Thursday, July 14, 2005

the beginning of the beginning of the beginning (or, sometimes the way forward is also the way back)

My friend SF emails to tell me that this blog is clearly inspired by his invention of the "degree of urgency" bookpile, which takes up a large section of his office floor, and is inhabited by many books that I've recommended to him. I remind him that he lifted the phrase from a review written by a mutual acquaintance, Gareth Evans, the editor of outstanding film magazine Vertigo. And that I knew Gareth before he did. In one of those curious 'the British arts scene is so small and yet so sprawling' incidents of reconnection, SF met Gareth many years after I encountered him (and subsequently lost touch), when he came to my first ever book-addict job, at Joseph's Bookstore on the border between the ghetto of Jewish North West London and the real world. Gareth thought Joseph's should sell his arts magazine Entropy, I thought Entropy should publish my poetry. Kismet, as they say. So Gareth is awarded the 'beginning of the beginning' certificate (with gold star) for setting the ball rolling nearly ten years ago...
The terrible, wonderful habit of book-collecting with a vengeance began during my tenure at Joseph's, particularly influenced by one customer, the Box Man, author Moris Farhi - you can read his review of the store by scrolling through this excellently-time-wasting directory of reviews of independent bookstores in London. Moris was, at the time, president of PEN UK and thus in touch with writers and journalists around the world. He would come in with long lists of new books, culled from literary magazine and other, more obscure processes of osmosis, and we would set aside a box. Over the next weeks, and sometimes months, Moris's books would arrive - some from publishers so small or countries so previously unpublished that we would turn them over in our hands as if they could not be real. Once, when Moris came in to trade a box for a new list (and, you know, some cash), I asked him how he found time to read all these books, as well as working as a writer and activist. He smiling knowingly and wisely under his knowing, wise beard, and said that of course he didn't find the time. He read some, and others assembled on a shelf in case... and he shrugged.
In case of what? I wondered. A time when there were no more books? A time when he couldn't leave the house? And, as I've grown older, I see that both of those things are possible, and that many writers in exile have experienced versions of one or the other. There's so many stories of writing, prison, torture, and punishment - Nadezha Mandelstam learning her husband's poems by heart so they would survive, Antonio Gramsci writing his devastating indictment of fascism while imprisoned by Mussolini, actress Mary Robinson starting to write poetry and novels in debtors' prison where she had been sent after her husband's bankruptcy - are three that spring to mind. Reading and writing can be taken away in an instant, by politics or disaster or ill-health. When I had severe tendinitis last year, I had to consider very seriously that I might never write a poem (or column or article or blog) again, or at least one without pain.
I survived - thanks to technology, patience, friends' love, and spending an entire day in bed reading Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix thinking 'Fuck, I could write this book in my sleep!' - and got back on the thesis treadmill, and book accumulation continued apace. Oh, the piles of theory books whose first chapters I've read! Oh, the matching piles of graphic novels from The Beguiling that I've read twice so I can avoid the theory books! But there's theory, and then there's 'theory', the stuff that loosely gets grouped with it because it's essayish and concerned with important stuff. I don't mean Foucault and the other inhabitants of the Ikea 'complete-with-books' bookshelf that occupies many of the living rooms I visit. I mean the Essay. Whether it's Montaigne or Marina Warner, there's the sense of a mind ranging over ideas, rather than coming to conclusions; delighting in the play of words, rather than using them for obfuscation. Essays were the big discovery of my Joseph's Bookstore year. I was introduced to works by the philosopher E.M. Cioran, by American writer Dorothy Allison, by travel writer Jan Morris, and - perhaps most lastingly - by the indescribable Walter Benjamin.
Benjamin then got 'taught' during undergrad, and I read the essays that I had to, dutifully, quelling any sign of passion other than for ripping work apart and finding something useful in the stuffing. But the one essay that I never read was the one that - according to psychic poster WipednWired - is the one that really is the beginning of the beginning of this blog. You can download a PDF of it here. It's called "Unpacking my Library," and it's the first essay in the collection Illuminations, which has been superceded by the super-Benjamin complete works appearing volume by volume. But Illuminations is all about collection, not completion - especially the first essay, in which Benjamin describes his library.
