In the staff room at lunch I’m the invisible man and mostly I like it that way. As a 56-year-old substitute para-educator I’m triply alien. Some of the regular teachers are half my age or younger. They come to eat and to socialize and flirt with colleagues, and to complain about students. All of that is commendable. I’m there for lunch but mostly to read and leave the din behind for 30 minutes. My lunch companion was The Selected Poems of Fulke Greville, edited 40 years ago by the late Thom Gunn, and I’ve owned it for most of those 40 years.
The staff room was filling. A female teacher, a veritable crone of 40, excused herself and asked if she could share my table. She was chatty and each course of her lunch was sealed in separate Tupperware. She packed a cloth napkin. Eventually she asked, “So, what are you reading? Anything good?” I showed her the cover and said he was an English poet born 10 years before Shakespeare. “Do you always read paperbacks?” she asked. Hoping she wasn’t an English teacher, I said, well, no, it depends. It was a book I had owned for a long time by a writer I loved, and it carried many memories which added to its preciousness, despite merely being a beaten-up paperback.
Jan Morris, the English historian and travel writer, published in 1989 a curious book devoted to her favorite things, Pleasures of a Tangled Life. In the chapter “On Books,” she describes her love of book smells (“Sometimes I take them down from their shelves just for a sniff…”) and the sense of intimacy she feels with books that have grown older with her:
“Not that this is a melancholy feeling. One can hardly be melancholy in a library of one’s own. The sensation that [H.L. Mencken’s] The American Language and I are growing old together strikes me as touchingly enjoyable, while the brand-new, cocksure volumes which appear each week bar-coded on my shelves are like earnests of youth renewed.”
I feel no melancholy in the company of my Greville, the Holy Bible (the RSV given to me in 1960), Moby-Dick, Collected Stories of Isaac Babel and Ulysses – all of which have been in my library for at least 37 years. On the contrary, I feel reassured, like a sick child who’s told everything will be just fine. At home, I had an e-mail from a reader who splits his time between New York City and the Hill Country of Texas. He writes:
“Would Chekhov be an autumnal writer? I've been reading Rayfield's biography, Karlinsky’s epistolary vehicle and the Penguin life in letters published earlier this decade (claims to be the first edition of uncensored letters). I read the bio and then read up to that point in the letters. We've just moved to Moscow in preparation for medical school. His first two decades astounded me. For someone later to be described as the freest man in the world, he had many chains to break.”
I love “We’ve just moved to Moscow…” The oldest Chekhov in my library – the volume I’ve owned the longest – is The Selected Letters of Anthon Chekhov, edited by the odious Lillian Hellman, and acquired by me in 1975. I find that I own 43 books by or about the Russian, including the three my reader mentions.