Bibliophilic Books: The Library at Night and Rereadings (thoughts)
Books about books is one of the genres that, pre-blogging, I didn’t even realise existed. It’s rapidly become one of my favourites, althoughI tend to parse the books out as special treats. ;) So when I was creating a reading list for the Dewey Decimal Challenge, I was delighted to discover that Rereadings, ed. by Anne Fadiman and The Library at Nightby Alberto Manguel both fell in the ‘000’ classification. Yay for starting the new year off with two books about books!
I’ve already written about Rereadings as a whole; I’m sorry to say the book made a mixed impression on me. However, I decided it’d be fun to talk about the essays I really enjoyed (to refresh your memory, the book is a collection of essays, each by a different author, about rereading a favourite book). My favourite of them all is probably “My Life with a Field Guide” by Diana Kappel Smith. It’s actually the least ‘literary,’ since it’s about a field guide to wildflowers, but it’s so wonderfully written! Take a look at this description of a flower:
And I remember the aster. Its rays were a brilliant purple, its core a dense coin of yellow velvet. It focused light as a crystal will. It faced the sun, rigid with delight; it was the sun’s echo.
Smith chronicles how the field guide fueled her obsession with plants, which is really a deep love and appreciation for nature. It’s the kind of essay that made me wish Smith was my friend; in my mind, that’s the highest praise! Oh-and it made me want to go for a walk to see what flowers I might find. :)
My other two favourites were written by women as well; the collection is pretty gender-balanced, though, in case you’re wondering! Of course, “Pemberly Previsited” by Allegra Goodman was a delight to read, as it chronicled the author’s rocky relations with Pride and Prejudice. As a lit-major in college, Goodman decides Pride and Prejudice belongs in her past of childhood favourites:
At nine, I’d loved Pride and Prejudice for its humor; at fifteen, I’d read it with melancholy; but in college, I spurned it with feelings akin to those of my roommate when she broke up with her high-school sweetheart. Henry James was so much darker, so much more worldly, so sophisticated. Austen’s art seemed merely sunny. She was a watercolorist, while James was the brilliant mannerist, dazzling with his chiaroscuro.
But after her mother’s death, she turns back to it:
It was too wet to take the baby out, so he played on the floor and I listened to the rain. It rattled on the skylight in the stairwell and thrummed the roof, and I began to reread Pride and Prejudice. I read the book slowly and uncritically, lying on our new blue sofa in our new sparsely furnished town house. I read it because my mother had loved Jane Austen and because rereading it for solace was something she might have done. I read it because my mother was like Jane Austen in her wit, her love of irony, and her concision. My mother was shrewd like Austen, and ingenious; she flourished in difficult professional situations. And like Austen, my mother had died young with her work unfinished.
And I loved this description of the book:
The romance and the castle were no less powerful for their escapist construction. Indeed, what I found irresistible this time was the way Austen combines astute social satire with fairy tale. The combination did not seem awkward to me, but inspired. The satire is exquisite, while the fairy tale is viscerally satisfying.
Then there’s Katherine Ashenburg’s “Three Doctors’ Daughters.” In it, she looks at one of her favourite childhood series-the Sue Barton books by Helen Dore Boystlon-and how women’s roles have changed since the fifties. It’s one of those essays that doesn’t lend itself to excerpts, but reading it felt like having coffee with a dear older friend and asking for life advice.
So all-in-all, while I only loved a handful of essays in Rereadings(most were too pretentious for me), those few were worth reading the book. ;) Oh, and Fadiman’s foreword is wonderful-you can see a couple of my favourite quotes in the ‘notable passages’ below.
Now on to The Library at Night, which I can recommend wholeheartedly. Manguel looks at libraries-in the larger sense of ‘collections of books’-through fifteen distinct lens; the library as myth, order, space, power, shadow, shape, chance, workshop, mind, island, survival, oblivion, imagination, identity, and home. Each chapter is self-contained, but they complement each other wonderfully. Scattered throughout are black-and-white pictures of various libraries, and wonderful quotes, which makes things even more fun! As I’ve come to expect from Manguel, the prose is ordered and intellectual without being pretentious or heavy; it’s a difficult balance to pull off, and I’m impressed at how well he manages it. Sometimes he deals with big, heart-breaking themes (i.e.-Nazi book burning) and other times the little details close to a book lover’s heart (i.e.-how to organise the books). But through it all runs an awareness of the transformative power of books, and book-love, that makes this one a delightful read. Instead of reviewing further, I’ll just let you read my favourite passage:
Happily, most readers fall between these two drastic extremes. Most of us neither shun books in veneration of literature, not shun literature in veneration of books. Our craft is more modest. We pick our way down endless library shelves, choosing this or that volume for no discernible reason: because of a cover, a title, a name, because of something someone said or didn’t say, because of a hunch, a whim, a mistake, because we think we may find in this book a particular tale or character or detail, because we believe it was written for us, because we believe it was written for everyone except us and we want to find out why we were excluded, because we want to learn, or laugh, or lose ourselves in oblivion.
I’ve included a more notable passages below, but you really should just read this one for yourself-I promise you won’t be disappointed!
