Thursday, March 07, 2013

`Where Do They Live Now?'

“A word about public libraries. They will always, if pressed sufficiently hard (you do the pressing) get for you any book that you want, provided that it is a non-fiction book. This means that all history, criticism, biography, poetry, is at your beck and call. Make a nuisance of yourself in pursuit of a good book, it is a good cause.” 

As devoted readers know, Stevie Smith’s assertion is even truer today than when she published her essay on reading in the December 1946 issue of Modern Woman magazine. Within days I can secure virtually any book I want (including fiction) with the aid of interlibrary loan. Six years ago I ordered Geoffrey Hill’s A Treatise of Civil Power, not the later, much-revised American edition but the 2005 chapbook from Clutag Press of Thame, in Oxfordshire, England. A week later it arrived in Houston from the Widener Library at Harvard. I was flabbergasted because the book, in an edition of four-hundred copies, had already sold out and was never reprinted. The Widener copy was hand-numbered “178.” 

Today, there’s hardly a need to “make a nuisance of yourself in pursuit of a good book.” The internet makes book acquisition effortless and usually inexpensive. But even before a reader reaches the ordering stage, the internet serves as a vast, randomly organized card catalog. I no longer read newspapers, and only a small number of magazines in hard copy. Almost everything I learn about new and recent books is acquired online. A young professor of computer science said to me on Tuesday, referring to the ease with which he finds information about his latest enthusiasm, the American Civil War: “There’s no excuse for being ignorant anymore.” 

He and Stevie Smith remind me of something the sottish, polymathic poet/critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes in the second of his Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton in Illustration of the Principles of Poetry (1811-12). Too bad Coleridge was born too early to revel in the wonders of the internet: 

“Readers may be divided into four classes: 1) Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied. 2) Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time. 3) Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read. 4) Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.” 

Smith, Coleridge and some of the rest of us are hybrids of sponge and mogul diamond, ever greedy and absorbent, and the internet is our bountiful gift. In an essay from 1969 titled “What Poems Are Made Of” (Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, 1981), she writes “From the printed page, a counter-argument will strike up in my mind. From this poems often come,” nicely confirming Guy Davenport’s notion that every literary work is a response, intentional or otherwise, to another.  Smith is the most playfully allusive writer I know. She died on this date, March 7, in 1971 at age sixty-eight. Here is the second stanza from her “Grave by a Holm-Oak”: 

“Where have the dead gone?
 Where do they live now?
 Not in the grave, they say,
 Then where now?”

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