Wednesday, December 10, 2014

`Those Few Volumes He Has Made a Part of His Life'

“What will I reread, or even consult?
Let us admit that, for all their heft on the shelves,
books are flighty, become souvenirs of themselves,
appealing no longer to intellect and taste
but playing to sentiment. Why else keep on hand
Look Homeward, Angel, except in the hope that the schoolboy
who turned its pages may show up some afternoon?” 

Not likely, not even in the guise of my sixty-two-year-old self. Some childish things I’ve put away for good, but I accept the dilemma posed by David R. Slavitt in “Culls” (Falling from Silence: Poems, 2001). As an otherwise non-acquisitive man, why have I accumulated so many books, and why do I not let go of them? In the pecuniary sense, I own few valuable volumes (signed editions, first editions) – not enough to pay for a year of college tuition, though maybe they’d cover the cost of textbooks -- but none is essential to my present reading life. Half a shelf of carefully culled, bibliophilically undistinguished volumes would take care of that. I hold on to a surfeit of books out of what Floyd Skloot calls “a talismanic impulse.” I feel stronger and more secure in the company of good books, mine or another’s. Likewise, I feel uneasy around large quantities of lousy books (visiting libraries can be dicey). So what persists after a life of reading? The computer metaphor is irresistible: After downloading (reading) thousands of volumes (programs), what is preserved in memory (RAM)? Very little, Slavitt suggests: 

“What remains when we’ve finished reading a book?
The impression is vague, like the aftertaste of wine
or the scent a woman was wearing that stays in the room,
which seems to remember and then imagine her presence.
Such residues, I used to assume, compounded,
changing, enriching the reader. And an education
was what persists and accumulates. The figure
is homelier now: imagine a porcelain sink
that over the years hard water has stained; look up;
and see what wisdom the face in the mirror has earned.” 

Slavitt admits that literature helps “make the world make sense,” but only momentarily, while “it all coheres,” and not for everyone. He calls it an “abstract affirmation.” Books first must reliably provide pleasure. There are purely utilitarian uses – field guides, cook books, dictionaries – but even they are pleasure-givers for some of us. Slavitt lists his “keepers”: “the tools / of the trade, the grammars, atlases, dictionaries, / and reference works I consult rather than read.” He writes: 

“Poetry I keep close, in the room with my desk—
To consult or, say, confer with. For company. Prompting?
That, too. In a kind of conversation
I sometimes believe in, the work of others will speak
To elicit answering speech.” 

As a boy I was an animist. I knew the toy soldiers left on the floor went back to work when I left the room. So too with books, Tarzan chatting with Sherlock Holmes and Ben Gunn. Guy Davenport was convinced every book was a response to another. Books are for writers, yes, more importantly for readers, the truest critics. Like the rest of us, Slavitt speculates about the fate of his books, including those he has written, when he is gone. It’s a happy thought: 

“That home I like to imagine my books may find
is not in my house but in that of some amateur
not in the business—not a writer, reviewer,
editor, critic, or teacher, who every so often
has to do this, go through this dreary process
and cull. Instead, he keeps in his single bookcase
those few volumes he has made part of his life,
that speak to him somehow and in his head
resonate. And one of them is mine.”     

For me, that one among Slavitt’s more than one-hundred books (including five in 2014) would probably be The Eclogues and the Georgics of Virgil (1972). Or his translation of  Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (2008).

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