Saturday, March 23, 2019

'So Moved By the Sight of It'

My books are a comfort and an irritant. When I travel, absence is soothed by the knowledge that when I return, I can reach again, effortlessly, for Henry James or Zbigniew Herbert. Even I recognize this as unflatteringly anthropomorphic, but human attachments remain a mystery. My books are almost certain to outlive me. I’d like to think my sons would divvy them up, find the treasures among them (literary, financial), argue over the prizes, sell the rest and throw a party with the dividends. I’ll be well past caring. When dispersed, they will no longer constitute a “library” – always more than a random gathering of books – but may end up as wood pulp or landfill. A well-tended lifetime accumulation of books is suffused with the sensibility of their curator. After his death, what remains is a commonplace cadaver without a soul.

Now to the “irritant” part: I have never found a satisfactory way to organize my books. This is partly a result of shelving constraints. All of my books by and about Anton Chekhov – twenty-eight volumes -- fit squarely on a single shelf. The neurotic part of me likes the compact neatness of the arrangement. The same goes for Guy Davenport (twenty-four volumes), A.J. Liebling (twenty-two) and Joseph Epstein (eighteen). But Tolstoy is a one-man diaspora, resting on portions of three shelves, not all of them exclusively Russian. To an indifferent reader, or one less neurotic, this won’t even register as a problem.    

The National Review asked nine writers to contemplate their book collections and the results are published as “Our Personal Libraries: A Symposium.” The most touching moment, and the one truest to book love as I understand it, comes in the response from David Pryce-Jones, who writes:

“In front of me is The Life of Goethe (1855) by G. H. Lewes, the lover but not the husband of George Eliot. Henry James owned this book and signed his name on the flyleaf, writing as usual with a steel nib that scattered ink blobs over the page. A friend of mine, the novelist Hugh Nissenson, was so moved by the sight of it that he kissed the book.”

Some of us will understand. I prize my first edition of J.V. Cunningham’s Tradition and Poetic Structure (Alan Swallow, 1960) not only because it was written by Cunningham, one of my heroes of the intellect, but because it is inscribed “for Irving Aug 29, 1960 JVC.” That’s Irving as in Howe, Cunningham’s closest friend at Brandeis. I’ve never kissed a book, though I’ve held some affectionately.

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