Sunday, May 03, 2015

`A Sort of Side-Long Mind's Eye'

The novelist William Giraldi is quietly turning himself into a first-rate literary essayist, a species I thought reclassified from endangered to might-as-well-be-extinct some time ago. His latest production is “A Bibliophile’s Defense of Physical Books,” a title that to my A.D. (ante-digital) ears sounds satirical, implying the existence of ectoplasmic books. I prefer “reader” to “book collector,” and have always found “bibliophile” a little high-falutin’, but accept the formulation Giraldi borrows from Robertson Davies: “a gatherer of all books that match his interests.” The more and deeper the interests, the more books.  In my private lexicon, “collector” also suggests “fetishist,” someone for whom objects possess a supernatural or kinky significance. In my understanding, books are neither other-worldly nor arousing, at least in a salacious sense. Giraldi makes a fine reader vs. collector distinction:

“Someone with a thousand books is someone you want to talk to; someone with a thousand shoes is someone you suspect of belonging to the Kardashian clan. Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects.”

One can learn to live without anything, save oxygen, water and other nutrients. Things get more complicated when we consider the quality of such an existence. For some of us, good books, the ones that sustain our interests, are a matter of life, not lifestyle. Of course, this is most vitally true for writers. As Giraldi puts it: “If you aren’t suspicious of a writer who isn’t a bibliophile, you should be.”

Good readers enjoy sharing the wealth. Giraldi quotes an essay by Leigh Hunt, “My Books,” I hadn’t read before: “I entrench myself in my books equally against sorrow and the weather. If the wind comes through a passage, I look about to see how I can fence it off by a better disposition of my movables. When I speak of being in contact with my books, I mean it literally. I like to lean my head against them.” This is good, if a little histrionic. Hunt recalls how C.L. (Charles Lamb) “kiss[es] an old folio,” which verges on fetishistic in the modern sense, and is something I have never been tempted to do, even in the loneliest of my days. Hunt reminds us that no writer is original, none works without forebears:
“It is true, one forgets one's books while writing — at least they say so. For my part, I think I have them in a sort of side-long mind's eye; like a second thought, which is more — like a waterfall, or a whispering wind.”

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