Monday, August 19, 2013

`Caught Between Quotation Marks'

My wife asked which of the books in my library is the most valuable and I had to ask if she meant financially, pure market value, or personally, in terms of sentiment, influence, reliance or love. If the former, I don’t know. I have some post-Nobel Beckett first editions, paperbacks and hard covers, mostly Grove Press. I have many signed copies, firsts and otherwise – William Gass, D.J. Enright, Steven Millhauser, Helen Pinkerton, Guy Davenport, among others. On my shelves are firsts by Saul Bellow, Evelyn Waugh, A.J. Liebling, Geoffrey Hill and Edgar Bowers. All are books I would keep and cherish if they were beat-up paperback reprints. I’ve owned many thousands of books and not one was acquired as an investment. I’m not philosophically opposed to books-as-nest-eggs. I just don’t think that way. A book thief would find slim pickings in my library, which is an extension of my sensibility not my financial portfolio. 

As to sentiment, the most valuable book is probably the one I’ve owned longest, since Sept. 25, 1960, according to my mother’s inscription at the front – The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments (Revised Standard Version). The binding is taped and the pages are soft as flesh. Even the underlinings are familiar, like old friends. Isaiah 24:8: “He who flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit; and he who climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare.” In uncertain memory, the passage is linked to an early reading of Kafka. 

Influence? Almost certainly The Geography of the Imagination (North Point Press, 1981), signed by Guy Davenport when I visited him at his home in Lexington, Ky., on June 18, 1990. The cover is browning and torn. The Australian poet Stephen Edgar says: “You're caught between / Quotation marks, your heart's beat an allusion.” 

Reliance? Hardest of all to name.  Either of the books already cited would qualify. So would my Ulysses with more than forty years of annotations. And the Johnson edition of Dickinson’s Complete Poems, about forty years old. And a brown, brittle Harvest paperback of Four Quartets, acquired from the book store in my junior high school shortly after Eliot’s death in January 1965. Now we’re back to sentiment. 

Love? Who can say? I own three editions of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Lately the one I’ve used most often is the three-volume boxed set from The Heritage Press (1963), a gift from my brother. I can’t seem to escape sentiment.

[ADDENDUM: In an excellent piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books devoted to Melville’s transformative reading of Milton (and much else), William Giraldi writes: “Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.”]

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