Tuesday, October 27, 2009

`Such Ideal Guests'

A reader writes:

“How many living writers (or what percentage of the total) are represented in your library? I constantly cull my personal library to keep only the `enduring’ who are to my liking. Besides those found in the anthologies, the only living writers in my library are Milan Kundera, William Trevor and Richard Wilbur. All three might kick the bucket at any moment.”

I had never thought about this before but living writers are an embattled minority on my shelves. Percentage? About 20 percent, I suppose, of my roughly 5,000 volumes. I’m surprised by how many contemporaries remain, because like my reader I’m a frequent culler. I assume my dead-to-living ratio is comparable to that found in most serious readers’ personal libraries The past, after all, is a much bigger place than the present and most of what is written in any period, including the present, is not worth reading and certainly not worth buying. By definition, the previous 2,000 years of literary art outweighs the narrow slice of time represented by writers born in the 20th century. One of these old writers, William Hazlitt, shares my tastes in this matter and writes in “On Reading Old Books”:

“…in thus turning to a well-known author, there is not only an assurance that my time will not be thrown away, or my palate nauseated with the most insipid or vilest trash, -- but I shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face, -- compare notes, and chat the hours away. It is true, we form dear friendships with such ideal guests -- dearer, alas! And more lasting, than those with our most intimate acquaintance. In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way.”

No reading experience approximates the many-layered pleasure of reacquaintance with “an old favourite,” as Hazlitt says. Here are some of the living writers whose books are on my shelves, most of whom I’ve been reading for years:

Geoffrey Hill, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Marilynne Robinson, Leon Wieseltier, Terry Teachout, Clive James, Christopher Ricks, Christopher Logue, Greil Marcus, Theodore Dalrymple, Shirley Hazzard, Thomas Pynchon, William H. Gass, Steven Millhauer, Richard Wilbur, Adam Kirsch, Arthur Kirsch, Ron Slate, William Logan, John Berger, Rebecca Goldstein, James Wood, Richard Holmes, Jonathan Bate, Robert D. Richardson and a few others.

The saddest discovery I made in inventorying my shelves are the ranks of the recently dead. The last decade or so has not been kind to writers or readers. Lately gone are Saul Bellow, Guy Davenport, Zbigniew Herbert, Edgar Bowers, Czeslaw Milosz, R.S. Thomas, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Herbert Morris, Aldo Buzzi, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Thom Gunn, Tom Disch, Hugh Kenner, Whitney Balliett, Anthony Powell, John McGahern and Richard Stark (Donald Westlake). Hazlitt puts it like this in his essay:

“To have lived in the cultivation of an intimacy with such works, and to have familiarly relished such names, is not to have lived quite in vain.”


sriddle415 said...

Dear Sir,

I have a library of about 25,000 volumes (yes floor to ceiling double-stacked in many cases). In my case, the proportion is probably something like 5-10% living writers. But when one considers the vast history of literature, isn't that likely to be the case?

Interesting post.



Anonymous said...

AS an extension of this eloquent post, I would suggest readers check out a recent post at cltl.umassd.edu/blog. The discussion of that post (with many comments) is also fascinating.

William A. Sigler said...

I find the diversity of living writers on your shelf most fascinating. Geoffrey Hill and Adam Kirsch? Jonathan Bate and Clive James? A lot of hedgerows between those pairs.

I fantasize a debate on, say, science and religion between Marilynne Robinson and Rebecca Goldstein, with John Berger as moderator. Some imagined samples:

RG: "the will to personal reason is the driving force behind science, while religion is rooted in psychological dis-ease and fear of the stained self"
MR: "science has deliberately replaced what we should do with what we can do as the ultimate standard of value, and that is the psychological defect of seeing a transcendent human will."
JB: "You both speak for these concepts as you would speak for animals, whose lives of utter utility leave little room for such statements of moral judgment."

RG: "the present is a refinement of the past"
MR: "the present is a debasement of the past"
JB: "I'm not even sure the present is really the present anymore."

RG: "our evolving knowledge is under siege from religious maniacs"
MR: "our devolving knowledge is under siege from scientific maniacs."
JB: "aren't scientists all closet theologians at the end of the day?"

RG: "We must bring back the age of enlightenment"
MR: "We must bring back the age of faith"
JB: "Enlightenment and faith are deliciously combined in the new series of Levi's commercials done by Walt Whitman."

I doubt the dead would be quite this interesting...