Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Books on the Shelf

My wife tells me I can often be too introspective. In this she is right, as indeed she is right about everything. It's a habit I am trying to conquer. Nevertheless, this is going to be a very introspective post. Sometimes I can't help myself.

I want to write about the books that were on our family bookshelves as I was growing up. The older I grow, the more I think about them, and of the effect that they had on me, that they continue to have on me.

I know many advocates of 'decluttering', and in general I agree with them. It's hard to have clear thoughts when you are surrounded by mess and by clutter. Possessions do tend to weigh us down. However, I would exempt books from the decluttering agenda. I think that every abode should have as many books as it can reasonably hold. Books are the soul of a home-- well, after the people who live there, anyway.

We had lots of books in my house when we were growing up. The main repository of these books was a large bookcase in the sitting room which must have housed at least two hundred, or more. It seemed to me like a continent of books. And it felt like a continent in the sense that continents have many different landscapes and climates and cultures. Most of all, the bookcase felt like a continent insofar as there was more to it than I could ever take in.

What a mish-mash those books were! There were novels, of every sort; there was poetry; there was politics; there was a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, with very pretty painted illustrations; there were volumes of nutty theories by Erich Von Daniken, originator of the idea that earth's primitive cultures show signs of contact with aliens; there was a book of dream interpretations (not by Dr. Freud); there was a How-To guide on how to put out your own magazine (complete with hilariously dated photos of men in thick beards and formidable v-necks); there was a drawing manual; there was a guide to ancient Greek philosophers; there was a book published by the Eckankar cult, with line drawings of the various Eck masters who lived in the Tibetan mountains for improbably long durations, and who handed down the immortal teachings of Eckankar. And there were more. Many more.

The weird diversity of the books on the shelves (and I have no idea how they got there) gave me one of my earliest impressions of the sublime; that is, the delicious diversity of human (and non-human) existence, immortally expressed in Louis MacNeice's poem 'Snow':

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands-
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Just as there is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses, I knew there was more than cloth covers between one book and the next. There were whole worlds. The books on the shelf weren't just different from each other. They were different in so many different ways. It wasn't just the difference between an apple and an orange, it was the difference between a beetle and the dawn. This sense of intoxicating diversity, of (so to speak) diversity within diversity, the existence of so many things that cannot be compared or put on the same scale, has transfixed me all my life.

A proverb that is usually used in a cynical way, but one that could equally (and, in my view, more appropriately) be used in a purely poetic way, is the proverb "Distance lends enchantment to the view". And a child's view is dominated by distance. My memory begins somewhere around 1985; and 1985 seems trivially near compared to how far away 1965 seemed when I was a kid. Not only that, but the distances of everyday life, in both space and time, seemed greater. I remember how I would stand on the patch of burnt ground, in the field where Halloween bonfires were held every year, and feel a sense of wonder and of the sublime and how far-off those bonfires seemed-- even if it was November the first.

Perhaps because a child has had so little experience, everything seems momentous to him-- but (and this is important) not equally momentous. Halloween seemed a long time away to me, on November the first. But the Second World War seemed so much further away, and ancient Athens correspondingly further away. The spaces between things seemed greater. There was time and space for echoes to hang in the air. One of the worst consequences of adulthood is the horrible telescoping of time, space and eventfulness. Today, a hundred years seems to me simply like one year multiplied by a hundred; or almost so. To my boyish mind, a hundred years seemed, not like an infinity, but a span too great to take in. There is an absolute difference between mere extension, and a sense of epic grandeur.

I remember, when I was a boy, reading (or starting to read) a book about the American landscape and American wildlife. The first page of the first chapter faced a full-page photograph, perhaps of an eagle flying over a mountain range-- something like that. The first words of the first chapter explained how America was known as 'the New World'. The momentousness of this enthralled me. As an adult, when flying to America, I find myself ruminating on the phrase 'the New World' to keep that sense of awe alive.

