Thursday, September 16, 2010

`Often Within the Most Limited Power'

The proprietor of Don Colacho’s Aphorisms also contributes to a collaborative blog, The Guild Review. On Tuesday, Stephen described a “gigantic used book sale” that rendered only two books worth purchasing – an experience I’ve had many times, one comparable to patronizing a Chinese buffet and finding only Jell-O in the steam tables. After aptly citing Samuel Johnson and Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Stephen concludes:

“In every age, there is an abundance of information, but so little wisdom.”

That, in short, is the human condition. Its corollary is the scarcity of quality in every human endeavor. Good writers and books are rare. So are good readers. On the day Stephen posted, a friend in Houston sent an account of her latest tragi-comic effort to scavenge books for a Jesuit-run high school aimed at kids from poor families. (I wrote about her book-run to Dallas here.) This time it was a large public high school in Houston “going digital,” and thus throwing away all of its books. She writes:

“I drove straight there, not stopping at home, and found a scene that I can't get out of my mind. It was noon, and there were about ten or twelve students in the about-to-be-abandoned library, grabbing books to sell at the local Half-Price Bookstore. They were gone as soon as lunch was over and I was alone with the books. It felt very odd, like getting a notice that Rome would be sacked three hours hence, so save what you can.

“I tore through the place, making snap judgments, dirty and sweaty, still in the heels and dress I'd worn on the plane, but frantic to get done before the students got out of class. Going through the shelves several things became clear. There had once been a librarian (or series of librarians) here, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, who built a collection based on a powerful understanding of the difference between good books and bad books. Let me just give you a random sample of a few I picked up for the Christo Rey library: The Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams; The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays by Auden; Walter Jackson Bates' biography of Coleridge; an abridged edition of Ruskin's Stones of Venice; the Complete Notebooks of Henry James; the Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse edited by Larkin; and etc. Once this person (or people) were gone, the quality of the collection plunged. (Let me also say that there is nothing more useless than out-of-date books on the social sciences--and they go out of date fast. I wouldn't recommend buying any.) [Fat chance.]

“Over the course of the next several hours I took several hundred books, mostly history, literature, biography, and natural sciences. I was still there when classes ended and the swarm returned. First came the ones who wanted to grab books to sell. They were not conspicuously good at this--they snatched up whatever they could carry from the shelves closest to the front. Ironically, these were almost all crappy, outdated social-science books. They were all out the door within ten minutes. Then a group of girls, quite obviously from wealthier families, showed up. They were looking for the thickest books they could find--old chemistry handbooks. They told me that they would cut holes in them so as to hide their dope from their parents. I probably shouldn't have been shocked, but I was. I wish I had the words to describe what this scene felt like. It was public-school squalor plus blatant disrespect flowing in all directions plus greed plus the most profound and depressing ignorance. It felt barbaric, almost apocalyptic, and somehow pregnant with meaning. It felt like being inside a parable--`The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman picking her way through an abandoned library’--but without understanding at all what the parable is about. I've thought about it for a couple of weeks now and I still don't know.

“I do know a couple of things, though. First, the only people who helped me in any way were the janitors, who held doors for me and intervened with the cops so I could load the heavy boxes into my car. Second, there were a few kids who came after school who were desperate to get books. Several girls told me they wanted to become vets and were looking for books about animals. We found some good ones. Third, the wonderful books I managed to get have arrived safely in the library of a school that serves some of the poorest kids in Houston and expects them to be able to learn to really read. Fourth, it seems that the ground we occupy is smaller than I thought it was. That's about it.”

It’s humbling to read about what my friend, in her unpublicized way, is doing. Needless to say, she’s not making a dime off her sweaty, dirty work. If she didn’t do it, likely no one else would. It makes whining about some lousy book feel unseemly. And it makes quoting her well-written prose (how often do you get an e-mail that reads so well?) a pleasure. In his post, Stephen cites an apt passage from The Rambler #106. With my friend in mind I would add words from Johnson’s next Rambler essay, #107:

“To wipe all tears from off all faces is a task too hard for mortals; but to alleviate misfortunes is often within the most limited power: yet the opportunities which every day affords of relieving the most wretched of human beings are overlooked and neglected with equal disregard of policy and goodness.”

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