Friday 22 August 2008

Books, Dust and Ashes

If you haven't come across Patrick Kurp's brilliant blog, Anecdotal Evidence, add it to your bookmarks now. No other blog, I think, connects literature and life quite so elegantly and luminously, and in such unexpected ways - and he's even into butterflies!
'A Dicey Business' is a fine example of how he works - and it contains much truth. When it comes to literature, living in the now is living on thin gruel. It has always, inescapably, been the case that the vast majority of what is published is of no lasting worth. Even before the coming of mass production to the world of books, this was true, as was brought home to me when, years ago in another life, I catalogued a library of 18th-century books. The big names were there, but most of the names were long forgotten - though they had been published in handsome complete editions - and a wide range of the books were altogether incomprehensible, impenetrable and unreadable. They simply no longer made any kind of sense. That will be the fate of most of what is published, in any age. Dust and ashes.
If only all those burgeoning book groups and reading circles would turn their attention from the latest book-group-friendly novel and look back, back, back...


  1. This is true. But then there are always those surprising gems. One winter day when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation, I was instead roaming the moldering stacks of an old New England library. This was an old building with uneven floors and strange staircases leading nowhere, or into alcoves like the one where I found myself. A room of 18th and early 19th century Americana, rarely visited (it appeared) by anyone.

    The wind worked against us in the dim afternoon light, casting snowdrifts over the paths and weighting down the limbs of trees, but it was warm inside the building. I wandered and after picking up and putting down a number of books, I was drawn to a name I recognized. The broken spine on a once bright binding told me that here were some tales by Washington Irving (he of "Headless Horseman" fame).

    Like every educated American, I'd read some Irving, but these were tales I'd never seen (perhaps not popular enough to reprint). Yet they were fascinating and perfect for that frigid day when no one seemed to be in the library but me. Naturally, the one I remember was *about* a library -- in some rich person's home, as they were back in the 18th century -- and the Irving narrator having exactly the thought you were having about how many books are not worth reading or remembering, and yet...Invariably there's are treasures hidden among the trash.

    I sat in a circular stairway reading this story -- I still remember it -- with the book falling apart in my hands, exhaling its 19th-century odors (acid, wood pulp, time and dust), the only sound around me the occasionally ticking of the radiators as the heat came on ('twas winter). Alone. With a book. As the narrator of the Irving tale was alone with books, and had himself found a gem among the disintegrating paper.

    I really must try to find that story again now. I haven't thought of it in many years. I bet Dave Lull knows what it is.

    Sorry this reminiscence turned into a kind of endless loop, Nige. But you do often set me thinking in just such ways. It's your gift, boy.

  2. Dave, you are a genius! That's it!

  3. But I didn't remember the Westminster Abbey part....Nor the fact that most Americans of the 18th century were really Britons, going back and forth from shore to shore.

  4. Cheerful thought, Nige. We write in order to be forgotten. And if that's the case, then I'm leading the charge towards obscurity.

  5. Just read it again, thanks to Dave. It is EXACTLY what you were talking about Nige. Check it out. Here's a snippet:

    Even now many talk of Spenser’s ‘well of pure English undefiled,’ as if the language ever sprang from a well or fountain-head, and was not rather a mere confluence of various tongues, perpetually subject to changes and intermixtures. It is this which has made English literature so extremely mutable, and the reputation built upon it so fleeting. Unless thought can be committed to something more permanent and unchangeable than such a medium, even thought must share the fate of everything else, and fall into decay. This should serve as a check upon the vanity and exultation of the most popular writer. He finds the language in which he has embarked his fame gradually altering, and subject to the dilapidations of time and the caprice of fashion. He looks back and beholds the early authors of his country, once the favorites of their day, supplanted by modern writers. A few short ages have covered them with obscurity, and their merits can only be relished by the quaint taste of the bookworm. And such, he anticipates, will be the fate of his own work, which, however it may be admired in its day, and held up as a model of purity, will in the course of years grow antiquated and obsolete; until it shall become almost as unintelligible in its native land as an Egyptian obelisk, or one of those Runic inscriptions said to exist in the deserts of Tartary. I declare,” added I, with some emotion, “when I contemplate a modern library, filled with new works, in all the bravery of rich gilding and binding, I feel disposed to sit down and weep; like the good Xerxes, when he surveyed his army, pranked out in all the splendor of military array, and reflected that in one hundred years not one of them would be in existence!”

  6. To cite a man unlikely to be read by those "burgeoning book groups":

    “Sir, I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance.”

    I started to write a limerick but the only word I could find to rhyme with "Nige" was, appropriately, "oblige.

    Thank you.

  7. And to cite another - or, rather, the same:
    'No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.'
    (as a one-time librarian I can attest that that's true in more ways than one...)

  8. There was a young bucko from Parma,
    Who grew up to be quite a charma,
    His gig is atonal,
    somewhat anecdotal,
    But never sets off the alarma.