Notable Passages: Rereadings
But all of these essays pursue the same fugitive quarry-the nature of reading-and, taken together, they have helped me understand why the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as a listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.(Foreword)
The problem with being ravished by books at an early age is that later rereadings are often likely to disappoint. “The sharp luscious flavor, the fine aromais fled,” Hazlitt wrote, “and nothing by the stalk, the bran, the husk of literature is left.” Terrible words, but it can happen. You become harder to move, frighten, arouse, provoke, jangle. Your education becomes an interrogation lamp under which the hapless book, its ever wart and scar exposed, confesses its guilty secrets: “My characters are wooden! My plot creaks! I am pre-feminist, pre-deconstructivist, and pre-postcolonialist!” (The upside of English classes is that they give you criticaltools, some of which are useful, but the downside is that these tools make me less able to shower your books with unconditional love. Conditions are the very thing you’re asked to learn.) You read too many other books, and the currency of each one becomes debased. (Foreword)
A career of reading, on the other hand, allows for more prolonged and spectacular forms of disturbance. It is no accident, at least, that most readers I know were unhappy children. They spent months in the hospital; endured long periods of friendlessness or bereavements; watched loved ones die of cancer; had parents who were crazy or divorced; spent formative years in a foreign country; suffered from early exposure to “fantasy” or “adventure” novels for boys or “mystery” or “romance” novels for girls; or lived through some overwhelming experience of dislocating weirdness, such as growing up on an army base, or on a farm, or in a cult. (David Samuels: “Marginal Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Cluttered Apartments in the East Seventies”)
Doris Derman was the first person, aside from teachers, I heard speak with authority about books and writers. But her authority was different; she spoke not from a height but from within the precinct of the initiated. She had opinions, and they were based on nothing but her own taste and whim. This was unheard of in my convent-school world of hierarchy and certainty, where references to authority were … authoritative.(Patricia Hampl: “Relics of Saint Katherine”)
I read the book [Arthur Rimbaud by Enid Starkie] slowly, in part because it was dense and in part because I wanted to be seen reading it. I wore the book as much as a I read it, “absentmindedly” holding it in one hand on the street even when I was carrying a satchel of books in the other, “casually” parking it atop my notebook next to my coffee cup wherever I sat. I proudly displayed it on the subway, at Nedick’s and Chock full o’Nuts and the Automat, in garment-district cafeterias, at the juice stand in the passage from the IRT to the shuttle at Grand Central, in the car care of the 5:50 express home (drinkless but trying to outsmoke everybody), maybe once or twice at some dump on St. Mark’s pace that advertised Acapulco Gold ice cream. There was no T-shirt available then, but I was identifying my brand in comparable fashion.(Luc Sante: “A Companion of the Prophet”)
When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible. She was out Book of Wisdom. We read her for solace, and for moral instruction. We read her to learn better who we were, and how, given the constraints of our condition, we were to live. The condition, of course, was that we were women, and that Love (as we had all long known) was the territory upon which our battle with Life was to be pitched.(Vivian Gornick: “Love with a Capital L”)
I generally detest criticizing literature through the lens of contemporary morality, yet at the same time I find that most people who gripe about “political correctness” have a hidden agenda to whisk us back to a mythical golden age, when life was simpler and no one complained (and, as it happened, people who looked just like them ran the world). (Jamie James: “You Shall Hear of Me”)
Notable Passages: The Library at Night
Immensely generous, my books make no demands on me but offer all kinds of illuminations. “My library,” wrote Petrarch to a friend, “is not an unlearned collection, even if it belongs to someone unlearned.” Like Petrarch’s, my books know infintely more than I do, and I’m grateful they even tolerate my presence. At times I feel that I abuse this privilege.
The order decreed by library catalogues is, at night, merely conventional; it holds no prestige in the shadows. Though my own library has no authoritarian catalogue, even such milder orders as alphabetical arrangement by author or division into sections by language find their power diminished. Free from quotidian constraints, unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A half-remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear. If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world’s essential, joyful muddle.
Unpacking books is a revelatory activity.
Like Nature, libraries abhor a vacuum, and the problem of space is inherent in the very nature of any collection of books.
(Columbia University’s librarian Patricia Battin, a fierce advocate for the microfilming of books, disagreed with this notion. “The value,” she wrote, “in intellectual terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established.” There speaks a dolt, someone utterly insensitive, in intellectual or any other terms, to the experience of reading.)
A study lends its owner, its privileged reader, what Seneca calledeuthymia, a Greek word which Seneca explained means “well-being of soul,” and which he translated as “tranquillitas.” Every study ultimately aspires to euthymia. Euthymia, memory without distraction, the intimacy of a reading time-a secret period in the communal day-that is what we seek in private reading space.
Is it possible to set up a library that imitates this whimsical, associate order, one that might seem to an uninformed observer a random distribution of books, but that in fact follows a logical if deeply personal organization?
Every reader has found charms by which to secure possession of a page that, by magic, becomes as if never read before, fresh and immaculate. Libraries are the vaults and treasure chests of these charms.