“Talismanic” is not a word with much application to my life, or so I thought. Despite a touch of OCD (counting telephone poles, cracks in the sidewalk – harmless hobbies), I’m largely free of superstition. Books are different. I concluded long ago that I’m happiest and most at ease in their company, even if they’re not mine and I’m not reading them. I enter libraries and bookstores with a sense of anticipation: What am I going to find? As a newspaper reporter I interviewed people in their homes and was often surprised and saddened by the absence of books, even Bibles or bestsellers, though I came from a largely bookless family. What can people be doing with their time?
The sentence quoted above is from “The Top Shelf: On Books I Need Beside Me,” an essay by the poet Floyd Skloot collected in Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir (Terrace Books, 2014). Skloot refers to a piece PhilipLarkin wrote in 1972 as part of a program for the Antiquarian Book Fair, and later collected in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982. In it, Larkin, a university librarian by profession, denies being a book lover or collector, instead characterizing himself as “a compulsive reader” (the “C” in OCD). Skloot refers to this passage in Larkin’s brief blurb; in particular, the catalog of necessary poets:
“Within reach of my working chair I have reference books on the right, and twelve poets on the left: Hardy, Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins, Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Barnes, Praed, Betjeman, Whitman, Frost and Owen. True, I reach to the right more often than to the left, but the twelve are there as exemplars. All in all, therefore, I should miss my books. I like to think I could do without them -- I like to think I could do without anything -- but indubitably I should miss them.”
A talisman is a charm or amulet possessing magical powers. It’s a stretch, but that’s not a bad description of a book. As infants, all my sons were attracted to them as interesting physical objects, the way the pages riffled (and tore), the way a brick-shaped object can mutate into a figurative bird. But that’s stage magic aimed at occupants of the cheap seats, at least until we learn to read and begin, some of us, to read to live. Skloot shares with us his top shelf, “a never-changing core group” of six poets – Frost, Eliot, Bishop, Stevens, Dylan Thomas and Larkin. An auxiliary member is his friend and former teacher, the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella. On deck are Roethke, Williams, Lowell, Sexton and John Montague.
Skloot’s “exemplars” remind me that talismans are highly idiosyncratic, customized for one’s sensibility and often non-transferrable. All are of the twentieth century. All wrote in English. Thomas, Roethke and Sexton seem as untalismanic as I can imagine poets being – but that’s why they’re on Skloot’s list and not mine. Magic is private. My talismanic short list includes Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, Larkin’s Complete Poems, Montaigne, The Geography of the Imagination, Shakespeare and Gulliver’s Travels. Only Larkin straddles both, though I love Eliot.
The funhouse reflection of Skloot’s “Top Shelf” in Revertigo is “The Bottom Shelf: On Novels I Keep Trying and Failing to Read.” His taste in novels he’s unable to finish reading is exquisite – Sophie’s Choice, Doctor Zhivago, The Magic Mountain, The Sunlight Dialogues and Jay Cantor’s Great Neck, among others. Only about Humboldt’s Gift, a novel I reread every few years, do we part company. I would dismiss Skloot’s “failures” as just that – failed novels, but his reaction is more thoughtful:
“In the presence of certain material, whether subject matter or style or emphasis or structure, I read with a combination of eagerness and avidity, of need and hope, that defines essential aspects of my essential self. I’m a reader, I’ve discovered, for whom the stakes can be absurdly high, and who – however experienced and trained and knowledgeable – is vulnerable to almost inexplicable passions and responses to the books that get most deeply under my skin.”