gall and gumption

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


When I taught literature I was always glad that the books we used were cheap. Didn't have to buy those big old dull textbooks, because our textbooks were just regular books that people bought to read. I always loved it that I could buy a Signet edition of, say, Great Expectations, for a couple dollars. I could have a literary experience as rich and interesting and enduring and genuine as a genuine Rembrandt, and throw it at stray male dogs if I needed to. (When I'm walking only one dog I read as I walk). I could get a used copy for less than the price of a copy of the New Yorker and I could travel with it and leave it behind, lightening my load as I went. I've never been really into "collecting" books as objects. I accumulated a library because I wanted to read everything. And I wanted to read a lot of it more than once. I have long-term relationships with books and authors. But I did come to value particular books, some of them because they are kind of rare (like the three-volume memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon) or because I don't want to find myself without a copy (Montaigne, Blake, Marvell) or because I am just totally guaranteed absorbing entertainment (Faulkner) or because they are now part of my annual Ritual Reading (Sterne, Austen).

When I was teaching I got a lot of instructors' copies, of course, a brand spanking new one for every text I used. This was nice if I wanted to work out of a new book, and it was also handy if there was a particularly hard up student; I could just lend out a spare. I left most of these in a great heap on the floor of my office when I quit teaching, and told students to just help themselves. I stripped everything down to the barest minimum. Most of my books are still in storage in Santa Barbara. What I have with me now, approximately a third, completely covers one wall of my bedroom plus two bookshelves in the living room. Luckily I have all the ones I call my "Precious Things", the ones by Marvin Mudrick and Al Stephens and all my friends, and two copies of my own that I will not part with for any consideration, as they are now very difficult to get.

I kept myself to basically one copy of everything. Well, I tried, let's say. Like my OUP paperback edition of The Monk. And my set of Hazlitt. The trouble is that these books are now going on 20 years old. I read the Hazlitt and the glue starts to fall out of the binding and by the time I'm halfway through it the cover has detached itself completely from the inside. I never imagined that the books would age, when I bought them. I never imagined life so far into the future. The Monk I can replace but what about the Hazlitt? And what do I do with the paperbacks that I inherited from Marvin? The ones that were his old extra instructors' copies? I can't bring myself to give them away, even if they do fall apart. I don't think he was sentimentally attached to them, but now I am. I have the one-volume Pelican Shakespeare, which I dip into from time to time, but in storage I have almost all of the single editions of Shakespeare's plays, inherited from Marvin. I don't need all those books in any practical sense; I'm not that mad in love with Shakespeare and Marvin certainly wasn't. But I will always feel as if something is not quite whole in my life until I have them all with me where I can see them. Meanwhile I watch the cheap paperbacks disintegrate.

One friend, (you know who you are!) sends me the Oxford Classics in the neat little hardbound volumes that they used to make. I have almost a full set of the Barsetshire novels, several of the Palliser novels, lots of Tolstoy and, best of all, Tristram Shandy. The Tristram Shandy went with me to the Caribbean and read it twice in the two years I spent there. It is battered, with a mysterious brown stain on one page, but it is still holding together. The pages will never fall out. It is probably 30 years older than any of the disintegrating paperbacks.

I have a copy of La Regenta, by the Spanish novelist Leopoldo Alas. It is a great novel. I started reading it and about 100 pages in the pages started falling out to an alarming degree. I basically gave up and put it back on the shelf because I just couldn't stand the disintegration. The fear of disintegration makes me hesitate to read that nice Ecco Press complete Chekhov too. When I read Clarissa I end up literally tearing the book to pieces. It comes out in this enormous single volume, published by Penguin books; 1400 pages of probably 9-point type. By the time I am halfway through it is split, and then it is easier to just read it in pieces. I have tried with the copy I have now to be extra careful and it has actually survived a reading. It looks pretty good.

Because I don't have all my books the present state of my book collection looks strangely incoherent. They have been in boxes in this storage unit for years, and yet still, I have the sense of incompleteness, of essential things missing. What's missing? My old copy of Dryden's complete poems that I used when I studied the Augustan poets with Ken Ellyson; the Theodore Besterman life of Voltaire; a very fragile old pocket-sized copy of The Rise of the Dutch Republic (though why should I complain about that when I have another edition in much better shape here?); D.H. Lawrence's letters, all of Lawrence, actually. (It's not that hard to get hold of all of Lawrence, but these have associations.)

No, if the circumstances of my ridiculous life had permitted me I would not have parted with a single one. I can use them all. And although I don't collect as avidly as I used to, in my mind I keep a list of things that I want to get, to read and add to the collection because I got the idea that they are going to lead me somewhere. It's nice that they are out there.


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