Friday, February 13, 2009

Pleasing the Shadows

When I was a Christian child, it was common to indulge in a bit of sanctified fortune-telling called "asking The Book." The book was of course The Book, The Bible, King James Version. (If one wanted the magic to work, magic language was required, and there is no more magic language than the English of the King James. Revised Standard lacks the proper antiquity and high sounding juju.) To seek Divine Guidance, one had only to hold The Book closed, resting on its spine, then let the soft leather sides fall open, the tissue-thin pages slump and flutter how they would and then, with closed eyes, drop a finger to the verse that would answer. That this would tend to The Psalms, being near the middle, was a help.

I shelve my own books as a bookseller: first by category; biography, essays, fiction, history, poetry, travel, etc., then by author
alphabetically. This is true when I am good, when I have time, when I am careful, when I am not otherwise engaged with the books in question. When we bought this house and I found my old oak bookcases could not come through the narrow hall to my new office, I had to give those cases away and buy new ones. I bought plain pine shelves from a used bookstore that was closing in Capital Hill. I had to rethink the configuration of my library. I had to make multiple trips back to the bookstore for more shelves. I had to buy my first power-tools to put the new cases together, to cut and fit them to the new space for my books. I had to reorganize, and when I was done, for the last time in this house, all my books were either boxed or shelved, off the floors, kept, clean and ordered. It was briefly satisfying. It did not last.

Now, all around me, are books I am reading or reading in, books I recently bought, books I did not reshelve, books in stacks and piles and unorganized profusion. Even with the majority on the shelves, disorder, or perhaps, if I were feeling mystical, I might suggest a rather a more organic order, has crept in, so that this morning, turning to poetry to find a quote from a poem by W. H. Auden, I found Joseph Brodsky there, not only as he should be, in his poems, but in his essays as well. Rather than question this, I accepted it, took down Auden and Brodsky and spent the early afternoon in the company of both.

I first loved Joseph Brodsky because he loved Wystan Hugh Auden, calling him "the greatest mind of the Twentieth Century." The first prose by Brodsky I read was an essay on Auden's poem, "September 1, 1939." I've just read the essay, and the poem again. I went on to read Brodsky's own poetry, and other essays, until I think I'd read all Brodsky wrote in English or caused to have translated of his own work from his native Russian before his untimely death at 55 .

Brodsky wrote the best criticism of Auden I ever read. Having reread some of it today, I am reminded that this is what a grateful reader owes the authors he loves; if not the kind of close reading and deep sympathy that a poet like Brodsky brought to his reading of a greater poet like Auden, then at least the rereading and study of the authors that are most meaningful to us.

My old friend C., editor, agent and mistress of The Swivet, led me by that means to an article in the New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, on books in the digital age: People of the Screen, by Christine Rosen. The article is interesting, more for the deliberate provocation of readers like me by various authorities quoted on literacy and computers and such, than for any conclusions the writer draws from them. (Thus good journalism, rather than criticism, is or ought to be defined.) I am glad I read the article.

But what that article does not recognize, and the potential disaster all the quoted authorities, intentionally or unintentionally do not choose to acknowledge is that in suggesting that books are passing out of the culture -- one is tempted here to say The Book, in the secular sense, though perhaps in the sense also that I might have meant by that phrase as a child -- what will be lost is what my experience of my own library today can and did provide and what no computer as yet can or may ever be able to do. I do not doubt I could have found the quote, if not the whole poem by Auden online. I might even have been able to go online from Auden to Brodsky on Auden. Chance connection is inherent in the whole experience of reading online. As Rosen's article points out, it is the greatest virtue and the worst weakness of reading in this new way. Information, and thus distraction, online is only one clicked connection away. But in turning to books, my own books, I am directed not only by chance, but by my own resources, by memory, proximity, presence, from poem to essay, from poet to poet, and -- here's the vital difference -- from book to book. The authority of the book is in not only its accessibility, its mobility, but also in its completeness as a finished thing. The book, be it by Brodsky or Auden, poetry or prose, is the author's completed thought, organized by his or her authority, not mine. And it is to the authority of authors in their books, and not just their words, that the reader may turn with some confidence that distractions might best be put aside, full attention paid, an author known. If I, as a reader, wish to have not only access to a thought, or a quote or a poem, but to the thought of great writers, to the writers themselves, there is nothing more immediate, more personal or more completely possible as a means of connection than to take a book from the shelf, or up off the floor. I might have all the books of the Western canon on my computer or a Kindle or some such device, but the proximity of book to book, of my books to me, is a far more complex and satisfying relationship still, because it is inherently respectful of the authority of authors, and that is what a library of one's own, what even a single book does that a computer and a scanner and a "device" does not and cannot yet do; show the due respect for the source, for the author, for the book. The order of an author's thought, the purpose of the writing, the beauty of the thing, is still better understood in a book than anywhere else. Editors may disservice an author in trying to help by, for example, reordering poems, but this is as nothing compared to the disorder that the undirected reader brings to the infinitely opening reference possible and even likely online. I do not trust myself as much as I trust my books.

I daily put a quote on this blog. I take them from my books. I am always leery of quotation, even as I admit my propensity for it and my habit of collecting quotes from my own reading in a Commonplace Book. (A habit I learned from Auden.) The reason for my ambivalence is that too often, at least in my reading online, these quotes seem to float free of their sources and never reference the context from which the quotes have been clipped. Authors can end being remembered only in quotation. For some, that may be more fame then they would otherwise have, but for good and great writers, that is a tragedy. So every quotation I post, hopefully, has a reference to the place from which I pulled it, in the hope that anyone reading just this sentence or phrase or poem, will wish to read more and find more in the book from which the quotation came. Otherwise, what's the point of pointing it out, if not to point the reader on to a better source, to a book?

And so, a last quote here, from Brodsky, the emphasis added by me, but otherwise just as I found it, and for once, I'll let you find where it came from on your own, just for the exercise, online or off:

"To say the least, every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language."

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