Friday, March 09, 2012

`With Joy and Discovery'

If permitting one’s bookshelves to be photographed for inclusion in a book about the personal libraries of writers is an act of vanity, what is it when a reader of the book is appalled by the literary taste of most of the writers? Voyeuristic vanity, perhaps? Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books (Yale University Press, 2011), edited by Leah Price, looks at the libraries of ten contemporary writers or literary couples. Each chapter consists of a photo of the writer, another of his or her library, an interview, a top-ten list of titles and pictures of their covers, and close-ups of selected shelves. Just as it’s difficult for me to stop mentally editing badly written copy, I found myself unable to stop thinking about how I would cull the lousy volumes from so many stylishly arranged shelves.

One is left with the impression of herd thinking, of a small corpus of sanctioned books and writers, among most of the writers included, most of whom I have never heard of. Someone named Alison Bechdel includes among her favorites titles by Kerouac, Barthes, Freud and Sontag. Another unknown, Junot Diaz, favors Maxine Hong Kingston, Samuel Delany, a comic book and something called Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor by Tom Athanasiou. One senses a lot of posing going on here, people advertising themselves and their putative virtues by the bookish trophies they claim, a new spin on conspicuous consumption. Diaz, who dedicates much shelf space to science fiction, says in his interview:

“I figure books survived the Dark Ages—why couldn’t they survive the Age of Darkest Capital? [He goes on to quote Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but I’ll stop there.]”

I don’t know anything about Philip Pullman, but he seems more deeply read than most of the others. On his nicely eclectic list are Middlemarch, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and Calvino’s Italian Folktales. Pullman says what any devoted reader would say:

“No invention was ever as great as the codex; it’s still unsurpassed.”

The novelist Edmund White’s list is a confoundingly mixed bag. He compromises Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Nabokov, Murasaki Shikibu and Penelope Fitzgerald by including Christopher Isherwood and the odious Jean Genet (about whom White wrote a biography).  

A writer whose work I do know fairly well, James Wood, displays rare good taste and sense. On one of his shelves, shared with his wife Claire Messud, is the eleven-volume Collected Works of William Hazlitt (McClure, Phillips & Co., 1902-04), with the Modern Library edition of Bowell’s Life of Johnson serving as a book end. Other occupants of the Wood/Messud shelves: Sarah Ruden’s translation of The Aeneid, Adam Kirsch’s The Thousand Wells, Florio’s two-volume Montaigne and an old two-volume Works of Henry Vaughan. Most of the titles in his top-ten are writers he has written about – Cather, Chekhov, Bellow, Henry Green, Naipaul – and his only clinker is To the Lighthouse. Wood says in his interview:

“In my library, the books that mean most to me are the ones that made a decisive impact on my development, the ones I can remember reading in a certain time and place, with joy and discovery.”

Wednesday night I was rereading a book from my personal library, Guy Davenport’s The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, a collection of stories published in 1987, the year my oldest son was born. As I was reading “The Bicycle Rider,” I came upon a passage I remember reading and savoring for the first time late that year, seated in my car parked on Rugby Road in Schenectady, N.Y.:

“A glass jar of acorns. A nautilus shell. Shale slab with a fossil gingko leaf. A Greek coin from Metaponton in Sicily. A snail shell. Greek text of Marcus, dictionary, coffee cup, running shorts drying on a hanger hooked to the sky-light latch. Boy Scout Handbook, with markers. Mariana, said Franklin, says she likes this place better than any she’s ever been in, and I do too. Sure glad we met you on the beach.”

1 comment:

George said...

Pullman writes alternate-world fantasy. On the whole I enjoyed The Golden Compass, but I was not surprised to see the movie made from it sink out of sight--there is a limited market for children's films based on constructed anti-Christian mythologies. And I am hardly surprised to learn that Edmund White has Isherwood and Genet on his shelves.

Davenport has an essay, "On Reading", collected in The Hunter Gracchus, which partway through mentions memories of where he read what.