In Owls Head, while searching through William Buckminster’s barn, Rosamond Purcell recounts finding a cache of books, mostly novels, rotting but still readable – He Went with Marco Polo, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, They Were Expendable, The Gay Bandit. The first was written by her great-aunt, Louise Andrews Kent, and Purcell remembers reading Thornton Wilder’s novel in eighth grade. She says she “remembers the flavors, if not the details” of these titles but has no wish to reread them:
“These days, I do not want to spend too much time with fiction; I already know too well how to speculate about things that did not happen and about people I have never met.”
Perhaps it’s a matter of getting older but I’ve begun to share Purcell’s disenchantment with most fiction. In my office, propped against the books on my shelves, are picture-postcards of four writers – Samuel Johnson, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett. The latter three are known principally for stories and novels, and remain among the small number of fiction writers whose work I return to regularly. Though I love Rasselas, Johnson’s essays, poems and Lives of the Poets are what I reread most often.
Sometimes I think fiction is written principally for the young, though Proust and Henry James call for a certain seasoning to be properly appreciated. One has less patience with the arbitrary and has reached some rapprochement with how much our understanding of the world is already rooted in acceptable fictions. Who needs fiction about fiction? My tastes run to the real, which seems marvelous enough. Purcell’s wonderful book sent me back to Henry Vaughan’s “To His Books”:
“Bright books! the perspectives to our weak sights,
The clear projections of discerning lights,
Burning and shining thoughts, man's posthume day,
The track of fled souls, and their milkie way,
The dead alive and busie, the still voice
Of enlarged spirits, kind Heaven's white decoys!
Who lives with you lives like those knowing flowers,
Which in commerce with light spend all their hours;
Which shut to clouds, and shadows nicely shun,
But with glad haste unveil to kiss the sun.
Beneath you all is dark, and a dead night,
Which whoso lives in wants both health and sight.
By sucking you, the wise, like bees, do grow
Healing and rich, though this they do most slow,
Because most choicely; for as great a store
Have we of books as bees of herbs, or more:
And the great task to try, then know, the good,
To discern weeds, and judge of wholesome food,
Is a rare scant performance. For man dyes
Oft ere 'tis done, while the bee feeds and flyes.
But you were all choice flowers; all set and dressed
By old sage florists, who well knew the best;
And I amidst you all am turned a weed,
Not wanting knowledge, but for want of heed.
Then thank thyself, wild fool, that wouldst not be
Content to know — what was too much for thee!”
Vaughan seems to have valued “bright” as the highest of compliments. In “The Retreat” he gives us “Bright shoots of everlastingness,” and in “The World”:
“I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright…”
“Bright books!” is the perfect invocation for a dedicated reader. Books, the good reliable ones, are luminous, shining even through the dimmest stretches of our lives.