Thursday, January 29, 2009

`Into What Company They Were to Fall'

Who knows why people read what they read instead of something else? Their motives are as mysterious as mine to me, but I wondered who might be moved by John Updike’s death to investigate his work, to visit the library and sample his half-century of fiction. As of Wednesday afternoon there was no run on it: two and a half broad shelves crammed without gaps. A look at the online catalogue seemed to confirm the impression.

Much has been made of Updike’s loyalty to one publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and the uniformity of his books’ design. A complete run of his titles, roughly 60 of them in first editions, arranged chronologically on a shelf, would doubtless be an impressive sight, recalling the cemetery Allen Tate’s "Ode to the Confederate Dead":

“Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element…”

Given the nature of a public library – capricious budgets, hard use of books by indifferent hands (“the element”) – the Updike collection looks as worn as headstones in acid-rain country. The Knopf template is barely discernable amid the paperbacks, library bindings and two copies of the steroidal Everyman’s edition of Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy. There’s no aura of a dignified, decades-spanning oeuvre. It looks like a library of castoffs in an Adirondack fishing cabin. But think what that means: Since 1957 (the library has a circulating first of The Poorhouse Fair), enough readers have borrowed Updike’s books, dog-eared the pages, split the spines and left them in the sun to bleach, to move a money-strapped public institution to regularly restock its shelves with inferior but perfectly readable replacements. Even a recent volume, The Terrorist (2006), is a cigarette-stinking wreck. The Same Door, published in 1959, is represented by a hard-cover fourth printing from 1991.

The beaten-up appearance of his books might have pleased Updike. It confirms Benjamin Franklin’s practical endorsement of democracy when he opened the first public lending library in the country, in Updike’s home state of Pennsylvania. Readers are true critics, for good or ill. Art is never democratic but reading always is. We might call Thoreau a conflicted democrat, an anarchist with contempt for the ungoverned, including ungoverned readers. Here’s how he put it in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:

“When I stand in a library where is all the recorded wit of the world, but none of the recording, a mere accumulated, and not truly cumulative treasure, where immortal works stand side by side with anthologies which did not survive their month, and cobweb and mildew have already spread from these to the binding of those; and happily I am reminded of what poetry is, I perceive that Shakespeare and Milton did not foresee into what company they were to fall. Alas! That so soon the work of a true poet should be swept into such a dust-hole.”

Ballots to decide the question whether Updike’s books are “the work of a true poet” are available on the shelves on your public library.

2 comments:

Nige said...

You are lucky Patrick to have public libraries that still have books of any quality in any quantity on the shelves - those things of bound paper seem to have the lowest priority in British public libraries...
A strange - and counterintuitive - thing I've noticed is that when a writer dies, the shelves of charity shops suddenly fill up with their works, as if people were suddenly getting rid of them. It happened on a grand scale with Iris Murdoch and most recently it happened with John Mortimer. I'll have a look next week and see if it's happened with Updike. I can't imagine what the reason for it is...

Fran Manushkin said...

Whenever children's books in the U.S. win big prizes, I always assume there'll be a on them in the New York Public Library, but there rarely is.