Thursday, August 30, 2012

`We Must Make Time or Miss Our Joy'

I cringed when reading Samuel Menashe’s untitled poem in Collected Poems (The National Poetry Foundation, 1986): 

“Using the window ledge
As a shelf for books
Does them good –
Bindings are belts
To be undone,
Let the wind come—
Hard covers melt,
Welcome the sun—
An airing is enough
To spring the lines
Which type confines,
But for pages uncut
Rain is a must.” 

With witless critics, brown shirts and indifferent readers, a book’s worst enemies are sunlight and water. How often have I pulled a volume from the shelf in a library or bookstore to find the cover many shades darker than the sun-bleached spine? Or found a book swollen and buckled after some unexplained full immersion? Readers can be brutal, and my personal logic assumes a progression: If they damage books, they’ll find it easy to damage people. I know that’s flawed. Samuel Johnson, the most bookish and compassionate of men, was a renowned book abuser. 

If Menashe means books ought to be opened regularly, aired like woolens in the fall, I concur. Few things are sadder than browsing a home library, opening a volume and hearing the crack of a virginal binding, a sound like old bones. I think: “Come home with me. I’ll take care of you.” An unread book might as well be bound with blank pages: “An airing is enough / To spring the lines.” Sven Birkerts, in an essay about Sebald’s Vertigo, likens one’s books on the shelves to “a kind of protruding wallpaper”: 

“Here in my house I am surrounded by books, books I have read and books I intend to read, many of which have been in the same spot on the shelf for years, my gaze sweeping over them day after day until they metamorphose into a kind of protruding wallpaper. They recede, becoming what they were before they were first singled out: possibilities. They need to be singled out again in order to be seen. They need to be touched, stirred, their narrow profiles turned to full face. It takes so little. A few minutes of shelf reorganization can create a sudden surprise abundance. Look! I’ll make for one book and walk away with three. Or some wires will cross somewhere in the life and create a happy inadvertency, one of those charmed short-circuitings we file under `chance.’ Association brushes against need. It remains mysterious, how a book slowly amasses urgency and at the right moment pounces, finding one of its intended readers, who feels as though there are no others.” 

Dedicated readers will nod in agreement. Birkerts is talking about books not as trophies, tests or battlements but solace. Just seeing some titles on the shelf, without touching them or reading a word – Sōseki’s Kokoro or Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey – acts as a sort of virtual aroma therapy, wafting memories of pleasure, sometimes many decades’ worth. Books lead complicated ghost lives long after we’ve read them. David Myers wrote a Tweet on Wednesday: “Damn my honors student. She makes me want to reread Ulysses. And who has the time?” Just knowing the book is there, compliant on the shelf, is some comfort. There’s never enough time, of course, to read all we want, but soon, maybe in a few weeks or at Thanksgiving. Holbrook Jackson reminds us in The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1950): “The time to read is now, not hereafter. We must make time or miss our joy.” Birkerts writes: 

“Books are so easily masked by familiarity, crowded into indistinctness by others of their kind, their original explosiveness gone latent, awaiting some circumstance in the life of the reader to make them actual, as the writing was for the writer. Books are singularities, trade routes for private intensities. We forget this. Reading itself falls to habit, the eye switching back and forth down pages, down the lengths of columns, just another thing we do, until one day a book comes along that has the force, or is such a fit to what we need, that it renews the act for us. How did we ever forget what happened that first time, whenever it was, with the eruption of another’s voice, that stark surprise breaching of time and distance, the sense we had of standing high on a ledge looking over?” 

Birkerts reminds me of the nagging list I carry in my head, of books I’m vaguely intending to read again -- Zeno's Conscience, Henry Green’s Loving,  Effie Briest, Pérez Galdós’ Fortunata  and Jacinta. They are, as in Birkert’s concluding sentences, “the books I relate to via the gestures of private ritual. It is enough for me to pick out their spines as I walk through the room to my desk. They remind me of what it is I’m doing. Trying to do.”

1 comment:

Ron Slate said...

Thanks for reminding me about KOKORO -- now moved up in the queue.