A collector, he sayys, has "a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional utilitarian value - that is, their usefulness - but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage of their fate." Wow (and I wonder how he ever considered himself a Marxist). Books are not only the scene and stage of the narratives that they contain, but of the narratives that surround them. Bibliophilia is centrally concerned not with objects, but with stories (and Benjamin has another essay in the volume called "The Storyteller"). This is why I've become increasingly drawn to buying travel books in one place, about a second place, and reading them as I travel in a third. Not only does it help me see transnational correspondences and differences, and to travel respectfully and with awareness, but it also adds to the storied nature of the books. Books about books that travel would be the ultimate example of this - like Barbara Hodson's The Sensualist, about tracking down the lost book plates of a famous work of anatomy. There's also reading books about places that you know that see them differently, or that invoke nostalgia - William Gibson's Pattern Recognition did this for me with London. I'd been in the restaurant that Cayce eats in in the first chapter the previous night, and - as I read the book on the plane back to Toronto - I had instant nostalgia for something that still existed but, because it was in a book, felt even further away in time and space.
Benjamin ends his essay with a list of places and people recalled by his methodical unpacking, finally returning him to his childhood bedroom and its one or two shelves (it's interesting that one of his largest collections was of rare children's books). He attributes the passion of collecting to children, who like to order and name their worlds, and to make something new out of what they find (Benjamin the Womble???), and imagines the impulse collector as "little genii" inside him, like a less tacky version of an inner child. At the end there is a sense of Benjamin disappearing back into childhood (his boyhood room, his children's books) willingly, as a reconnection with the imagination that allows him to build his own dwelling (of books) and imagine books as living objects. Books, he says, are most alive in the hands of a private owner who knows (hears?) their story. Although he admires the impetus, he shakes his head at public libraries, which make books into commodities, carriers of information, rather than individual objects in their own right.
That sounds a bit much like The Book for me, the one that can't be marked or destroyed. In the Jewish tradition, when a Torah scroll or prayer book, or anything containing the Tetragrammaton, is too old to be used, it is buried with a full funeral service (OK, so cutlery that's been unkoshered is also buried in the backyard, but there's no service over it -- still, I grant you, weird). I love my books. But I find it hard to accept Benjamin's embrace of private ownership, although I love the way he describes it, as an almost erotic relationship between book and owner, in which the owner listens, like the Sultan, to the book's 1001 tales, without ever opening the cover. For me, that sense of the book's story comes from sharing - lending, discussing, placing one book next to another, even leaving a book somewhere for a stranger to find it (although I've yet to engage in official BookCrossing, slogan "Free Your Books). Or donating them to booksales, prisons, thrift stores. Books, to me, belong in circulation.
Of course, Benjamin was talking about rare books, first editions, stuff with woodcuts. I'm talking about Harry Potter 5. Of the twelve tea chests of books sitting in my mum's garage in London, I managed to clear out two, mostly kids' books that I gave to the families across the street. Will I ever need my Riverside Chaucer again? Probably not. But it's Literature, and that makes it hard to give up. And it meant something to me once (yeah, a millstone around my neck). So I agree with Benjamin more than I let on. Books do acquire meaning from holding on to them, even as they acquire marginalia, coffee mug marks, bus tickets, and minute flakes of skin. As for the books that remain unread, they offer something else (other than a sense of potency in ownership, and pride in a complete collection) - they offer the promise of a future, in which there might be time, or cause, to read them. In case... in case of a quiet day, or a longing for William Maxwell (one of Moris' recommendations, still languishing on a shelf in London). In case of emergencies.

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