This weekend I realized how much my reading habits have come to resemble my Internet-surfing. I skip from book to book, dipping in, skimming and grazing, as if each book were an article I was reading online. If the book isn't amazing, I rarely get past the first quarter -- let alone finish it.
Actually, I've always tended to have more than one book going at once, but the practice does seem to have got a bit out of hand lately. This may not be such a bad thing, because there still are books that just capture your attention. One such for me recently was Piers Paul Read's Alice in Exile. It is one the best novels about love that I have ever read. It begins just before World War I starts and finishes just after the war ends. The three main characters are Alice Fry, a rather liberated young woman who is part French and whose father publishes progressive tracts (the Frys could fit right in to the set that populates A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book); Edward Cobb, a handsome English aristocrat; and Baron Rettenberg, a Russian aristocrat. Alice and Edward fall in love and agree to marry, but family and social pressure prompt Edward to chicken out when one of her father's books gets him hauled into court for obscenity. Alice, who is pregnant by Cobb (though Cobb does not know this), accepts an offer from Rettenberg serve as governess to his two younger children. Rettenberg proves to be a fascinating, wonderfully complex character. He steals the book.
For some reason, one passage leaped out at me:
There was little opportunity, at Soligorsk, for Alice to discuss her developing ideas because everyone was too busy, particularly Alice herself. In this respect, she missed the company of Baron Rettenberg; she would have liked to have confronted him with her doubts. Tatyana and Sophie showed no interest in such philosophical speculations, and Vera, though she qualified as a member of Russia's intelligentsia, showed all the shortcomings of that intelligentsia - fixed positions based upon emotion rather than reason.
This seems to be a problem with all intelligentsias. Few self-styled intellectuals are as coolly rational as they like to think.