Thursday, May 19, 2016

`The Remedy of Books'

For more than forty years, Edward Dahlberg has served as one of my usually reliable book consultants. Thanks to him I first read Richard Hakluyt, Biographia Literaria, Herzen’s Memoirs, Randolph Bourne, John Lyly, Gorki’s remembrance of Tolstoy, Diogenes Laertius and deeper into Ford Madox Ford’s backlist. I fell hard for Dahlberg in 1974. He lived a bookish existence I admired and we even shared a Cleveland connection. I respected and probably romanticized Dahlberg’s cranky insistence on a writer preserving his independence at the cost of happiness, friendship and a regular paycheck. Because I Was Flesh (1964) remains the best of his books because, for once, he had a subject (his mother) other than himself and his bitterness.

Samuel Beckett’s Wake and Other Uncollected Prose (ed. Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive Press, 1989) is mostly barrel-scrapings, reviews and essays spanning much of his writing life, from the nineteen-twenties until shortly before his death in 1977. “A Letter to Prose” (1970), addressed to Coburn Britton, editor of that “belletrist” journal and later his literary executor, is a representative anthology of Dahlberg’s themes, with emphasis on the centrality of books and love of overripe prose:

“After a pair of grum hours in a drugstore, where the eye is dried up by a bilious display of balloons, galoshes, clocks, chewing gum, scales, and a nerve-wracking assortment of nose-sprays, hair-lotions, patent medicines, bath salts and postcards, half an hour of an evening with The Life of William Blake, published in England in 1863, will cleanse you.”

Dahlberg confuses aggrieved complaining with a sense of humor. Like an adolescent, he is seldom burdened with understatement or nuance. He hates the modern world but chooses a ridiculous example to represent it. Who spends two hours in a drugstore, and what’s wrong with galoshes and postcards? Blake was nuts, and hardly a suitable antidote to retail. Dahlberg frequently breaks out the arcane vocabulary. Grum is “gloomy, morose, surly,” and the OED’s latest citation dates from 1861. I share Dahlberg’s enthusiasm for books, but he comes off less like a spokesman for adventuresome reading than a pedantic showoff. Books are his defense against a world he is convinced has done him wrong. He concludes his letter/essay to Britton with a Dahlberg parody:

“I have merely suggested a very small phalanx of authors, but let me say, and I know how deeply you are of my mind in this, that one who does not fall into a Dionysiac passion over a profound book is a burden to the earth, and a barnacle one is not likely to get rid of, and withal such a drone, bore and sapless clodpate should be mewed up like any predacious and senseless haggard.”

I particularly like “sapless clodpate” (OED: “a thickhead or blockhead”). Dahlberg doesn’t fail me as a book consultant, however. For his epigram he chooses a sentence from Richard of Bury’s Philobiblon (c. 1345), translated from the Latin by E.C. Thomas: “There are delightful libraries, more aromatic than stores of spice, there abundant orchards or all manner of books.” Thanks to Dahlberg I’m reading Philobiblon and enjoying sentences like these:

“In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth the laws of peace. All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”

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