Friday, March 24, 2023

'This Gossiping Must Be Drawn to a Close'

On the back cover of Theodore Dalrymple’s most recent book, These Spindrift Pages (Mirabeau Press, 2023), is printed an italicized sentence: “Much of mankind’s boredom derives from its inability to find satisfaction in a shelf of books.” A variation, of course, on Pascal’s old chestnut. Open the book and on the first page, in his second paragraph, Dalrymple writes: 

“Pascal said that much of the trouble of mankind came from the inability of people to be at peace alone in a room. Much of its boredom (an underestimated mischief-maker) derives from the inability to find satisfaction in a shelf of books.”


Dalrymple tells us the book started with a “beautiful and expensive” notebook his wife gave him as a gift. He began filling it with thoughts on (not reviews of) the books he was reading: “[H]aving lead a fairly active life, I have for some years lived mainly through books, which I read in dialectical relationship, as it were, with my accumulated experience.”


That pretty well describes my relations with reading. In biological terms, life and books are not parasitic but mutually sustaining – symbiotic in the facultative sense. That is, I could go on living without books and they would get along just fine without me, though my life would be poorer. Dalrymple says that “any moderately sized library has within it enough to provide more than sufficient interest for a hundred lifetimes.”


Think about Robinson Crusoe and the desert island parlor game – what do you salvage if marooned? In this case, which books would sustain you? Few of the books detailed in Dalrymple’s volume are “classics.” He knows his Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson but much of the reading list is devoted to medicine and crime. Dalrymple is a retired physician who worked in an English prison and was often called to testify in court. Like every good essayist, Dalrymple is a generalist. He knows a little about everything, is an expert on nothing and is blessed with a reliable memory. He reminds me of an essay and book by the Scottish poet Alexander Smith: “A Shelf in My Bookcase” in Dreamthorp (1863). Smith writes:


On a certain shelf in the bookcase which stands in the room in which I am at present sitting—bookcase surmounted by a white Dante, looking out with blind, majestic eyes—are collected a number of volumes which look somewhat the worse for wear. . . . These favourite volumes cannot be called peculiar glories of literature; but out of the world of books have I singled them, as I have singled my intimates out of the world of men. I am on easy terms with them, and feel that they are no higher than my heart.”


Near the end he says: “There is many another book on my shelf on which I might dilate, but this gossiping must be drawn to a close.” Same here. Let me leap from Dalrymple to Smith to Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), who puts it playfully in Chap. 4, “The Bookcase,” in The Noise of Time (trans. Clarence Brown, p. 77, The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, 1965):


“The arrangement of its shelves, the choice of books, the colors of the spines are for him the color, height, and arrangement of world literature itself. And as for books which were not included in that first bookcase— they were never to force their way into the universe of world literature. Every book in the first bookcase is, willy-nilly, a classic, and not one of them can ever be expelled.”

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

A wonderful post today - and, lurking behind it, is Holbrook Jackson's "The Anatomy of Bibliomania" (1930). I think he would have approved of today's piece.