Archive

Tag Archives: library

Our education is judged as much by the books we haven’t read as those we have. It’s a sad fact that no matter how well-read we try to be, we simply cannot read everything. Not even close. 

My reading includes many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I have read Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around my Room, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis of the Deified Claudius (Alternately, the Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius, antedating the apocolocyntosis of Donald Trump by two millennia), Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.  

That tendency to seek out so many obscure books has meant that I read Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile long before I ever finished Moby Dick. In fact, I have read almost all of Melville, from Typee to The Confidence Man to John Marr and Other Sailors, and his poetry, in Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War. The problem with Moby Dick was not the book, but me. I love the style of Melville so much, that every time I picked up Moby Dick, I started again from the beginning. Over and over. I must have read “Loomings” 50 times. I have since gotten through the whole thing, and I love the book dearly. Reading Melville is like eating a meal as rich as foie gras. 

I mention all this because, while I have read Xenophon’s Anabasis, and enjoyed the hell out of it, I have to confess, I have never quite been able to finish Thucydides. Herodotus charms the heck out of me; I can’t count the number of times I have gone back to his Histories, but old Thucydides always feels a bit turgid, dense and humorless. I feel I gain as much from reading a summary of his Peloponnesian Wars as from trudging through the full-length. I may be mistaken in that belief, I grant. But the fact is, I have limited time on this planet, and of the making of books there is no end. 

The number of books I know I should have read is immense. Yes, I have read Tristram Shandy (the funniest book I have ever read), but I have never read Jane Austen. I hope to get around to it some day. I have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I have not yet read Proust. (I have a similar problem with Swann’s Way that I had with Moby Dick: I have read the first 50 pages several times, and each time, I start anew.) 

I only got around to Tolstoy’s War and Peace last year. I don’t know why it took me so long. It may be the greatest book I’ve ever read. I still haven’t tackled Anna Karenina, although many years ago I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata. 

The holes in my erudition are wide enough to sail an icebreaker through. Yet, I count in this world, as a fairly well-read man. 

Sometimes we feel guilty for things we should not. The guilt hangs over us like a dark cloud, and we live our lives believing that everyone knows. I am confessing my guilt here, and the obvious fact that I am a fraud. 

Among the books I haven’t read are: The Aeneid (it bores me every time I pick it up); Don Quixote (I’ve tried, believe me, but it just goes on and on and never seems to get anywhere); Les Miserables; Sons and Lovers; The Tin Drum; Lord Jim; Rabbit, Run; Orlando; The Handmaid’s Tale; Dr. Zhivago; Jude the Obscure. I could go on. 

There are whole authors I have managed to avoid: Aside from Austen, there are: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, J.R.R. Tolkien. All of them worthy and important. Among the writers I have avoided because of being forced to read them in high school, and therefore destroying my ability to even bear them are Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Forcing kids to read books well beyond their ability to understand them can only ruin those books for life. 

From the list of the so-called greatest books on the website thegreatestbooks.org, I have read 19 of the top 25 volumes on the list and 31 of the first 50. That seems decent, but it leaves off too many books that I should have read. 

Prominent among them are more recent writings. I have read the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Tao Te Ching and Beowulf many times in different translations, I have somehow managed to miss Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Khaled Hosseini, Annie Proulx, and Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Shakespeare & Co., Paris

I swear, I know this is a horrible confession. I am one ignorant S.O.B. Yes to Suetonius, no to Dio Cassius; Yes to Longinus and Lucretius, not so much for Josephus or Livy. 

What I blame is not so much my waywardness, but the fact that it is impossible to read everything. The last person to do that, according to his biography, was John Milton, who took several years off after university to read everything ever written in a language he could read, and that included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and, of course, English. But much has been published since then, and even a specialist cannot read everything just in his or her own field. So, we pick and choose.

And if, like me, you choose not to be a specialist, and not get a post-doctoral degree in the subspecies of Malagasy dung beetle, so as to become the world expert in such, the purpose of reading is not to master a particular field, but to take as wide a view of everything as possible. 

One could certainly find a list — such as the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf — of those books deemed by consent of the educated to be the most important and slog your way through them one by one so as to round out your erudition. But I have chosen a more desultory strategy, picking those books that appealed to me. After all, I read primarily for pleasure, not by obligation.

And let’s face it, the five-foot shelf of a hundred years ago is now rather dated and fails to include much that would now be considered mandatory. Things change. 

