Friday, May 29, 2015

`A Superfluity of Great Books'

I’ve worn out another book bag, a blue one of faux-canvas picked up at a conference. I’ve never paid for a book bag, just as I’ve never paid for a coffee mug. I collect promotional freebies. This one was deep and had long handles, so I tended to skim the bottom on the sidewalk as I hiked across campus. The stitching was giving out too, from occasionally overloading the bag with books. On Thursday the bottom fell out as I returned from the library with a good load, but the sidewalk was dry so no books were damaged. The first one to hit the pavement was a sliver of a volume, The Goncourts (Hillary House Publishers, 1960) by Robert Baldick, who in 1962 published a selection from the journals of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt that I’ve always enjoyed, so I decided to learn more about the brothers. Baldick is illuminating even on his third page:

“Closely linked with their artistic penchants was their neurotic sensibility [singular, as though the brothers were one]. They were sick men, tortured by their stomachs, their livers, and above all their nerves; sick men with high ideals, living in a world where everything and everybody wounded their delicate natures and outraged their sense of values.”

That such hothouse plants should create in their journal what Baldick rightly calls “one of the great literary achievements of modern times” is at once miraculous and familiar-sounding. Calculate for a moment what proportion of your life has been spent reading books produced by wounded sensibilities. This is not intended as a complaint. Who am I to grouse about Gogol or Proust? Take it as a recognition of the work’s preeminence over the man. The next book to hit the ground was A Cadre School Life (Joint Publishing Co., 1983) by Yang Chiang, which I learned about from a recent essay by Theodore Dalrymple. It’s another slender volume, protected with cardboard covers, and I suspect its author represents a type at the far end of the human character spectrum from the Goncourts. She and her husband survived Mao’s social engineering.

Also falling from the bag was another book by Baldick, The Life of J.-K. Huysman (Oxford University Press, 1955); Christopher Middleton’s Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2008); Archer in Hollywood (Knopf, 1967) by Ross Macdonald; The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays (Carcanet, 1978) by C.H. Sisson; Old and New Masters (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919) by Robert Lynd; and another Lynd title, Books and Writers (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1952). Lynd was an Irish critic who from 1913 to 1945 published a weekly essay in the New Statesman. The final essay in Books and Writers is “Choosing What to Read,” which opens with a passage from “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power” by Thomas De Quincey:

“As books multiply to an unmanageable excess, selection becomes more and more a necessity for readers, and the power of selection more and more a desperate problem for the busy part of readers. The possibility of selecting wisely is becoming continually more hopeless as the necessity for selection is becoming continually more pressing.”

Lynd alludes to the customary passage from Ecclesiastes, and writes: “That there is a superfluity of books everyone must agree. But there has never been a superfluity of great books.”

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