Monday, April 13, 2009

`Loved Old Things'

I own one car, two computers, three pairs of shoes, four suit jackets/sport coats and five neckties. I may own six of something but know for certain I have an indeterminate number of socks, ballpoint pens, old photographs and garden tools. Even my CDs amount to mere dozens. The only thing I own in volume are volumes. Books are my solace, my pleasure, my buffer from and entry into the world.

They also inspire a nagging sense of attachment to material things: They own me at least to the same degree I own them, what with shelving, shipping, dehumidifiers and cubic footage of space. Bookish acquisitiveness has always bothered me but I can take comfort in what I find in a book (where else?) by Borges, one of the great readers, writers, bookmen and librarians. Here is “June, 1968” from his 1969 collection In Praise of Darkness (translated by Hoyt Rogers):

“In the golden afternoon, or in
a serenity the gold of afternoon
might symbolize,
a man arranges books
on waiting shelves
and feels the parchment, the leather, the cloth,
and the pleasures bestowed
by looking forward to a habit
and establishing an order.
Here Stevenson and Andrew Lang, the other Scot,
will magically resume
their slow discussion
which seas and death cut short,
and surely Reyes will not be displeased
by the closeness of Virgil.
(In a modest, silent way,
by ranging books on shelves
we ply the critic’s art.)
The man is blind, and knows
he won’t be able to decode
the handsome volumes he is handling,
and that they will never help him write
the book that will justify his life in others’ eyes;
but in the afternoon that might be gold
he smiles at his curious fate
and feels that peculiar happiness
which comes from loved old things.”

By pulling two thoughts from this poem I ease my mind. First, “we ply the critic’s art” by the presence of certain books on our shelves, and the absence of others. Dreck never lingers. Each of my books I can imagine rereading. Scan my shelves and know who I am. Second, I know “that peculiar happiness / which comes from loved old things.” I own a few firsts and autographed editions but the true value of my volumes is intrinsic. This is a reader’s library, weeded better than any garden, so it can flourish. Elsewhere, Borges says, “Reading has to be a happiness…”


Eric Thomson said...

Dear Mr.Kurp,
It’s a violation that books – solace and pleasure, buffer from life and entry into it that they undoubtedly are – should be commodified and forcibly herded on shelves as if they were tins, bottles and packets of this and that. Juxtapositions in personal collections can take many forms, from the farraginous and neutral, which I imagine is the norm, to the companionable re-encounters and affinities that Borges describes. I’d like to think there’s also a complex shelf-life of provocations, dissonances, stand-offs, disqualifications and pacts of non-aggression. There are some books that would bristle to be housed under the same roof let alone on the same shelf as others.
When Leigh Hunt describes Lamb's library he's also saying something like 'Scan his shelves and know who he is' - an accommodating and conciliatory spirit, or perhaps simply a large reader content to contradict himself: "Conscious of my propiety and comfort in these matters, I take an interest in the bookcases as well as the books of my friends. I long to meddle and dispose them after my own notions. When they see this confession, they will acknowledge the virtue I have practiced: I believe I did mention his book-room to C.L. and I think he told me that he often sat there alone. It would be hard not to believe him. His library, though not abounding in Greek and Latin (which are the only things to help some persons to an idea of literature), is anything but superficial. The depth of philosophy and poetry are there, the innermost passages of the human heart. It has some Latin too. It also has a handsome contempt for appearance. It looks like what it is, a selection made at precious intervals;- now a Chaucer at nine and twopence; now a Montaigne or a Sir Thomas Browne at two shillings; now a Jeremy Taylor; a Spinoza; an old English Dramatist, Prior, and Sir Philip Sydney; and the books are "neat as imported." The very perusal of the backs is a "discipline in humanity." There Mr. Southey takes his place against an old Radical friend: there Jeremy Collier is at peace with Dryden: there the lion, Martin Luther, lies down with the Quaker lamb, Sewell: there Guzman d'Alfarache fit company for Sir Charles Grandison, and his claims admitted." (from 'My Books' in Essays of Leigh Hunt, ed. Arthur Symonds, London,1887).
For courtesy's sake (or is it hygiene or taxonomic rigour?) my fifty or so books by or about Borges are domiciled between Masson's De Quincey and the Tusitala Stevenson, mirroring, albeit minimally, the geography of his imagination, and configuring I hope something of mine.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me there is room in your life for six boisterous dobermanns.