Sunday, March 16, 2014

`A Humus for New Literature'

On this date, March 16, in 1852, Thoreau tells us in his journal that he spent the day in the Cambridge Library, and that Walden Pond had not yet melted around the edges. This is characteristic of Thoreau, a leveling of devotions, books and nature, literature and life – one of his most attractive qualities. He was not afraid to carry a book in the woods or a turtle shell in the library. He writes: “The Library a wilderness of books” – a compliment, not a complaint. He’s in the library to research the previous three hundred years of Canadian history, and finds little to please him. He observes “how one [book] had been built upon another, each author consulting and referring to his predecessors. You could read most of them without changing your leg on the steps.” 

Learning what not to read, which volumes constitute a waste of time, how to sift data from noise, is a prerequisite for readers, writers and researchers. Every reader ought to be a critic. Nabokov lauded “creative readers,” not writers. Thoreau continues: 

“It is necessary to find out exactly what books to read on a given subject. Though there may be a thousand books written upon it, it is only important to read three or four; they will contain all that is essential, and a few pages will show which they are. Books which are books are all that you want, and there are but half a dozen in any thousand.” 

A wonderful, easily misunderstood phrase -- “Books which are books” – the corollary of what Charles Lamb calls “books which are no books—biblia a-biblia.” The monsoon of printed matter leaves a drought in its wake. I’ve explored libraries with crowded shelves where I can find nothing to read. Thoreau picks up his earlier suggestion of “a wilderness of books”:

“I saw that while we are clearing the forest in our westward progress, we are accumulating a forest of books in our rear, as wild and unexplored as any of nature’s primitive wildernesses. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat.” 

Old books, of course, are best. They have endured. One is always skeptical of novelty. Thoreau again echoes Lamb, not directly but in resonant affinity: “I can read any thing which I call a book. There are things in that shape which I cannot allow for such.” A true book is like a sage, one who is dignified, humble and learned. Thoreau honors tradition: 

“Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.”

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