Friday, November 27, 2020

'Only a Mantelshelf for Books'

In keeping with our era’s apocalyptic flavor, I sense the Robinson Crusoe Fantasy is growing in popularity. You’ll recall in Chap. VI when Crusoe builds a raft and salvages what he judges most useful from the shipwreck: “bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat’s flesh (which we lived much upon), and a little remainder of European corn,” etc. Today, a similar process is underway, for instance, among survivalists – evaluating what is essential, optional and irrelevant in the way of fuel, medical supplies and guns. More benignly, I see readers deciding what books to bring when the grid goes down and civilization collapses. The latest to do so is Douglas Dalrymple at Idlings: 

“I imagine a sequestered life – in a mountain cabin or a bolthole near the sea – where I’m planted for the rest of my days with nothing to do but tend to my own comfort, walk in the afternoons, and read by the fire. It’s a small, snug place, with only a mantelshelf for books – a minimal library. But which books to stock it with? This is my version of the old desert island game.”


His list of literary staples overlaps heavily with my own. The only title on Douglas’ list I haven’t read – or even heard of -- is Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend. I can do without the Cervantes and Dickens, and might substitute Tristram Shandy and Pale Fire. I would replace Francis Parkman’s History of France and England in North America with Henry Adams’ nine-volume  History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The most surprising item on Douglas’ list is Paradise Lost – surprising because I know he is Roman Catholic, though recently he wrote appreciatively of Milton’s epic. His most inspired choice is The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, edited by John Gross. At some point, the smallest of forms, the aphorism, converges with the most expansive, the epic. What they share is density of meaning.


Douglas’s criteria are honest and commonsensical: “books that make good company, reward re-reading, and give pleasure.” In addition, and perhaps already implicit in those standards, I would require lasting substance, books that cannot be exhausted. There’s nothing wrong with escapist fare, “beach books,” pure distraction, but not for the long haul. Only three titles on Douglas’ list date from the twentieth century. The rest were written earlier. His list is idiosyncratic, as any serious reader’s would be, but not freakishly so. Generations of readers have already agreed with him.

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

An excellent column, as usual. And: thanks for the mention of Henry Adams's "History." I just ordered the set from the Library of America. Looking forward to reading it.