Wednesday, April 01, 2015

`The Flirtatious Mysteries of the Trade'

One of the unspoken curses of illiteracy, whether absolute or selective, must be the susceptibility of its sufferers to boredom. Even a blind man, or one blinded by his inability or refusal to read, has no excuse for being bored in the company of good books: 

“I had only a few minutes in my hosts’ library, itself but an infinitesimal part of any decent municipal library, let alone of that of Congress or the British Museum. In those few minutes I read only three or four sentences. There was obviously enough in that one room to stimulate a person for a lifetime, especially with the help of the internet. Now more than ever is what Pascal said true, that all of Mankind’s problems derive from our inability to remain alone quietly in a room.” 

Theodore Dalrymple’s essay is titled “Of Chekhov, Dickens, Henley and Pascal,” reflecting the web of associations sparked by a seasoned reader’s encounter with even a single title. You can enter the stream at any point along the shore and be carried contentedly along. Borges alludes to a first impression of “extravagant happiness” prompted by knowledge of “The Library of Babel.” On the human scale, the world’s library, the supply of printed matter available thanks to the internet and interlibrary loan, is inexhaustible. As a kid, I never dreamed how effortlessly and inexpensively I could acquire any volume I might wish to read. We dwell in a reader’s Eden, unless we choose self-expulsion. 

Last week, Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti posted an excerpt from The Second Light (North Point Press, 1986) by the Swedish aphorist Vilhelm Ekelund (1880-1949): “Books that you finish with are not books at all. A true book is inexhaustible, like a truly lyrical poem. The real practitioners of the noble art of writing are recognizable because they offer the greatest pleasure on rereading. They are therefore of value only to those who know how to read—a species almost as rare as good authors.” The name was new to me, but I sensed I might have written the passage myself and forgotten. I borrowed Ekelund’s collection from the library and found, further down page thirty-eight, this gem: 

“The best works by the finest writers have an illiterate touch. When an author has arrived at the stage where he clearly knows and can decide for himself what in him produces the unfading words, his real power is often gone. The scent has fled, he is plainly the literary worker. Faced with the thought of death, some regain the noble spontaneity in old age. As did Thomas Carlyle. He then despised all that was labeled literature, and only wrote his Shakespearean letters—as I think they may be judged.” 

A reader in South Carolina has been lobbying me to read Carlyle again, and Ekelund has provided the decisive nudge. He goes on: “Was Carlyle ever great? Yes, he is here, in his eighties, walking in the day of fall through the old Scottish churchyard (Annandale), where his beloved ones rest: so silent and quiet now; those who in times past had such kind faces when they saw him approaching.” I’m waiting to read the late Carlyle letters. 

On Monday, from Ian Jackson, the antiquarian book dealer in Berkeley, Calif., I received a reprint of his obituary for Cesi Kellinger published in the spring issue of The Book Collector. Born in Italy in 1922, she died last October in Chambersburg, Pa. Ian doesn’t collect statistics; he tells a life story or, rather, stories. Kellinger led a remarkable, seldom dull bookish life: 

“No dealer was more aware than she of one of the great attractions of bookselling to the reflective mind, the stimulating interplay of public and private spheres—the mailing list and the back room—to rules set by the proprietor. A shop or a catalogue creates its own atmosphere. Kellinger savoured the flirtatious mysteries of the trade, exercised on books might wish to keep but sacrificed to others. Then there was the precarious balance of supply and demand, which might at times oblige the utterly desirable to dance a hesitation-waltz with a half-formed wish.”

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