Friday, August 07, 2015

`Relics, Anecdotes, Glimpses of Character'

There’s nothing fancy or permanent about the way I mended my copy of Under the Volcano – multiple layers of Scotch tape, newer tape repairing older tape, inside and outside the front and back covers. It’s a paperback published by New American Library in 1971, and two years later I carried it around France and Germany in my duffel bag. Even when new it was an ugly volume with a ridiculous introduction by Stephen Spender. I read it religiously, annotating heavily, writing for some reason on the front endpaper a list of names, pertinent and otherwise, including Spinoza, Blake and Sabbatai Zevi. As a physical object, it’s a ragged mess, like a pit bull after a dog fight. I have no plans for ever again reading Lowry’s novel and yet I cherish the book because of the memories it trails. The Canadian poet Grant Buday puts it like this in his essay “Old Paper”:

“Each book has a story, or rather history. As objects, they are tangible, tactile, solid. Their spines creak as you open them and their pages lie as individually as a woman’s hair on a pillow. So it is with most every book.”

This skirts fetishism but I share the sentiment. One of the unanticipated pleasures of reading devotedly across a lifetime is the aura of significance accrued by long-owned volumes, apart from any literary value they may possess. My beat-up Under the Volcano carries with it a sort of supplement, like the OED and Mencken’s American Language – the memories and associations lent it by our lives together. Somewhere in southern France I saw my first apricot tree, growing on the side of a cliff. I must have had the book with me, because I see that tree again each time I glimpse its spine on the shelf. I see a row of empty wine bottles on the desk in my room in a maison des jeunes in Chambéry. And, for some reason, I think of Arno Schmidt and a paperback copy of King Lear, among other memories. I find no literary or financial justification for holding on to the book, but I do.

Sir John Collings (J.C.) Squire (1884-1958) was a poet, essayist and literary editor based in London. In 1918 he reviewed The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections by A. Edward Newton for the Observer. “Book-Collector” is included in Squire’s Books Reviewed (1920). Newton was a wealthy American writer and bibliophile. According to Squire, “his favourite book is Boswell, his heroes are Johnson and Lamb.” Squire defends Newton against anti-American and anti-wealth prejudice. He says of Newton, interestingly: “The fact is he has a passion for possessing little fragments of people’s lives, an interest in relics, anecdotes, glimpses of character.” That’s as good a defense of book collecting as I’ve ever read, and in some way related to the reasons I hold on to my battered Under the Volcano. Here is the conclusion of Squire’s essay:

“For there is no end to the strange adventures that books have had or the strange places in which they have been found, and in the history of mere bibliography, matter of types, spacing and pagination, there are detective stories more elaborate and ingenious than those of Poe.”

[Thanks to Norm Sibum for leading me to Grant Buday.]

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