Thursday, October 10, 2019

'You're Going to Be Sad Without Books'

“We are so spoiled,” a reader writes. He means when it comes to books, though in other ways as well. He read something I wrote a long time ago about Williams James and his Principles of Psychology (1890), and has resolved to read it. It’s a grand grab bag of a book that Jacques Barzun likened to Moby Dick. It moved him to write in A Stroll with William James (1983): “[I]t ought to be read from beginning to end at least once by every person professing to be educated.” My reader writes:

“It’s amazing. We can find any book we hear about. I went to Amazon and bought a used copy that was pretty cheap. It took a couple of minutes.”

I’m averse to even the idea of utopias, which quickly devolve into mass murder, but it’s not entirely ridiculous to think of our age as a book utopia. Not what’s being written and published today, certainly. That’s in an unhappy state. I mean availability. In the past, even the very rich would have had some difficulty finding what you and I find at the library or in our mailbox in less than a day.

I’m reminded of readers so deprived of reading matter they celebrate the arrival of a book or even the memory of a book. The Poles seem especially given to such gratitude – aided, of course, by their country’s tortured history. Józef Czapski reanimated Proust’s masterpiece for his fellow inmates of a Soviet prison (see Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, 2018). In My Century, Aleksander Wat revels in another Soviet prison when he finds the first volume of Proust’s novel. Less well known is Jerzy Stempowski’s experience as described in his 1948 essay “The Smuggler’s Library” (Four Decades of Polish Essays, 1990).

It’s four months after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Stempowski (1894-1969) is a patient in a makeshift hospital in the Carpathian Mountains, sick with pneumonia and a kidney disorder. When discharged, he’s befriended by smugglers who provide him with a hideout. One says to him:

“`You must have been reading your whole life, and now you’re going to be sad without books. I’ll try to get you something to read.’

“On the next day a young smuggler, Andrijko, appeared with a sack on his shoulder. He put it on the floor. When the room warmed up I untied the bag and started to take out the books. The first to appear was a good edition of Horace, then the Metamorphoses, Virgil’s Bucolics and Georgics, and some Latin poets of the Renaissance. Next there came some Spanish publications, mostly from the time of the Civil War, although they included Gracián y Morales. At the very bottom of the sack I found the English romantics – Southey, Coleridge – and also several volumes of Walter Scott, Pride and Prejudice, and a slightly worn copy of Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

“It was the best kind of reading for the long winter.”

Stempowski devotes much of the rest of the essay to piecing together the histories of the volumes, how they came into his possession in wartime Poland. Basically, good fortune – for him; ill fortune for previous owners -- delivered them:

“During wars and upheaval a reader leaves his library at home. He takes only his favorite book, but even this book is soon abandoned in a roadside inn or at a forest crossroads. The smugglers’ library was a vivid testimony and a warning. A wartime reader must rely first and foremost on his memory. At the end of the road he will be left only with what he remembers.”

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