After more than half a century I can still hear my mother laughing when I asked her what job I could get that would pay me to read books. Did she think I was joking? Or merely being a moron? Now two such career paths (a phrase that didn’t exist in the early nineteen-sixties), neither lucrative, come to mind: book reviewing and censorship. In forty-five years (my first review was of Gravity’s Rainbow) I’ve probably written a hundred book reviews, a trade for which I have no gift, and my net earnings, I’m certain, total on the short side of five-hundred dollars. I’m an amateur in both the etymological and commonplace senses. And I wouldn’t know where to apply for a job as censor.
I think what I wanted was a way to read without interruption, an ideal I have never realized. A reader with similar aspirations was Jirō Osaragi (1897-1973), the Japanese novelist and essayist. I’ve been browsing in The Columbia Anthology of Japanese Essays: Zuihitsu from the Tenth to the Twenty-First Century (ed. and trans. Steven D. Carter, 2014). Carter explains that zuihitsu is a Japanese genre of writing with no precise English translation, though he suggests “essay” or “miscellany.” After a bit of time spent with his anthology, I might propose “feuilleton.” It’s a form that must avoid, if it is to succeed, both ponderousness and extreme whimsy. Even if the subject is heavy, the treatment tends to be light – a very pleasing combination, usually free of the essayistic sin of pretentiousness. One of the two pieces by Osaragi included by Carter is “A Bed for My Books”:
“All around my bed, at head and foot and then close on both sides, are bookshelves, which give me enough space to satisfy my reading habits. The shelves are so full of books that I have only to stretch out my hand and it will fall on something I like. Furthermore, so covered are my quilts with books that I want to read that even on this huge bed that I’m so proud of, I’m cramped for space to lie down.”
Osaragi depicts himself as a bibliophilic Oblomov. He addresses the practical problems of how to keep warm in bed when holding a book during the winter months (one glove, hibachi, or a Japanese hot-water bottle called a yutanpo). Carmen Blacker, the late English scholar of Japanese language and literature, confirms the book-filled state of Osaragi’s bed and room. My only complaint about his zuihitsu is the absence of titles. Like any dedicated reader, I want to know what another dedicated reader is reading.
On my nightstand for now are two books of poetry by A.M. Juster (for review!), a recent Mandelstam translation, Elegy: The First Day on the Somme by Andrew Roberts, a collection of C.H. Sisson’s literary essays, As Long as We Are Not Alone: Selected Poems by Israel Emiot, the fourth volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters, and the Japanese essay collection from Columbia University Press. Most of my books are one room away, fifteen paces to the nearest shelf, which is inconvenient but necessary when one is married and must share a bed. Osaragi concludes his essay like this:
“Occasionally I allow them to be tidied, but the mountain of books on my bed just gets taller, accumulating layers of dust rather than snow.”