So, I make my own list, and if it includes H.L. Mencken and doesn’t include Fenimore Cooper, so be it. Although I did get huge pleasure from reading Mark Twain’s exploration of Cooper’s “literary offenses.” I recommend it. 

everymans-library-lede-pic

As I’ve become older, I have become less tolerant of badly-designed, -printed and or -bound books. When I was younger, often I didn’t really know the difference, or thought there was nothing I could do about it — I would just have to read whatever volume came to hand.

These days, however, if a book is the wrong size, has print too tiny, or margins to slender, or its binding cracks when opened too often, I simply put it aside and pick up another book.

It helps that the books I read are primarily classics — that is, books that come in various published versions. Best sellers tend to come only in the version their publishers produce, but when it comes to Lucretius or Melville, you can find a choice of version. You don’t have to put up with yellowing paper or brittle glued bindings.

I bring this up, because I have settled on a prodigy of good book production. The paper is acid free, the type is neither too small or too big, the ink is solidly black, the margins adequate for scribbling, the bindings tight and the covers covered in a beautiful linen. As a bonus, each book comes with its own ribbon bookmark attached to the spine. They are sold under the name Everyman’s Library and in the U.S. are an imprint of Knopf.modern-library-2

The current editions are not the same as the classic Everyman’s Library books that are the hidden treasure dug up in every excavation of a dusty old used bookstore in an off-the-way road in rural America. In the past, avid prospectors of used books to read (as opposed to the more modern perversion of seeking first-editions and rare books for a “collection” shown off to visitors and seldom actually read) would seek out Everyman’s books and their American equivalent, Modern Library books. They were cheap, well made and gave you access to all the classic novels and poetry you craved. You can still uncover Modern Library books on the swayback shelves of those bookstores, but some of them have actually become “collectible,” and therefore unaffordable.

everyman-old-style

everyman-old-style-stackThe original Everyman’s Library was devised in 1905 by J.M. Dent and Company in London, with the idea of creating a 1,000 book library of world literature affordable to the ordinary man (and woman). The books originally sold for a shilling apiece (roughly $5 in current U.S. dollars). The books were beautifully designed, in imitation of the books of the Kelmscott Press, and were pocket size and hard cover. I still own several titles, including the entire Spectator series written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, from the 18th century. Four volumes of enameled prose.

The current Everyman’s Library books are full size, with nice curved spines, clean linen hard covers, color coded by which century a book was written in, and offer more than 300 titles. They also produce a series of pocket-sized volumes of poetry that you can carry around with you without tearing open the corners of your jacket pockets.

The first of the new Everyman’s Library I became aware of was when I looked for a version of Tristram Shandy I could read. The one I had was a lousy paperback in dense print with insufficient leading between lines. It was an offset print version poorly inked, meaning the letters often grayed out on the yellowed pages. Pfui. But I found a used copy of the Everyman’s Library version and it was as if the sun shone from behind the clouds and the angels’ sang. I read it cover to cover, enjoyed the hell out of it and realized how much the book design helped me navigate it.

library-of-america-shelf

There is another excellent series of books published as the Library of America, which reprints American classics in beautiful editions. Compared with the Everyman’s Library, the Library of America suffers from slightly smaller type and thinner paper. They are excellently edited and offer many tomes not even available elsewhere (such as William Bartram’s Travels and Francis Parkman’s histories). As I gaze to my left at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in my office, I count 49 Library of America book spines. I seek them out in used bookstores to save a few bucks — another advantage of the Everyman’s Library books is that, while they are no longer a shilling apiece, they do run an average of a third less than the Library of America offerings.

best-of-wodehouse-coverI bring all this up because I am presently reading the Everyman’s Library edition of P.G. Wodehouse. It is 840 pages of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Blandings Castle and Mr. Mulliner in prose as frothy as the foam above a double latte. Friends who know me well knot their eyebrows and wonder what’s going on with Nilsen. Where is the man who would rather collate translations of Vergil than dive into a chocolate sundae?

As it turns out, one needs some balance in a life. As I consider my recent reading history I see the obvious pattern. After diving deep (and I mean deep) into Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, I needed to blow off the louring clouds, and took on John Updike’s Bech books — collected, as it turned out, in an Everyman’s Library volume. Enjoyed the heck out of them.

After that I took on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It is three giant volumes long of depression, depravity, injustice, sadism and totalitarianism. I got through the first volume and a half before I had to put it down for a spell. In the interim, I took up Jean Renoir’s memoir of his father. It was a joy to read. I am not a big fan of Pierre Auguste’s paintings, but his son is an excellent writer and I came to value Renoir pere as a man, even if the book didn’t change my thinking about him as an artist.

