Wednesday, July 19, 2017

`Like the House in the Clearing'

Two essays anchor my thoughts regarding the care and feeding of a personal library, the books we hold on to for reasons both talismanic and practical. Someday, we’re certain, we will reread them, and most we have already reread at least once, whole or in part. The world’s opinion means nothing. The only critic whose judgment matters is the proprietor: you, the free-lance librarian. The first foundational essay is L.E. Sissman’s “The Constant Rereader’s Five-Foot Shelf” in Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s (1975). Sissman’s tastes are literally eccentric, away from the center, even more so today than when he was writing more than forty years ago. He claims Dryden and Swift, Defoe and Orwell, Anthony Hecht and Jane’s Fighting Ships (the 1914 and 1939 editions). Here is Sissman’s apologia, in words I wish I had written:

“A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign. Since you, the reader, are that hero of modern literature, the existential loner, the smallest denominator of moral force, it behooves you to take counsel, sustenance, and solace from the writers who have been writing about you these hundred or five hundred years, to sequester yourself with their books and read and reread them to get a fix on yourself and a purchase on the world that will, with luck, like the house in the clearing, last you for life.”

I too, at some atavistic level I trust, associate books with home. I miss them when I’m away, and feel slightly unhinged. More stringent and less sentimental is Joseph Epstein in “Books Won’t Furnish a Room” (In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage, 2007). Epstein evaluates what he can’t live without and what he can, however reluctantly, jettison. As Dr. Johnson said of friendship, a library must be kept “in constant repair.” Epstein proceeds systematically through his shelves. In poetry, his tastes overlap heavily with mine. He keeps Sissman and Larkin, Leopardi and Cavafy, for instance. With the Russians, our paths diverge. He lets go of Chekhov’s stories, which to me is a form of amputation, though he retains War and Peace, and two Nabokov titles (though, bafflingly, no Lolita). He partially redeems himself by holding on to Lampedusa and Svevo. In summation, Epstein writes, and I concur: 

“I tried to devise principles for keeping the books I did. Usefulness and rereadability were the best I could come up with.”

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