Tuesday, May 27, 2008


A few weeks ago, I briefly wrote about personal libraries over at Loud, Please. Soon after that, my colleagues there beat me to a follow-up punch by linking to a piece about the same subject by Alberto Manguel in the New York Times.

Manguel has an entire barn in France devoted to his books. Given my more modest space here in Brooklyn (the photos in this post show a few of my stacks, some more haphazard than others), I've lost the ability to hang on to stinkers, but I appreciated this line from Manguel: "I have dozens of very bad books that I don’t throw away in case I ever need an example of a book I think is bad."

(Manguel's latest work, The Library at Night, just arrived from Amazon today. It's an illustrated book about his and other libraries, and I feel safe recommending it after just once flipping through the pages.)

I also liked this paragraph in the Times piece, though I don't strongly relate to its conclusion:
I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t have a library of some sort. The present one is a sort of multilayered autobiography, each book holding the moment in which I opened it for the first time. The scribbles on the margins, the occasional date on the flyleaf, the faded bus ticket marking a page for a reason today mysterious, all try to remind me of who I was then. For the most part, they fail. My memory is less interested in me than in my books, and I find it easier to remember the story read once than the young man who then read it.
For better or worse, I think I have a better grasp of the younger man than the stories. I remember plenty of stories reasonably well, but if I take a random book that I read, say, ten years ago, and which didn't leave a lasting impression (even if I enjoyed it), chances are the story escapes me. I'll go grab a book to see if I'm right...

Here's Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies. There are markings throughout. The back cover tells me it's "the story of Connor 'Gil' Gilmartin," who "catches his wife in flagrante with the Sniffer, his onetime colleague and now his murderer. But murder is only the first of the indignities that Gil must suffer. He lingers on as a ghost, and ... gets to view the exploits and failures of his ancestors, from the forerunners who sailed up the Hudson to Canada during the American Revolution to his university-professor parents."

Yeah, I don't remember any of that.

But on page 254, I underlined the following sentences:
Of course he's never really lived here. Not in his heart, he hasn't. It's always Wales. The Land of Lost Content. Does everybody have one?
I don't remember singling them out, but it doesn't take much to realize why I did. I still have a nostalgic streak, and a belief, which I've written about before, that life -- my life -- is always happening somewhere else.

Those sentences from Davies are fine. (By which I mean, of course, fine for what they say about me; Robertson Davies' prose doesn't need my approval.) I'm still happy that I underlined most of what I have over the years, not to sound like I'm 90. There are certainly things I've tagged that now make me shudder, but I'm shuddering because I've been found out. It's easy to laugh about an old haircut or pair of eyeglasses, to chalk them up to the style of the time. It's something else to confront old feelings and old ways of seeing. No, "old" is too certain. They might be current ways of feeling -- most likely, they are -- but you wouldn't look for their reflection in precisely the same sentences or paragraphs. To wit, I thought I'd find the most recent thing I've bracketed. It's this excerpt from Pack My Bag, a memoir by Henry Green published in 1940:
When I said goodbye in the South of France they all gathered round and told the journey's fortune in cards, arguing over the way one card turned or fell next to the other with as much passion as they ever used towards their politicians. They foretold a railway accident I should be in on the way home. It came to pass but shall find no place here, it was no different from what might have been expected, and was an uninteresting trick to have been played. I did not like to leave France.

It must be the greatest lump of all in dying if our condition is that we are conscious of it at the time. Regret, remorse, the broken bottles our lives are. The French, so practical, cry readily at parting, the Russians, and we were reading Tchekov then, have a minute's silence before the journey. It may be they have this custom because when they travel they have so far to go but when the time comes there cannot be a distance greater than death takes us nor, as I had come to think, one so final. Every farewell, as the French have it, is to die a little. Calling these to mind now may be in a way to die a little less.


Blogger Dezmond said...

Good post. If a person's library tells you anything about that person: I would say only a fourth of my library is fiction. Much of which are classics that I feel I "should" read and have not as of this date. They are there primarily for show.

Then I have a decent history section. My true academic love. But the bulk of my library is comprised of, surprise, books about music and movies, all of which I have read through meticulously. Finally, lots of reference and how-to books because I'm an idiot and don't know how to do anything. Oh, and my law books (my profession) are all stacked on top of the shelves out of reach since I hardly ever look at those.

Need a lawyer?

10:51 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love my books and take great care when I organize them...in a manner of logic recognizable only to me (and perhaps me biographer...yes, MY life is happening elsewhere as well, and it's a GREAT READ).

As always, I adore your site.
Deeply distinct and satisfying.
As ever,
Katy O


10:04 PM  

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