Tuesday, November 06, 2018

'I Would Have Sold My Coat'

The only thing I remembered about George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903) was the hero reveling in the memory-inducing scent of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

“My Gibbon, for example, my well-bound eight-volume Milman edition, which I have read and read and read again for more than thirty years – never do I open it but the scent of the noble page restores to me all the exultant happiness of that moment when I received it as a prize.”

I can’t claim a comparable experience. I enjoy the smells of old books – mildewed, tart, seldom sweet – but have never known such a Proustian moment. In his 2015 essay “Object Lesson,” later retitled “The Bibliophile” and collected in American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring (2018), William Giraldi fleshes out the Gissing/Gibbon connection, and supplements my memory:

“`To possess those clean-paged quartos,’ Ryecroft says, `I would have sold my coat.’ He doesn’t have the money on him, and so he returns across town to his flat to retrieve it. Too broke for a ride on an omnibus, and too impatient to wait, he twice more traverses the city on foot, back and forth between the bookshop and home, toting a ton of Gibbon. ‘My joy in the purchase I had made drove out every other thought. Except, indeed, of the weight. I had infinite energy but not much muscular strength, and the end of the last journey saw me upon a chair, perspiring, flaccid, aching—exultant!’”

That’s an experience I know first-hand. We seldom associate readers with feats of physical strength. Our image is more anemic and enervated – reader as sensitive plant. It’s time to correct this libel. Books are heavy. I lug a canvas sack of books to and from work every day. When we moved to Houston in May 2004, we lived for six months in corporate housing supplied by my wife’s employer. We stowed my books, roughly five thousand of them, in a storage unit. In the meantime we bought a house. On Halloween fourteen years ago, I rented a truck, loaded all those boxes of books, drove to the new house, unloaded them and returned the truck by 6 p.m. I must have sweated out 15 pounds in the Houston sub-tropical heat. I’m still sore.

Giraldi spends time distinguishing “collector” from “bibliophile.” I’m not fond of either. The first suggests a monetary motive, books as FabergĂ© eggs; the second is pretentious, though etymologically accurate. The humbler and more precise word is “reader.” I don’t mean to be snippy. I accept Giraldi’s basic argument: “Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects.” One could live comfortably owning one pair of shoes. Being reduced to one book would be a trial. It’s inarguable that, as Giraldi concludes, “a life with books is more meaningful than a life without books.” As Gibbon writes in Vol. I, Chap. 2, Part 4 of Decline and Fall, “The love of letters [is] almost inseparable from peace and refinement . . .”

1 comment:

Finn MacCool said...

Hmm. I happen to have the eight-volume Milman edition of Gibbon. I shall have to give it a sniff.

J.D. Flanagan