I dug up an overlooked gem by Theodore Dalrymple, “Of Chekhov, Dickens, Henley and Pascal,” published last year in the New English Review. As he often reminds us, Dalrymple is a shameless investigator of other people’s book shelves. I share the urge, usually find it irresistible though sometimes socially awkward, and have detected multiple motivations for my behavior, which might be boiled down to mingled optimism and Schadenfreude. Optimism, because one is always hopeful when it comes to finding previously unknown books and writers one might wish to read. I know from happy experience that some of my favorite volumes were hardly reviewed and never appeared on anyone’s syllabus. Their discovery was pure serendipity. Schadenfreude, because one always enjoy uncovering evidence of bad taste in others. Dalrymple writes:
“. . . the other day I had occasion to visit the elegant house of an old literary couple. They were obliged by circumstances to leave me alone for a time in their drawing room-cum-library, and I amused myself (at their suggestion, but I would have done it anyway) with their books.”
I’ve been in such situations many times. Years ago, I was interviewing a female rabbi, a novelty for me and for much of upstate New York. She was called away from her office for twenty minutes or so, apologized, and told me to make myself at home. I interpreted that to mean I could troll her bookshelves, which I assumed would be stocked with Judaica. Instead, I discovered the rabbi had assembled a small library of books about folk music. I remember reading an entry in one of her reference books about the Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers, who died rather horribly in a fire onboard an airplane. The rabbi’s absence gave me time for a relaxing browse.
In the Schadenfreude category, I was once in the apartment of a self-styled anarchist who, judging by his beer-fueled rants, judged his fellow man, including yours truly, beneath contempt. The foulest word he could find to describe us was “consumers.” I was there to talk about the collection of essays he had recently published. Authors usually turn servile when hawking their wares to a reporter. This guy turned sociopathically adolescent. When he left the room for a few minutes, naturally, I looked more closely at his bookcase: comic books, photocopied zines, a volume of Bakunin’s greatest hits and three or four Tom Clancy novels. As E.H. Carr reports in his 1961 biography, Bakunin said: “No theory, no ready-made system, no book that has ever been written will save the world. I cleave to no system. I am a true seeker.”
Among the reasons I admire Dalrymple is that no experience, regardless of how tedious or repellent it might be, is wasted on him. Everything potentially is fuel for thought awaiting articulation. He closes his essay like this:
“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.”