Thursday, February 25, 2010

`An Old, Tried, and Valued Friend'

A reader complains of having to buy copies of books he once owned but discarded for various reasons including loss of interest, financial distress and the expense of moving them. I commiserate, having moved so often and generally feeling over-freighted with possessions. I like to travel light which can be difficult for a devoted reader. My library has always been a work-in-progress, culled with regularity and updated according to changing needs and tastes. It’s a working library, not a museum, used purposefully and often.

Just as we naturally outgrow certain writers (anyone beyond age 16 still reading J.D. Salinger with pleasure should be watched carefully), some we grow back into. I prematurely discarded A Dance to the Music of Time about 30 year years ago (sorry, Levi) and finally bought a replacement set in 2007. During a particularly thin period I sold my first edition of W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson to a book dealer in Schenectady, N.Y., and several years later Steven Millhauser told me he bought it (my bookplate was in the front). I still regret selling my two-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the compact (“four-up”) version with the magnifying glass in the little drawer on top.

As a corollary I thought of the books I’ve always been faithful to and that have remained on my shelves without interruption the longest. The oldest and most threadbare is The Bible, the Revised Standard Version published by Thomas Nelson & Sons. The inscription at the front in my mother’s handwriting shows she gave it to me on Sunday, Sept. 25, 1960, one month before my eighth birthday. I open it at random to an underlined passage, Isaiah 41:29:

“Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their molten images are empty wind.”

I own three copies of Ulysses. The oldest dates from 1967, when I joined the Book-of-the-Month Club and bought it as an alternate selection (about the same time I ordered Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy, which I wish I still owned). It’s the Random House edition with the black dust jacket, the most heavily annotated book I own. It’s too beat-up and overstuffed with taped-in notes to serve as a reading copy but sentimentally it’s my most valuable book.

My Shakespeare dates from a few years later. It’s the boxed, three-volume edition from The Heritage Press (1958) -- The Tragedies, The Comedies, The Histories. It’s not scholarly and the illustrations are corny but I like the large typeface, wide margins and the palimpsest of notes I’ve accumulated over the years. Of late, my reading copies are the recent Yale University Press paperbacks edited by Burton Raffel, but even those I read in tandem with the brick-like Heritage Press edition.

My copy of The Poetical Works of John Keats, I see from the ink stamp on the inside cover, I bought at Paupers’ Paperbacks in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 1973. I have three editions of Tristram Shandy, the oldest dating from 1971, when I bought it at Kay’s Bookstore in Cleveland, Ohio, where I went to work four years later. It’s a two-volume hard cover with a book plate saying it once belonged to A.C. Cudworth, who chose “Vera pro gratis” as his motto. Each of the books I’ve mentioned is, as Hazlitt says, “an old, tried, and valued friend.”

One of my new friends, the reader who inspired this little celebration, has just sent me the newest book on my shelves – The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World by Adam Jacot de Boinod. I particularly like serein, French for “the rain that falls from a cloudless sky.”


Buce said...

There are books you grow out of, and others you grow into: I don't think I would have got Middlemarch before 40, Charterhouse of Parma before 50, Don Quixote before 60. In the case of Charterhouse, I guess that means "an age before which the author was dead." But I'm a slow learner.

Levi Stahl said...

I certainly forgive you for the Powell, Patrick. I didn't quite get the point of the Dance myself when I first read volume one, at age 23. But oh, when I went back to it all a year later . . .

As for Salinger, I have to disagree--sort of. I reread A Catcher in the Rye a couple of years ago, and I found it still moving and convincing, maybe even more so than when I read it at sixteen. Holden, I could now see, was far from right--he was actually wrong, in so many ways and to such a vast degree that it's almost impossible to enumerate--and as he grew up he would, one hopes, understand that no, everything need not be phony, that at least a significant swath of people really do try to be kind and good and honest and worthy, that life need not perpetually disappoint. But as a picture of where Holden is at right at that moment, what teenage life is like? It can still convince and impress even when we're beyond that age. (And one thing I think age brings to the novel that youth fails to see is the effect of Holden's brother's recent death on Holden's entire worldview. He tells himself (and thus us) that it's not that big a deal, but clearly it underlies his every action. That alone is sufficient to make the book moving for an adult.

All that said, I don't think that's how Salinger himself intended us to read the novel, or any of his subsequent works. From everything we know about Salinger, it seems he remained obsessed with authenticity and independence his entire life, in a way that--from the outside at least--seems clearly adolescent and unhealthy. It reminds me at times of the experience of reading Tolstoy with knowledge of his biography: even as he's painting brilliantly believable portraits of people and society, he presents as long-term solutions spiritual awakenings that we know from experience--ours and his--can't help but be in some sense temporary, eventually subject to compromise and the taint of daily life. That mix of insight and willed blindness is part of what fascinates about Tolstoy; Salinger, while far from being in his league, offers some of the same interest to the adult reader.