Rambles on the Pleasures of Reading…and the books of W. Somerset Maugham

The true felicity of a lover of books is the luxurious turning of page by page, the surrender, not meanly abject, but deliberate and cautious, with your wits about you, as you deliver yourself into the keeping of the book.  This I call reading. – attributed to Edith Wharton

The Narrow Corner (Doubleday Doran, 1932)

To me there is nothing better in the dead of winter than to get cozy in bed, last thing at night, with a wonderful book…a real gem of an old book, with ink type set on heavy paper and a cloth covered binding.  Let the snow fall, the wind howl; I’m off to places far away and my book is my ticket– no passenger screening required.  My cares of the day fall away.  I’m safely off on an adventure with an author who is my companion and escort on the journey, page by page.   Last night it was a tropical archipelago with W. Somerset Maugham (or his character, at least—an amiable and philosophical Doctor Saunders).   The book was The Narrow Corner (Doubleday Doran, 1932).  Maugham traveled extensively in his own life, so his settings are realistic.  He was also a keen observer of people.   Superbly talented at revealing the inner workings of the human soul, his stories are expressed with wry observation and a certain charming detachment.

Perfection has one grave defect.  It is apt to be dull” – Somerset Maugham

The Razor's Edge (Doubleday Doran, 1944)

Maugham wrote nineteen novels, nine volumes of short stories, thirty plays, and a dozen or more highly regarded works of non-fiction.   His early works are rare and collectible, as are those which have become classics when found as first editions in original jacket (such as The Razor’s Edge and The Painted Veil).   First Printings of The Painted Veil are extremely rare;  Maugham originally had the story set in Hong Kong, but after threats of legal action,  changed the location name to the fictional Tching-Yen (the rare first printing  uses Hong Kong as the place-name).1 Many of his books have been made into movies, some of them multiple times.   He was a successful playwright as well, with his plays being presented on stage in as many as four theatres at once in London at the height of his career.

The Painted Veil (Triangle Books - reprint - 1941)

William Somerset Maugham was born to British parents in Paris, who both died by the time he was ten years old.  He was then sent to live with an Uncle in England.  He suffered from a stammering speech, which he never overcame, although he beat it in a way, through his writing.   A terrific story teller who used clear, lucid language,  Maugham was also a qualified surgeon.  His first book, Liza of Lambeth, and his highly esteemed autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage, reflect many of his experiences as a medical student.   He was a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross in World War I, and served in British Intelligence Service during World War II, which led to his well-received Ashenden, or the British Agent (1928).  This book is said to have had an important influence on the “007” writings of Ian Fleming, and pieces from it were also used by Alfred Hitchcock.

Ashenden or: The British Agent (Doubleday Doran, 1941)

Maugham died at the age of 91 in 1965 while living on the French Riviera.  He has no grave – his ashes were scattered near the Maugham Library, King’s School, Canterbury, Kent, England.

He lives on in his books, and makes a fine traveling companion.

View a W. Somerset Maugham bibliography at Bookseller World.

1 Information from British Library site www.bl.uk
(All book photos from Old Scrolls Book Shop)


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