Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Another Repeat-- On Books

I wrote this post months and months ago, and I quite liked it, so I am giving it another spin. If my doing this annoys you, please send your complaint to I_couldn't_give_a_monkeys@bananamail.com.

On Books

Somebody recently gave me an anthology of Catholic poetry that she had lying around the house and didn't want to keep. I've just been glancing through the introduction, and I felt an oh-so-familiar surge of delight; delight in book introductions, delight in the printed page, and simple delight in books themselves.

I've worked in a library for just over ten years, so by a depressingly familiar logic, I should have lost any romantic view of books by now. This is the same logic that operates when people knowingly assure me I would get tired of snow if I lived in a snowy climate. Well, I wouldn't ever get tired of snow, and I haven't lost any of my starry-eyed view of books.

Encomiums to books are always in danger of being a little irritating, or even more than a little irritating. They can seem rather self-congratulatory-- hey, look how well-read and cultured I am!

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I can't engage in any such posturing. I am not well read. I have never read Ulysses, Don Quixote, or The Anatomy of Melancholy. I am a slow reader. I don't like Shakespeare all that much (apart from The Tempest) and one of my favourite books is Hollywood vs. America by Michael Medved, a polemic against violent and cynical and anti-religious movies. What I love are books, not Books.

I sometimes think that the sense of glamour that hung over writing, back in the days when few people were able to read and write, must still survive in some residual form. All written words seem magical to me. In the era of emails and podcasts, writing still seems like a novelty. How can a scene, a story, a personality be captured in marks on paper? That fundamental miracle is much more impressive, much more of a leap, than sending a message from New York to Melbourne in an instant.

I remember how once, sitting on a bus and reading a ghost story by Sheridan Le Fanu, I was struck with overwhelming force by the idea that this person who was telling me a story had lived over a century ago. The reality of that gulf of time, and the fact that the gulf simply disappears when a reader loses himself in the text, suddenly seemed real to me. Le Fanu died in 1873. Nobody who was alive when he was writing is alive today. And yet I can re-enter his world through his words, not only looking in from outside, from a distance, but I can become a part of it-- a world that was just as real as ours, in which time passed at a second per second, and in which people gossiped and yawned and moaned about the weather.

There is a wonderful line in the film Shadowlands, the CS Lewis biopic: "We read to know that we are not alone." I don't think it could be put better than that. How absurd-- but how true-- that we can be lonely in a city buzzing with millions of souls, and with voices endlessly coming at us from radio and television, but that this loneliness can be assuaged by words printed on a page! There is an intimacy between reader and writer that I do not think is matched by any other intimacy. The writer puts so much of himself into his words, the reader opens himself to them so fully. There is nothing half-hearted or perfunctory about the encounter. Reader and writer have each others' full attention, and nothing comes between them.

I like a book to take itself seriously, even if it's no more than a volume of fishing anecdotes. I expect a book to make an effort. I want the title to have a bit of swagger (like a wine-themed book I once came across with the Biblical title Stay With Me With Flagons). I feel cheated if there is no dedication, and disappointed if the dedication is no more than a terse To my Uncle Ned.

More than anything else, maybe, I look for an Introduction or a Preface or a Foreword-- and not simply a "Note on the Text" or a few purely explanatory lines. I want an Introduction that begins The book you are holding in your hands or So much has been written about or maybe I first had the idea for this book forty-five years ago. Sometimes I think the Introduction is my very favourite part of the book, just as the trailers are my favourite part of the movies. I want to be welcomed into a book.

Sometimes there are several introductions. It doesn't get much better than that.

Footnotes, however, are another story. They are good if they are rare and gratuitous. They are bad if they are copious and essential. Nothing is more irksome than to be jerked out of one stream of text continually. It is like having somebody repeatedly tug on your sleeve.

I feel a bit bashful admitting my next requirement, but here goes. I want the author to be my friend. I do not want an author like the ideal author Stephen Daedalus describes in Portrait of the Artist: "within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." I want the author to be chatty, effusive, enthusiastic, chummy, conspiratorial. I want him to be on fire for his subject, whether his prose style is folksy or urbane. I want personality, even in a book of history or philosophy-- even in a reference work on old postcards or a guide to my consumer rights.

I was blessed to grow up in a house with hundreds of books on the bookshelf. I was even more blessed that these books were utterly diverse in character. There was an account of jungle warfare, a tract by an obscure religious cult, a drawing manual, a book on dream interpretation, a guide to publishing your own magazine or newspaper-- and of course any number of novels, poetry anthologies, history books and so forth. I think this kind of dizzy diversity of books gives a growing child just as much of a sense of the world's wideness, of life's teeming possibilities, as growing up in a circus or as an army brat.

Those books on the shelf! How can I write their tribute, or what they meant to me? I used to love to take a random book from the shelves, open it at a random page, and bask in the sense of mystery and enigma and excitement that gave me. I loved the idea that these silent voices were forever talking, even when they were not being read-- that the bookshelf was full of things happening all the time, between the covers.

And nothing will ever exceed the sense of gravitas that the "grown-up" books on the shelf held for me. I mean books with earnest, magisterial titles, like Portugese Africa and the West or The Hidden Persuaders or A Nation Writ Large? Somehow-- goodness knows from where-- I got the idea that such books were written by middle-aged to elderly men who knew everything about economics, poetry, history, psychology and everything else, and who saw all the connections between those different fields. Their titles gave me the feeling-- the strangely pleasant feeling-- that I was missing about 98 per cent of what life contained, that life was deeper than I could even hope to understand, but that it all lay before me.

When I grew up, I would learn that many "serious" books were works of scientific or economic or other reductionism, dedicated to the idea that life is much more trivial and simplistic and dull than anything which could live in a child's imagination. But the sense of wonder, of the sublime, that those titles evoked in me all those years ago has never faded.

Books. They are one of life's chief delights, and anyone who thinks of them as simply containers of information, like a computer programme manqué, is to be pitied rather than despised.

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