“On the shelf in my head are the few books I live with.
Chaucer’s clerk of Oxenford had twenty,
Which sounds about right. (Chaucer’s is one of them, surely.)
The rest are failures, the writer’s or mine, good manners
would prefer not to admit. Or else, like clothing,
say I have somehow outgrown them. The closet, too,
indicts with its profusion: what was I thinking?”
David R. Slavitt’s dilemma, as described in “Culls” from Falling from Silence (2001), will be familiar to dedicated readers. We acquire books for many reasons, respectable and less so – out of habit or boredom; to comfort ourselves with possessions or the unearned reputation for learning they imply to the naïve; to study; as investments; to ease loneliness; to read and enjoy. And for sentimental reasons, as the song says. If we live long enough and accumulate enough volumes, their bulk and the memories they emanate can grow burdensome. Tastes change. We chastise and negotiate with our younger selves. Slavitt, who is 73, writes:
“What will I re-read, or even consult?
Let us admit that, for all their heft on the shelves,
books are flighty, become souvenirs of themselves,
appealing no longer to intellect and taste
but playing to sentiment. Why else keep on hand
Look Homeward, Angel, except in the in the hope that the schoolboy
who turned its pages may show up some afternoon?”
He hits close to home. I remember a brief, passionate affair with Thomas Wolfe at age 12 going on 13. I walked around intoning “Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?” Then I discovered Kafka and unrequited love. Unlike Slavitt, I got rid of the evidence a long time ago, but I understand the nagging sentimentality. He asks:
“What remains when we finish reading a book?
The impression is vague, like the aftertaste of wine
Or the scent a woman was wearing that stays in the room
Which seems to remember and then imagine her presence.
Such residues, I used to assume, compounded,
changing, enriching the reader. And an education
was what persists and accumulates. The figure
is homelier now: imagine a porcelain sink
that over the years hard water has stained; look up;
and see what wisdom the face in the mirror has earned.”
A good reason for owning the essential books, the bottomless ones, is convenience of refreshment. Even a work we know well, across much of a lifetime, is an accumulation of impressions, often unreliable. My library is always evolving, though it seems to have reached a quantitative equilibrium. When I acquire new titles, as I did at Christmas, I cull others, selling or giving them away. In “Culls,” Slavitt speaks of not wishing to burden his survivors with so many books: “I ought not/presume to impose my tastes on his wife or children/and grandchildren.” For me that’s a minor concern. I’m spurred by tidiness. I don’t like clutter and have no wish to own a book I have no intention of reading or rereading (mostly the latter).
Look at cull: From the Latin colligere, “gather together,” by way of the Old French coillir, “collect, gather, select.” Its modern English cousin is “colander.” We cull white-tail deer. It implies selection not random decimation. The word sounds ominous to my ear, a mingled echo of skull and kill.
Slavitt gets around to the copies of his own books on his shelves, and “their silent/baleful reproaches.” He mostly ignores them, or claims to, and says, refreshingly, “A few I don’t dislike.” He hopes “a few…/found somehow/against all odds, a home…” Then he writes:
“That home I like to imagine my books may find
is not my house but in that of some amateur
not in the business, not a writer, reviewer,
editor, critic, or teacher – who every so often
has to do this, go through this dreary process
and cull. Instead, he keeps in his single bookcase
those few volumes he has made part of his life,
that speak to him somehow and in his head
resonate. And one of them is mine.”
Slavitt, in other words, writes to reach us, the sometimes forgotten common readers.