Tuesday, March 07, 2017

`The Most Interesting Thing in the World'

I’ve allowed my passport and visa for visiting Bibliophilia and its adjoining colony, Bibliomania, to expire. I’m a reader, not a collector or connoisseur. I appreciate well-made, signed or historically significant volumes, and once got a thrill out of holding first editions of Johnson’s Dictionary, Leaves of Grass and Ulysses, but I’m content to remain a spectator of such treasures, not an owner. I assume, unfairly, that collectors don’t read, but accumulate books as an expression of Veblenesque conspicuous consumption. I think of books as more like tools than jewelry. The last time I felt the bookish hunter’s instinct, I was twelve and trying to flesh out my Edgar Rice Burroughs collection.

Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry has again introduced me to a previously unknown writer, A. Edward Newton (1864-1940), an American book collector who was also a reader. Andrew quotes a passage from Newton’s The Amenities of Book Collecting and Kindred Affections. My university library has a first edition from 1918, non-circulating and kept in the rare books collection, so I’ve borrowed a 1969 reprint. The bookplate says the volume was donated to the Fondren Library by Mr. and Mrs. Milton K. Eckert in memory of Lt. Marion L. Kempner. A brief internet search reveals that Lt. Kempner was a U.S. Marine killed in Vietnam, age twenty-four, on Armistice Day 1966. Go here to read some of the letters he wrote home. An editor tells us Kempner attended law school and wanted to be a writer.

In an Oct. 20 letter to his Aunt Fannie, Kempner describes a three-day patrol his platoon has just completed. One of his men notices a red flower and describes it as “the first plant I have seen today which didn’t have thorns on it.” Kempner writes to his aunt:

“The plant and the hill upon which it grew, was also representative of Viet Nam. It is a country of thorns and cuts, of guns and marauding, of little hope and of great failure, yet in the midst of it all, a beautiful thought, gesture, and even person can arise among it waving bravely at the death that pours down upon it. Some day this hill will be burned by napalm, and the red flower will crackle up and die among the thorns. So what was the use of it living and being a beauty among the beasts, if it must, in the end, die because of them, and with them?”

Three weeks before he steps on a land mine near Tien Phu, Kempner writes: “The flower will always live in the memory of a tired, wet Marine, and has thus achieved a sort of immortality; but even if we had never gone on that hill, it would still be a distinguished, soft, red, thornless flower growing among the cutting, scratching plants, and that in itself is its own reward.”

In the first sentence of his “Essay Introductory,” Newton writes: “A man (or a woman) is the most interesting thing in the world; and next is a book, which enables one to get at the heart of the mystery.”

1 comment:

George Sim Johnston said...

See the April issue of First Things for an article by David Bentley Hart on having to dispose of his amazing library--and recommendation of twenty-five books most have never read.