A summary of a Larkin poem about books
Written in August 1960 and published in Larkin’s 1964 volume The Whitsun Weddings, ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ touches upon one of Philip Larkin’s favourite themes in a more explicitly humorous way than many of his most famous poems, and is great fun to analyse. You can read ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ here.
In summary, Larkin’s speaker tells us that reading books used to provide escapism for him: first at school, where reading provided consolation from bullies by letting him live out his fantasies of vanquishing the school bully; then, as a young man, reading provided an outlet for living out all of his sexual fantasies, and he could imagine being the dashing heroes of the novels he read, who ‘clubbed’ women with sex. Finally, though, Larkin’s speaker concludes that, in middle age, reading has lost its appeal because the novels which provide such vicarious satisfaction are now all too familiar, and so their escapist visions fail to convince. They all have the same plots and the same characters, and have become stale and unpredictable. The speaker of the poem ends with the advice that it’s better to spend your time getting drunk: that’s a more efficient way for the disillusioned reader to escape the disappointing realities of the world.
Such a paraphrase misses Larkin’s wit, of course, and the self-conscious way in which he writes about not only his (or his speaker’s) past attitude to reading, and his older, jaded attitude too. The phrase ‘dirty dogs’ in the first stanza sounds as though it’s come straight out of one of the school stories or adventure tales the boy-reader devoured: like Pip in Dickens’s Great Expectations, Larkin’s speaker is looking back at his boyhood reading from the vantage-point of adulthood, and there is something archly ironic and knowing about this opening stanza. Similarly, the rhymes in the second stanza – specs with sex, fangs with meringues – are comical and surprising, and the grammatical inaccuracy of ‘Me and my cloak and fangs’ (not ‘My cloak and fangs and I’, or, less awkwardly, ‘I, with my cloak and fangs’) suggests a naivety on the part of the speaker’s teenage expectations, both of sex and of his reading.
The final stanza focuses on the Western genre of novel, as the words ‘dude’, ‘yellow’, and ‘store’ (not ‘shop’), all reveal. Westerns are often associated with providing a version of masculinity rooted in notions of heroism and derring-do: the cowboy always gets the girl. But the reader has come to recognise all of the tropes found in Westerns as generic and formulaic. The bluntness of the advice to ‘Get stewed’ brings us down to earth with a bump, as does the coarseness of the final line. (Larkin, we should remember, was a librarian: of course, he doesn’t mean to imply here that all books are crap, only the sort of escapist novels he, or his speaker, used to find solace in.)
What is curious about this final line is that it’s a departure from the technique seen in many of Philip Larkin’s poems. Many of his poems begin with a rather crass statement – see ‘This Be The Verse’, ‘High Windows’, ‘Sad Steps’, and ‘Vers de Société’ – but then move towards something more all-encompassing, subtle, and, for want of a better word, poetic. But these are all later poems, and ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ written a number of years before them. In this poem, Larkin maintains the rather bluff persona throughout.
In short, ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ analyses the different stages of development of an average reader, and arrives at disillusionment, a trademark theme of Philip Larkin’s poetry. It is naïve, the poem says, to live out your life through the books you read – especially bad novels – but neither does the poem suggest that the real world can be faced without some sort of escape-route. Drink replaces books: temporary release from the hardships and disappointments of life is the best we can hope for.