Wednesday, October 27, 2021

'Curating a Small Portion of Civilization'

“There are, of course, pitfalls to collecting books, moral and otherwise: greed, idolatry, debt, boorishness. But I think book collecting in itself is a good thing. It’s not about mere accumulation, but the disciplines of taste, technique, and study. And it’s about passion, and love, and imagination.” 

I’m a reader not a collector of books. Of course, there’s a paradox built into that statement. I’ve accumulated many volumes and my shelves are overfilled. In a reductive sense that makes me a collector but not out of financial or “boorish” motives, I hope. I own books so I can read them, the same reason I regularly visit my university’s library. I don’t fetishize first editions or rarities, though I cherish the books Guy Davenport signed for me when I visited him in 1990. They are “valuable” for the text, of course, but also for the memories they contain. I can’t translate that into market value. They’re important the way old family photographs are important, for their continuity with the past, personal and literary.


The passage at the top is from Steve Ayers’ essay “The Art of Book Collecting.” He is a  more sophisticated and knowledgeable bibliophile than I will ever be. I can marvel at the books he owns without coveting them. I agree with his statement that “book collecting in itself is a good thing.” So too, the stockpiling of food and medicine in wartime is a good – and pragmatic -- thing. I remember as a kid reading in a literature textbook Walter van Tilburg Clark’s short story “The Portable Phonograph” (1941). The setting is a war-ravaged wasteland. Four men huddle in a shelter around a peat-fire. The host is an old man who has salvaged four books he keeps wrapped in burlap: Shakespeare, the Bible, Moby Dick and the Divine Comedy. Four inevitable choices, as in a desert-island fantasy. The old man says:


“[W]hat do we know of those who will come after us? We are the doddering remnant of a race of mechanical fools. I have saved what I love; the soul of what was good in us here; perhaps the new ones will make a strong enough beginning not to fall behind when they become clever.”


As in any post-apocalyptic story, the past is hellish, the future radically uncertain. More than half a century ago, a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the old man’s choices impressed me. He selected books I might have chosen, volumes dense with nutrients and energy, like pemmican. “The Portable Phonograph” belongs to a genre – science fiction, is it? – I no longer read, but the scene sticks with me. I think of it as a parable for serious readers. Clark gives us an O. Henry ending but he earns it. Ayers continues:  


“The key to good collecting is a guiding idea or principle rooted in a passionate interest and an intelligent understanding. Any one of us, on almost any financial level, can participate in curating a small portion of civilization.”

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