Saturday, March 10, 2012

`Won't Allow Ephemera to Ephemerate'

William H. Gass beguiles us from the first sentence of his essay “Slices of Life in a Library”: “I live in a library.” So do I, several, real and virtual, public and private. Fittingly, I found his latest book, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (Knopf, 2012), in my second-favorite library, the Fondren. My favorite is the one I carry in memory, downloaded from every book I’ve read – reliable but not total recall, backed up digitally and with hard copies. Describing his years as a graduate student in the Cornell library, Gass says he

“…read the way Hamlet examined the skull of Yorick: Jean Henri Fabre’s Book of Insects or The Worst Journey in the World Apsley Cherry-Gerard. Who could resist an author whose name was Apsley Cherry-Gerard?”

I couldn’t. When we were newly married, my wife, not yet pregnant, developed a desperate appetite for books about polar exploration. She collected and read dozens of them, and I read a few. While I admired the courage of Ernest Shackleton, I loved the book of Cherry-Gerard. Gass defines a “great library” (citing the one at the University of Illinois) as

“…an institution …that won’t allow ephemera to ephemerate and is not ashamed of having the finest collection of bodice rippers in existence; a library that has sat safely in the same place and watched like a sage  its contents age, consequently a library whose dust is the rust of time; a library that never closes on cold days and will allow the homeless to rest in its reading room; a library that will permit me to poke around in its innards as long and as often as I like.”

In the same haul as the new Gass I brought home the two-volume Methuen edition of Wyndham Lewis’ The Human Age (1955-56) because Guy Davenport described it as “the book we deserve most to be remembered for.” My interest in ferns has grown in recent years, so I decided to reread Dr. Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal (2002), which in turn inspired me to return to his A Leg to Stand On (1984). When I first read the Mexican volume, I encountered this sentence in Sacks’ preface, which moved me to read the four titles he mentions:

“I used to delight in the natural history journals of the nineteenth century, all of them blends of the personal and the scientific—especially Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, Bates’s Naturalist on the River Amazon, and Spruce’s Notes of a Botanist, and the work which inspired them all (and Darwin too), Humboldt’s Personal Narrative.”

Without access to good libraries, including the gift of interlibrary loan, I would be unable to follow the endless links in the book chain, volumes merging with the next like strands of DNA. Gass understands:

“Now in my own home I am surrounded by nearly twenty thousand books, few of them rare, many unread, none of them neglected. They are there, as libraries always are, to help when needed, and who knows what writer I shall have to write on next, what subject will become suddenly essential, or what request arrive that requires the immediate assistance of books on…well…libraries, or the language of animals, or the pronunciation of Melanesian pidgin…”

Not long ago, at home, late in the evening, I needed the precise phrasing Lincoln had used in one of his debates with Stephen A. Douglas. The Library of America volumes came to the rescue. Speaking of his own reliance on books, Gass concludes his essay like this:

“Every one of these books is a friend who will always say the same thing, but who will always seem to mean something new, or something old, or something borrowed, something blue. A remark that reminds me that I must go and see Queen Victoria. I’ve promised her a visit. She’s in the stacks that stand in my basement now. In Lytton Strachey’s biography. Still plump, a bit dowdy. Still Queen.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There are no sources in the popular press for reliably good books to read. One has to follow one's nose, and nosing around in blogs like Anecdotal Evidence is a rich source of possibilities.

I'm still waiting to hear what Lincoln books you are reading. About the Lincoln-Douglas debates, I recently read Allen Guelzo's fine book, Lincoln and Douglas.