“If money were no object, what one book would you most like to add to your private library?”
That’s the question posed by L.D. Mitchell at The Private Library. It seems to imply that such a book is rare, perhaps unattainable and certainly expensive. My bent is less fetishistic. I’ve held and leafed through first editions of Pierre, Leaves of Grass, The American Scene and Ulysses, and works by Isaac Newton and John Keats. Though undeniably exciting, these privileged moments never triggered spasms of lust for ownership. Were I to own such objects, they would soon own me. I’m grateful they have been preserved and that our paths briefly intersected, but others are better qualified to keep them.
The books I covet most are the ones I already own. I’m not indifferent to the physicality of books, their age and beauty. I prefer hard covers to paperbacks, old to new. I like clear, chastely elegant typefaces. But if a book is important to me, chances are I’ll acquire a copy and hold on to it. That accounts for most of my private library.
My oldest copy of Ulysses I bought through a book club in 1967. It occurs to me that Joyce’s novel was then forty-five years old, and I first read it that summer forty-five years ago, the summer of Sgt. Pepper. Later that year I was given a cheap reel-to-reel tape recorder and read aloud parts of the “Proteus” episode. Mine is the Random House edition, the one with Judge Woolsey’s 1933 ruling and Joyce’s letter to Bennett Cerf reproduced at the front. The book is a palimpsest of notes and commentary, most of it written during my third reading of the novel, in the fall of 1972. When the margins filled, I made notes on sheets of white stationary and attached them to the appropriate pages with hinges of tape.
On the front endpaper, besides my signature, I wrote the etymology of “Odysseus,” an explanation of the bilingual pun Joyce embeds in “Ormond Hotel” (in the “Sirens” chapter), a definition and drawing illustrating the meaning of “parallax,” and this phrase, now almost meaningless to me: “the madnesses of Deasy, Lyons, Breen, Farrell.” I also wrote “talking directly to Joyce: 502, 553.” On page 502, in “Circe,” I underlined a sentence Virag speaks to Bloom: “That suits your book, eh?” On page 553, also in “Circe,” I underlined three sentences spoken by Shakespeare to Bloom, and noted the allusion to Othello: “Iagogo! How my Oldfellow chokit his Thursdaymomum. Iagogo!”
By the standards of the book trade, my old Ulysses is a mess. The black dust jacket, once so austere, is faded, torn and creased. The binding wobbles and the white pages have turned buff-colored, not quite brown. The only book I’ve owned longer is a Bible. In short, I wouldn’t trade my Ulysses for that beautiful, blue-covered first edition I held in the Special Collections library twenty years ago. It has, as Mitchell writes, “exceptionally strong sentimental value.”