Today’s date is rich in literary history. It is the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov, one of two writers whose prose style makes us want to snap our Pilot Varsity pens in despair, so great is the gap between those authors’ mastery and our pedestrian scribblings. Perhaps the biggest laugh-out-loud moment a book ever gave us was from Lolita, when the Humbert character travels a long way to visit a family that has at least one member he is especially, um, interested in, only to be greeted at the train station by the patriarch, who shared “the news that his house had just burned down – possibly, owing to the synchronous conflagration that had been raging all night in my veins.”
Today is also the birthday of Henry Fielding, the great British novelist of the 18th century. In high school we were forced to read Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, and we grumbled about it, especially upon getting a peek at the girth of Tom Jones (we mean the book). But the joy, wisdom, and energy of Fielding’s words, often propelling the most ribald adventures, converted our dread into a wholly unforced pleasure, indeed. There is a sentence in Tom Jones that stopped us abruptly in our tracks. Fielding on many occasions spoke directly to the reader, and at one point he explained his intention to “fill my pages with humour till mankind learn the good nature to laugh only at the follies of others and the humility to grieve at their own.” Has any writer ever articulated a more noble goal?