom and undermining his creative potential for the sake of an empty, draining relationship.
The book is said to be the most autobiographical of Maugham novels. The principle character’s club-foot and how he copes with it – the shame he feels, how he tried to hide it, prays to be healed of it as a young boy, and later attempts treatment – is thought by many readers to be representative of the author’s own homosexuality.