Thursday, March 13, 2014

`A Book Can Comfort and Restore You'

My middle son is home for spring break from his boarding school in Ontario and was seriously in need of another bookcase in his room. Since he returned to Canada at the start of the year, I had collected stacks of physics and computational math journals, a professor’s gratefully given and gratefully received castoffs from his overstuffed office. Michael had accumulated enough new, previously unshelved books – Dickens, Hobbes, Orson Scott Card – to fill another couple of shelves, and wanted to dedicate one floor-to-ceiling bookcase to fiction, another to non-fiction, mostly math and computer science. I approve of his desire to balance the so-called “two cultures,” and remember what Joseph Epstein observes in his “Bibliographical Note” to Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (2011): 

“Next to life itself, superior novels are the richest source of observation of the glory and antics of human beings we have. Novels have been at the center of my education, and remain there. When the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle was asked if he read novels, he replied, “Yes, all six,” by which he meant he read only the novels of Jane Austen, implying one needn’t read many others. My own novel-reading habits are not so chaste, and there has rarely been a time in my adult life when I didn’t have a bookmark in a novel in progress.” 

We bought another seven-shelf, birch-veneer, assembly-required bookcase from Ikea and put it together with remarkably little trouble. I was reminded of Thoreau’s observation that chopping your own wood warms you twice – when you swing the axe and when you burn the wood. Michael and I enjoyed putting together the bookcase (an almost moron-proof exercise) and arranging the books on its shelves, and Michael will enjoy reading them. In “On Books” (Collected Poems: 1943-1995, University of Queensland Press, 2003), the late Australian poet Gwen Hardwood writes: 

“Books have their life: you leave them lying
at night in their accustomed place,
then find that they’ve been multiplying—
no bookshelf has sufficient space.
Leave an unwanted book behind you—
useless! It travels back to find you.
Sometimes in trouble or despair
you look for solace and it’s there:
the book you need is right before you,
and opens up as if it knew
what it was meant to offer you.
A book can comfort and restore you,
but need one just to prove you’re right
and it will linger out of sight.”

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