Thursday, March 27, 2008

`Wise Books'

Having worked at a university for almost two years, I’ve become spoiled by ready access to a well-stocked library. The building is two minutes from my office and I visit almost daily. The librarians are invariably helpful and most are amused by my frequent patronage and book-filled tote bag bursting at the seams.

Soon we move to Seattle. My wife flies out Friday and I’ll follow with the boys in about three weeks. We took them to the Houston Public Library the day after we arrived in Texas in 2004, to sign up for library cards. I’m sure we’ll do the same at the Seattle Public Library, despite the monstrous ugliness of its new building. There’s always the miracle of interlibrary loan but I’ve grown accustomed to the accessible bounty of a university collection that has been thoughtfully assembled for almost a century. If, on impulse, I want the letter Charles Lamb wrote Coleridge on Sept. 27, 1796, five days after Mary Lamb fatally stabbed their mother, I can have it on my desk in 10 minutes. I know the floor, the row, the shelf. Despite its boosters, and despite my reliance upon it, the Internet has not yet achieved the comprehensiveness of a truly Borgesian library.

Near the end of his life, Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977), that impossible and impossibly bookish man, often published in Prose, a journal founded by Coburn Britton in 1970. In the maiden issue, which I remember reading in my first university library, Britton published Dahlberg, W.H. Auden, Harold Bloom, Anthony Burgess and Richard Howard, among others. In 1989, Steven Moore edited and Dalkey Archive Press published Dahlberg’s Samuel Beckett’s Wake and Other Uncollected Prose. It includes “A Letter to Prose,” which begins:

“My dear Coburn: In our recent festival colloquy we had occasion to mention the drying up of our oracles, good books. We agreed that wise books, like the brash deciduous willow – your phrase – should be renewed each year. A book published once is scarce in print, little- or ill-read, or only reaches a shoal of auditors. Such neglected folios or octavos lie in the calms, and are parched by the Dog Star, and must be exhumed; you might, my dear Coburn, reprint some albic passages from them in Prose.”

Few public libraries, with their frequent space-saving, time-wasting purges, are committed to preserving “wise books.” That’s left to the graces of university libraries and non-aligned bibliophiles, which reminds me of another source of anxiety: Most of my books will remain inaccessible for a week or more as they’re ferried across the continent. Soon I’ll have to select the essential volumes I’ll want to carry with me on the flight, calculating the burden-to-blessing ratio. Dahlberg continues:

“Most of the precious volumes lie upon biers in our monolithic funeral parlors called libraries, and are seldom removed from their ritual ossuaries….We have to cure our days as best we can, and a book we enjoy is more likely to be the remedy for our soul and body than the physician. When Coleridge was in the dumps, his friend, Charles Lamb, suggested that he go to Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler for a sedative.”

For the remainder of the letter, Dahlberg ecstatically urges on Britton some of the many books he cherishes – The Life of William Blake, by Alexander Gilchrist; Virgil’s Bucolics; Baudelaire’s The Mirror of Art; The Letters of Eric Gill; An Essay on Landscape Painting, by Kuro Hsi; Swinburne’s A Study of Ben Jonson; Xenophon’s Memorabilia; A.B. Cook’s Zeus; Norman Douglas’ Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology.

I’ve read most of those titles but not the Douglas, which sounds interesting. The online catalog shows my university library has a first edition from 1929, published by J. Cape and H. Smith in New York City. The foreword, I see, was written by William Alexander Percy, the author of Lanterns on the Levee, who adopted his orphaned nephew, the future novelist Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer. See how books quickly grow promiscuous, spawning even more books? Here’s Dahlberg’s conclusion to his letter to Britton, which contains enough recommendations to open a good-sized library of “wise books”:

“My dear Coburn, I have merely suggested a very small phalanx of authors, but let me say, and I know how deeply you are of my mind in this, that one who does not fall into a Dionysiac passion over a profound book is a burden to the earth, and a barnacle one is not likely to get rid of, and withal such a drone, bore and sapless clodpate should be mewed up like any predacious and senseless haggard. To paraphrase Herman Melville, Cato fell upon a sword, I fell upon a book.”

1 comment:

philip walling said...

I've been meaning to tell you for ages how profoundly I have enjoyed your blog since I first came across it a few months ago. You have put me in touch with much to do with books and writing and writers - especially American ones - of whom I knew little. Your wise and gentle style shines through the lapidary prose and has caused me to feel more kindly towards Americans after a period of disillusionment, almost verging on hostility.
I hope you carry on blogging when you move to Seattle and find much to engage your well-stocked mind and continue to show us things that we want to know too.