Thursday, May 23, 2013

Unpacking my (academic) library

After nearly three years in Ohio, I was able to take my academic books out of storage yesterday and move them into my new fourth-floor green-apple-green office on campus. The office is as narrow as an elephant’s coffin, but there is room in it for eight bookcases. Unlike Walter Benjamin, who was jerked into reflection before his books were even on his shelves, I started in immediately to release my books from their boxed confinement and arrange them in a rough semblance of an alphabet—the A’s just inside the office door, the middle of the alphabet having to wait until I’d removed enough boxes to reach the shelves over by the window. Before leaving Texas, I had packed the books in “the mild boredom of order” and carefully noted the contents in Sharpie on all four sides of each cardboard box. I asked the movers to leave the boxes marked Aar–Aris and Aris–Barz in the hallway outside, and I attacked those boxes with a utility knife right away.

Before long, though, I was reduced to guessing where Henry James and Dr. Johnson would end up when, days from now, I would finally be done. I had gone without these books for almost three years, and though I had missed very few of them, I was warmed by their familiarity. My library is like an intellectual autobiography. As I lifted books out of their boxes, blowing the dust off the top edge, I was able to retrace my steps. There were the books from my undergraduate years, when I was an American studies major (just like Tom Wolfe!). There was John Kouwenhoven’s Made in America, Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land, Seymour Martin Lipset’s First New Nation. There were the poets I read to keep up with my friends at Santa Cruz, all of whom seemed to be would-be poets—John Haines, William Stafford, W. S. Merwin. There were the books from graduate school—D. W. Robertson’s Preface to Chaucer, L. C. Knights’s Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, William Empson’s Milton’s God. There were the philosophers on whom I broke my teeth when I first arrived to teach at Texas A&M, because the younger colleagues whose company I preferred were in philosophy—Donald Davidson, Nelson Goodman, Paul Grice. None of these would I buy again, or even reread, but I have no inclination to dispose of them (even if I knew how), and to own them—to stand them in the light on my office shelves—makes me happy.

The reason did not strike me until I had unpacked several volumes of essays by now-forgotten critics who were not prominent even in their own day—William Troy, Theodore Spencer, D. G. James, Benjamin DeMott (his Supergrow was badly damaged by mildew), W. C. Brownell, Maxwell Geismar, Mark Krupnick, John Fraser, Arnold Isenberg, F. W. Dupee, Eliseo Vivas. I who dislike story collections am a sucker for Selected and Collected Essays, and have been since long before I began to identify with their authors. Theirs are the books that give personal character to my library like drapes and wall colors in a room. What they suggest is that my library is also a geniza, where I keep and store (in Hillel Halkin’s words) “books of which no one had known; known books of which no copies had survived; the lost works of . . . poets and philosophers.” My library is a monument (or tomb) for a way of literary life that is quickly passing (and perhaps has already passed away).

Its motto is something I tweeted earlier this morning: If you are committed to good writing, then everything you write is in its defense. Substitute good scholarship or good thought for “good writing,” first here and then there, and you can account for the commitment that produced every book in my library. Can the same principle account for every book in the public libraries, which are furious to buy up multiple copies of current bestsellers for readers unwilling to invest their own money in things that cannot last? I may be the last man alive who recognizes some of the authors in my library, but there is something strangely consoling in that. My library is organized upon the principle that obscurity is not the same as being utterly forgotten. And who knows? Perhaps the principle will hold good even for me!


R.T. said...

As an unrepentant bibliophile myself, I also have amassed a singular collection of books, some of which remain unread and many of which await rereading. I can rarely bring myself to toss a book (what about you?), so--whatever the book's merits--nearly every book finds a home on the shelves. Of course, bad books are sent to foster homes. How do you handle the rejects?

But I worry that I will become like the Burgess Meredith character in the classic Twilight Zone episode. The character hopes to have enough time to do nothing but read. Then the nuclear devastation--from which he escaped by being in his bank's vault--leaves him alone and with all the time in the world. In a horrifying O'Henry twist at the end, the reader breaks his glasses, so he is unable to read anything.

So, to hold the "nuclear devastation" at arm's length, I continue to read, hoping I never break my glasses.