It felt like diving into the sea, coming up for air, diving down once again, and coming up into the sunlight for relief.

After Renoir, I got back into the Gulag, but soon needed more oxygen, so before I even finished Vol. 2, I headed off to reread Melville’s I and My Chimney — my favorite of his Piazza Tales, and then into A Mencken Chrestomathy, for a good draught of cynicism and cold water before returning to the Solzhenitsyn. But I got sidetracked by another Everyman’s Library book: The Book of Common Prayer.

I don’t know if it was the recent election or what, but I felt I needed the cleansing of some very pure language. You may ask, why would a hardened atheist decide to read Thomas Cranmer’s iconic prayer book? It certainly wasn’t for the theology; it was for the words, so familiar to us, speaking to us of hundreds of years of linguistic tradition, a source of all we take as serious and dignified in the English language. It is hard to turn the page and not find some phrase that is our mother tongue’s subconscious. There is comfort in those cadences.

After that, I took on D.H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico. I enjoy his travel books more than his fiction. He is one odd fellow, idiosyncratic, often wrong-headed in the extreme, but always fun to read.

Other palate-cleansers I have dipped into include Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.

war-and-peaceWhen I have done with Wodehouse, the next in the queue is War and Peace. It is a book that if I were to go to a Roman Catholic confession, I would have to admit, “Father forgive me, for I have sinned. I have never read War and Peace.” I know it is on the list of books that one should have read, but although I had begun the thing several times over the years, I had never found a volume comfortable enough to read. The thing is immense. One version I bought came with a complimentary hydraulic lift to help lug it around.

Then I discovered the Everyman’s Library edition — in three easily handled volumes, breaking up the density into digestible bits. It comes in its own box, with small wheels attached to help roll it around. (Actually, I’m making up the wheels, but it does have its own box.)

It sits there staring at me, waiting for me to finish with Bertie Wooster and challenging me with Pierre Bezukhov. If I make it through — like trudging from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok — I will find something a little lighter to serve as a sherbet dessert before taking up Vol. 3 of the Gulag.

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

birds

This is about two very unpleasant men and a third about whom I know little except his work and talent. I learned from all three.

Old EzThe first is Ezra Pound, a vile anti-semite and spouter of crackpot economic and political — to say nothing of conspiracy — theories. He also wrote some profoundly beautiful verse. When I was in college, I pored over his Personae, the collection of his shorter poems. But that is not why he makes this list. I read a lot of wonderful poetry by lots of excellent poets.

The one thing you have to say about Pound is that he knows a lot of stuff. And as he got older, more and more of that stuff became the upholstery of his writing — cushion stuffing, basically. Pound couldn’t help writing about what he knew — or rather what he had read about. It is very literary knowledge and you wonder if he ever looked around him to see the street traffic or the overcoats his fellow pedestrians were wearing against the winter. Instead, his head is stuck in the world of Procne and Philomela, that of Greek classical culture, Renaissance finance, the historical concepts of founding fathers and Provencal verse forms.

I mention Procne and Philomela for a reason. In his early poetry, any reference to nature comes in the form of a literary reference. Hence nightingales and doves. In the myth, Procne was turned into a swallow and her sister into a nightingale. In Pound, owls are Athena and eagles are imperial. One gets used to this as one gets used to the scenic flats in a stage set. pound mugshot

But then, after the war, when Pound, who had been making rather silly anti-American radio broadcasts for il Duce, was arrested and imprisoned as a traitor in a POW camp in Pisa, his poetry begins to crack, much like he cracked mentally. The Pisan Cantos, for which he won the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1948, has its share of remembered, misremembered and half-remembered arcana, but throughout the many sections of the book, moments pop through where you are suddenly out of the dusty library of his brain and in a cage in Pisa, noticing actual weather and actual birds.

“4 birds on 3 wires, one bird on one”

And you see them, black notes on a musical staff. The world begins to break through the battlements of book learning. Air ventilates the stony cell of his brain.

“The Pisan clouds are undoubtedly various

and splendid as any I have seen since

at Scudder’s Falls on the Schuylkill

by which stream I seem to recall a feller

settin’ in a rudimentary shack doin’ nawthin’

not fishin’, just watchin’ the water,

a man of about forty-five

nothing counts save the quality of the affection”

At several points he notices small but very real details:

“That butterfly has gone out thru my smoke hole.”

