Friday, September 08, 2017

`I Seldom Read Except to Amuse Myself'

The Fondren Library, home to more than 2.8 million volumes, weathered Hurricane Harvey well. No books or other printed matter were damaged. Several slowly dripping leaks appeared in office ceilings, not in the stacks, and were quickly remedied with strategically placed waste baskets. Scholarship was preserved, along with my mental health. Without easy access to the Fondren, I would be adrift. Public libraries were eviscerated long ago, and offer little of sustenance for serious readers. Most of the good books in their collections we already own. The purge of essential volumes is nearly complete, though you’re in luck if you want science fiction. Regret for lost books, for reasons both scholarly and personal, is memorably expressed by Nadezhda Mandelstam in Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970):

“On the bottom shelf M. kept the books from his childhood days: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, the Iliad -- they are described in The Noise of Time and happened to have been saved by M.’s father. Most of them later perished in Kalinin when I was fleeing from the Germans. The way we have scurried to and fro in the twentieth century, trapped between Hitler and Stalin!”

From the Fondren I borrowed the two-volume Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, William Heinemann, 1895), a work Edward Dahlberg put on the essential reading list he published in Edward Dahlberg: A Tribute, edited by Jonathan Williams in 1970. Three years ago I quoted the letter Coleridge wrote to his friend John Thelwell on Nov. 19, 1796. The poet calls himself a “library cormorant.” Here are the subsequent lines:

“I am deep in all out of the way books, whether of the monkish times, or of the puritanical era. I have read and digested most of the historical writers; but I do not like history. Metaphysics and poetry and `facts of mind,’ that is, accounts of all the strange phantasms that ever possessed `your philosophy;’ dreamers from Thoth the Egyptian to Taylor the English pagan, are my darling studies. In short, I seldom read except to amuse myself, and I am almost always reading.”

1 comment:

Dick Cornflour said...

Thanks for passing on the good news about the university's library. I checked their web site, but found nothing about damage, loss, or lack of it.