Sunday, August 16, 2009

"... the remainder is needed by others."

I can't make much of a claim to intellectualism. I haven't had the education, and the training in rational thinking and argument that that experience still represents to me, to accept any description of myself as either an educated man or as an "intellectual." I am flattered, having recently been described by an acquaintance as being such, but it simply ain't so. I know this because, to appropriate the famous judgement of the famously Philistine judge when confronted by art, or pornography, I forget which, "I know it when I see it." I've met intellectuals, have some experience with educated people, and envy them their superior capacity, disciple, and intellect. When in the room, as it were, with genuine intellectuals, either in person or just in the company of books, I always, justifiably, assume myself to be the least qualified participant in the discussion. Can't go far wrong, I find, assuming just that, most times. This has sadly never prevented me from getting over-stimulated and jumping in beyond my depth -- I'm a man, after all, and an American, and white, etc., and so a certain unconscious egotism is both something of a birthright, or curse, and something I've had to spend most of my adult intellectual life, quite rightly, trying to overcome, specially in the presence of superior minds and better characters. It hasn't been easy. I had the rather wonderful experience, in retrospect, during my brief college career, of having had a guest lecturer, an African American woman, refuse to acknowledge me in a women's studies class she was teaching for the night. During a break, she called me aside and explained, rather touchingly I now see, that as I was only one of two young men in a class of twenty, and the only white man, it might never occur to me that the female majority might, unthinkingly, defer their own opinions to mine. She was right. It had never occurred to me. I was shocked by the very idea, outraged, even. It was 1983, after all! Hardly the Dark Ages. She might have ignored me all together, or simply have left me blushing, but she didn't. Instead, she patiently, gently suggested that gender -- the very subject under discussion -- and race, still played a role in every aspect of human interaction and that, just as women needed to learn how to speak up, men, and white men in particular, occasionally, had to learn when to shut up.

"That's called an 'unexamined privilege,'" she explained, "and there's no fault in you for having exercised it. Your enthusiasm is a good thing. I don't mean to discourage you. But, if you are really interested in learning from women, particularly in a class dedicated to women's issues, you will have to think about this hereafter, and ask yourself if what you need to know is best learned by asking a question in class, by talking, or by listening."

Then she offered, privately, to answer any questions I might have about her lecture. Marvelous woman. Don't remember her name, never saw her again after that one lecture, but I've never forgotten what she did for me.

I still think about her, and I still ask myself, more often than I really care to admit, if I ought not to just shut up and listen. As I said, I do try. In a way, beyond what she taught me in our short conversation about gender and race, her suggestion has continued to influence not only my personal interactions, but my reading as well, though we never even touched on that subject. With whatever limitations I am burdened intellectually, naturally, culturally and or by an incomplete education, I may still trust my instincts and sense to tell me when I am in the presence of genuine intelligence, scholarship and or superiority of experience. And if I'm quiet, instinct aside, I needn't trust anything but my own eyes and ears. I may not always be trusted to understand, but I at least hope I understand something of due deference. I hope.

Humility is a virtue that grows easier, I find, with practice. Not easy, you understand, but easier, (still a man and all that, don't you know.). Humiliation, so long as it is an internal process rather than external experience, and even sometimes when it has been that, is not, or at least need not be, always such a bad thing. Uncertainty likewise. Neither precludes self respect, or the exercise of earnest pride. Not knowing even the little I think I do so well as I might, I am awed by anyone who seems to know a great deal about anything I think worth knowing, and I'm grateful to anyone capable of sharing what they know even with the likes of me.

Just working in a bookstore, many of life's deeper mysteries must remain, for me, just that. The job figures in this because, while I will never be a proper student again, I am privileged to have access to so much that is best in us in the books around me every day. I'll never have the philosophic training or the philosophy to understand cruelty, for instance, or access to the psychology that might explain it, even in myself. I can, however, read. Moreover, I can read, working in a bookstore, almost anything I might want or need to. Amazing that. And no better way, considering my time in life, my experience and education, to find the best and safest means of considering such a weighty problem. (There's Nietzsche, for example, glowering right at me on the shelf.) The other side of this being that real generosity, of spirit, of mind, of resources, I find equally, if not even more unexpected in and uncharacteristic of humanity than cussedness or evil. And for that, I can also go to books to help me understand life's headier mysteries.