And you weep to know that buried under all that pointless erudition — an erudition that is a deflection of experience — there is a genuine human soul who might have been truly great. Cantos

The final fragments of Cantos speak of his dawning understanding of what he has failed to grasp.

“Let the gods forgive what I

have made

Let those I love try to forgive

what I have made”

These are the final words of his Cantos, and your heart breaks. And you remember the quote from Henry Miller: “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.”

Literature is nice, but living one’s life in the actual weather wearing actual galoshes is more to the point.

The relationship between brain and book is explored in the next book — which has the most unfortunate title since the now out-of-print Design of Active-Site Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors: ZenbookIt is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The title is a faddish one, that practically screams, “I was written in 1974!” The book has nothing meaningful to say about either Zen Buddhism or motorcycles. But it has a lot to say about the central distinction between nouns and verbs as they play out both in our minds and in the world before us.

Pirsig makes no attempt to be likable. He is spiny, querulous, bossy, pedantic, and exhibits some of the anempathetic qualities of Asberger syndrome. Yet, he is unquestionably brilliant.

He uses Plato’s dialog, Phaedrus, to examine what he calls “Quality,” which he defines in an entirely idiosyncratic way, essentially remaking the word entirely. Pirsig

“Quality is not a thing. It is an event.”

That is, a verb, not a noun. It is one’s engagement with the world in the instantaneous present, before anything is named or understood.

The book slowly builds to this understanding as Pirsig takes a motorcycle trip with his son. The tour is interrupted by long stretches of philosophical discussion taking us into the issues of perception.

“Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past, and therefore unreal.” When you have experienced something and given it a name, it is already over. That unintellectualized instant of engagement is an active boiling; anything after it is already a snapshot looked at in leisure.

And we tend to fit what we experience into the patterns of the snapshots we already have in our photo album. As I have said many times, “What you know prevents learning.”

The climax of the book, for me, comes when Pirsig makes the leap from this to the words of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, and suddenly, the odd, incomprehensible language of that Chinese classic pops into palpable reality: “The name that can be named is not the absolute name.” Pirsig substitutes his odd definition of “quality:” “Fathomless! Like the fountainhead of all things …  Yet crystal clear like water it seems to remain.”

I have since substituted the word “beauty” for “quality.” If art seeks beauty, it is in the form of engagement with “the fountainhead of all things,” the precious, unslotted, uncataloged now and its very active nowness. Beauty is the engagement, not the thing: A verb, not a noun.

But language itself can be bypassed. Too many seem to believe that thought comes in words. It may do so, but a good deal of thought comes non-verbally. There is visual thinking, aural thinking, spatial thinking, temporal thinking. You cannot verbally engage your brain with a pitcher’s slider and hope to connect with the bat. The thinking involved is completely non-verbal.artur schnabel

Music is the great cultural means of making an argument over time without words, and you cannot get a better example of this than Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

Of all the things I learned at college, the one I am most grateful for is the ability to read musical scores. I collect scores — Eulenberg and Kalmus miniatures — the same as language books, and read them with much pleasure. If you are on an airplane and try to listen to music through headphones, all you get is static drowned in jet noise. But if you bring along the score, say, to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, you can read it and hear it in your head and the jet noise disappears.

And no score has meant more to me than Artur Schnabel’s edition of Beethoven’s sonatas. The notes sit on the pages like Pound’s blackbirds on their wires and sing their song. schnabel edition score

Schnabel is a micromanager as an editor, and many pages have more footnotes than musical notes. But he was one of the greatest performers of this music ever — his recordings of the complete set, made in the 1930s, is still in print and has never been superseded, even as technology has progressed. And his insight into the music, expressed in those footnotes, is always enlightening. I have gone through those two volumes of sonatas many, many times, always with profound enjoyment and growing depth.

I cannot imagine my library without them.

NEXT: What has fallen by the wayside

Faust reading
A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers:

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

My initial response was to laugh at myself, because my list would undoubtedly make me sound like a dusty old pedant. It would include a good number of the “right” or “great” works, but not because I wanted to sound learned, but because they are the ones that have touched me. I can’t help it; given a choice between John Milton and Jonathan Franzen, I will always choose Milton — with no calumny directed at Franzen: It is merely my pleasure. And I mean pleasure.paradise lost

My old newspaper deskmate, Kerry Lengel, who is a very good writer, used to laugh at me because I would wax eloquent about how much I enjoyed reading Paradise Lost. He couldn’t imagine anyone actually enjoying that dense verbiage. But I was genuine about it. Milton gives me tremendous pleasure. I read it not for its theological import, but for its organ-tone language, which I can roll around on my tongue like a good, well-seasoned, well-aged piece of beef. Poetic umami. meat

But the request, sent out on the ether, did make me consider which books have meant the most to me. As we enter an age where printed matter goes the way of papyrus and clay tablets, I wonder at just how decisive have been the books that entered my life.