Publishing, for instance. That's a wee joke, of course, but publishing is something of a mystery to me, honestly. I will never be made to understand how it works as well as it does or that it continues to work at all, considering how improvident and even silly it can be. Happening by a cart of recently arrived remainders, I spotted a two volume, hardcover set in a slipcase, just the other day. Now, I have to look at that, don't I? I'm a sucker for a two volume set of anything in a slipcase. To put books into a fancy, cardboard box is to indicate their importance as reference and or literature, and has been since the days when leather became too expensive to be used as the primary indication of lasting value. I own books from as far back as the Twenties merchandised and preserved in this way. As a marketing tool, slipcases have been and continue to be an awfully good idea. As I said, I'm a sucker for them. They speak to my insecurity as an auto-didactic pseudo-intellectual, and to my snobbishness as a book collector, which comes to much the same thing, in my case. If the use of slipcases, as a sign, supposedly, of lasting value to the reader and collector, has become devalued a little in my lifetime, by paperbacked so packaged, I can't really find fault with the democratic impulse that such nicely made, if comparatively inexpensive books represent. (The first gift of a new, grown-up book I received as a child, was a boxed, paperback set of the Earthsea Trilogy, from a rather distant, college-educated uncle. I thought myself awfully lucky to have had so rich a present from someone I knew so little. Still do.) But a two volume set, in good hardcovers, slipcased, now that is still something worth examining. Seeing it discounted, makes it doubly so.

I'll get to the books in a minute, (you could always cheat a little, and look at the picture,) but first, I want to address something of the mystery they represent. Who does such a thing, nowadays?! Who, exactly, was the original audience for these books, and just how large an audience could the publisher of them have anticipated, in America! that they produced enough copies to have the excess, eight years later, that would have necessitated selling them at less than half their original price? What has become of the book business, that these handsome objects should, after as little a time as this, be consigned to be sold as remainders?!

The books in the attractive slipcase that drew my eye, turned out to be The Canongate Burns, first published in the UK, and "simultaneously in North America in 2001 as a Canongate Classic, an imprint of Canongate Books Limited, 14 High Street, Edinburgh." That address explains a lot. The extraordinary scholarship -- at least in part publicly funded -- that went into producing not only a definitive text, but such wonderful, sustained and readable annotation of all of Robert Burns, by the editors, Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg, certainly explains the necessity of the edition. These two volumes, as it turns out, are among the best scholarly editions of any poet I have ever encountered. Reading, almost at random, in either volume, I have found myself not only understanding the poems themselves better than I might ever realistically have hoped to otherwise, but also understanding the poet; his personal and political beliefs, his style, his times, his biography and his culture, better than I should ever have thought possible. It seems to me, a monumental undertaking -- making so readable and informative a text out of Burns, even or specially for an under-educated American drop-out like me, -- a job that was well worth doing. I am extremely grateful to the editors, their publisher, and any and all the organizations, public and private that made such a glorious book happen. I am likewise grateful to our own dear remainder buyer, N., for thinking of me, and probably buying too many of these things, so that I might notice the stack of them even before they made it to the bargain tables on the sales floor. I thank and bless everyone involved.

Still doesn't explain why anyone thought this thing would sell well enough, so recently as 2001, that they produced it in such a lovely way and made so many that, eight years later, I might find a copy on a bargain cart in a bookstore in Seattle, WA, does it? But, as I keep so relentlessly emphasizing here, there are mysteries I will never solve. Best to just be grateful.

For example, reading in the first volume of this edition, the poem, "Address to the Devil," with all the Scots annotated on a corresponding line, in smaller type, just to the right of the line on the page, and then having a closely argued, well reasoned and supported explanation that runs to three dense but wonderfully clear pages right thereafter to help and guide me, and to have all this done with great, good humor in excellent prose, leaves me in all but mute admiration of what real scholars, genuine enthusiasts and first rate teachers, can do, and do handsomely, in a book. Quoting the poet, novelist and great Scots critic, Edwin Muir, and then correcting him with an even longer quote from Carol McGuirk, the editors manage to not only place the poem in a religious and cultural context, but point me to other scholarly resources on Burns, the "deil" and all their works. It is just such wonderful fun!

Now that, to my mind, is proper intellectual stuff, and properly done. Appreciating what has been done, and expressing my gratitude for it, humbly, if only here among my few friends, is about the best I can do. That doesn't make me an intellectual, that is just the response of a man in the book trade, a reader, and someone who, hopefully, knows when to shut up.

Think I'll go read some more Burns now. Tah.

No comments:

Post a Comment