I don’t expect anyone to be absorbed by the fact that this or that book changed my life. My life is fairly banal. I certainly don’t expect anyone to run out and buy these books in hopes they might change their lives. But, I hope it might be interesting enough to see just how an anthill of tiny black marks on a page can affect the growth of a sensibility, and perhaps reading about it might give someone the urge to consider not merely which books most affected them, but how and why.

There are books we read with no more lasting effect than a sitcom we watch on TV. They are still worth reading, and they add to our experience of life, but they don’t leave lasting footprints. They make up the bulk of our reading.

There are books that we enjoy more than others and that we want to read and reread many times, and when we do, we discover the book itself has grown as we have grown and is completely different from the one we read as a callow youth. Rereading is one of life’s imperatives.

But beyond these, there are the fewer books that completely changed our way of regarding the world, changed our outlook, our philosophy, our very umwelt. They are the life-changing books and they stay under our skin like chiggers for a lifetime.

They are not necessarily the best books, but the ones that altered our lives. When we are children, they may very well be otherwise insignificant books that nevertheless opened our hearts and minds to things we knew not of.

As young adults, they are the books that removed the scales from our eyes, so that we emerged from our adolescent pupae into the brighter world.

As adults, they are the books that re-oriented us and the direction of our lives.

And as old age closes over, they are the books that remind us most powerfully of our connection to the eons.

I cannot winnow the list down to a mere 10. But I can give you a list divided into the different ages of life and how they helped me navigate into the present.

I will consider them over the next several blogs. First, though, I want to look at the books that ruled my childhood. “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.” the world we live in

In 1956, on my eighth birthday, my grandmother gave me a copy of Life magazine’s The World We Live In. I still have it, in its red leatherette binding, although with a few nicks in it. There is no book that more completely threads the boy I was with the man I became.

The chapters of the book — “The Earth is Born,” “The Miracle of the Sea,” “The Face of the Land,” “The Pageant of Life,” “The Starry Universe” — taught me the great variety of life on the planet, and, more important, the great time frame of the cosmos. It instilled in me — or reinforced what was already an inclination — a love for the things of this earth and conversely, though not actually an argument of the book, a mistrust of things merely “spiritual” or conceptual. I wanted to rub it between my fingers; to taste and smell it. dinosaur 2

The photos and illustrations of sea life, dinosaurs, and “The Woods of Home” became a catalog of those things I continue to hold in my cor cordiumall about dinosaurs

There were other books, too. All About Dinosaurs, by Roy Chapman Andrews, which fed my childhood fascination with the Mesozoic, and other in the “All About” series, each taking on some aspect of the natural world. There were the Golden Nature Guides, those tiny books on insects, weather, geology or weeds written or edited by Herbert S. Zim. golden guidesI have lost and rebought copies of most of them throughout my life. I still have about 25 of them, tucked away on my bookshelves, and I still take them out periodically and leaf through their simple illustrations — pictures that lit up my childhood from within.

One can see from the number of hits on Google that Zim bent many twigs for many young readers.

And there was Compton’s Picture Encyclopedia, an edition from the 1930s that our neighbor gave us.comptons It was filled with pictures of autogyros, streamlined trains and soldiers wearing puttees. It further reinforced a vision of the world that infinitely varied and multifarious. There was more to life, clearly, than the New Jersey suburbia I grew up in.

When I was a little older, my parents bought for me a young-adult novel, thinking that I might enjoy it. Their hearts were in the right place, but they didn’t really understand where my little brain was going. I thanked them, but told them outright, “I don’t like fiction; I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.”

Yes, I was an idiot, but who isn’t at that age. autogyros

The bottom line was that my childhood reading put me in touch with the physical world and its magnificent diversity. Even as an adult, I inclined (there is that word again) toward the “thingness” of the world, and later in life, that what Kant calls the “noumenon” can best be reached through awareness and connection with the physical presence of the world, rather than through words and mere ideas. In other words, poetry, not philosophy.

Yes, as the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.

NEXT: The maelstrom of adolescent reading