The books on the shelf gave me a sense of mystery, too. I remember how I would enjoy taking a novel from the shelf, opening a page at random, and reading the first line my eye fell on. It gave me a thrill to think how I had caught the characters and the story in media res; something had been happening before, and something would happen after, but I didn't know what. It gave me a thrill to think how this story was happening in the pages of the book, all the time, with nobody reading it.

When I went to college, I encountered the thought of Albert Camus; specifically his book The Myth of Sisyphis. At one point, Camus remarks how seeing somebody having a conversation in a telephone box, and gesticulating wildly, would create a sense of the absurd; you can't hear what the person is saying, what he is getting so worked up about, and this distancing makes his agitation seem absurd. In my report on the novel, I mentioned my trick of taking books from the shelf and opening them at random, and how this gave me a sense of excitement and wonder. I wondered why seeing such a conversation in a telephone box would not give one the same sensation.

In a way, this sense of mystery applied to all the books on the shelf; because, gentle reader, I would fear to give the impression that I read these books. I read some of them. Most of them, I only dipped into. The books of the shelf were the undiscovered country-- the undiscovered continent.

Even now, this sense of mystery in the things unexperienced-- a sense that the road untravelled is not a cause for regret, but a cause for wonder-- lingers with me. I can give one example, one that has struck me for obvious reasons. When I was a teenager, I remember hearing other kids in school talk about the TV show The Wonder Years. Like many other TV shows and movies I heard other kids talk about, it sparked my imagination. I never saw it, apart from brief moments; I will probably never watch it. And not only because it will probably not match my ideal of it; but because I feel my life is made richer by roads not taken.

Another sense of the sublime that the books on the shelf implanted in my heart, and in my imagination, might seem at first to contradict the sense of giddy diversity that I mentioned earlier. It was a sense of the unity of knowledge. There were so many different subjects represented on the shelves, and I felt no doubt that a coherent worldview would take in all these subjects; indeed, that it had to take them in. I assumed that a coherent worldview, an adult's worldview, would have to include a place for poetry, for mythology, for psychology, for politics. The idea that history was bunk, or that religion was bunk, or that poetry was bunk, would seem unthinkable from this point of view. And this point of view has never left me. This applies especially to something like religion. It seemed to me, simply from skimming the books on the shelf, that the mythologies and religions of the world were the lofty pinnacles of this continent. When I skimmed the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita, I never for a moment considered that it was literally true; but I never even considered that it was simply nonsense. I noticed that books and book titles used mythological references to give a sense of grandeur or importance. The idea that this whole spiritual realm referred to nothing at all never occurred to me. Even if nothing supernatural existed (and this was definitely a possibility I entertained from my earliest age), I felt that these myths and legends referred, by way of metaphor, to the highest potentialities of the human race. Of course, these were all very inchoate thoughts; I couldn't have begun to put them into words.

The books that filled me with the most awe were the serious, adult books. They had titles like The Wealth of Nations, Social Justice and Social Policy, and Portugese Africa and the West. Their sheer sobriety was intoxicating. They were often heavy books without pictures on their covers. Their titles were in gold letters on the spine. They didn't only seem grown-up; they seemed magisterial. They were usually books that had to do with public affairs, politics, and history, and they very much gave me the impression-- one that I have never shaken off-- that part of being a grown-up is to take part in public affairs and public debates. We have all heard, truly or falsely, that the term 'idiot' derives from the ancient Greeks, who applied it to a citizen who took no interest in public affairs. I felt that an adult human being was someone who, in the words of Tennyson, was "the heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time". I felt that an adult human being should know about Egyptian mythology and modern economic affairs. I have never reached that ideal, but I've always aimed for it.

(Along with the impression that a grown-up was someone concerned with public affairs, was the corresponding impression that a grown-up needed to have an interior life as well. There was no point taking an interest in international affairs if you had no depths to your own soul; no time for nursery rhymes or dreams or the world in your own back garden.)

Somehow or other, the books on the shelf implanted in me an ideal of what an educated, intelligent man should be. (I have to admit that this was a particularly masculine ideal.) It was generally a man in his fifties or sixties of seventies; a man with a tweed jacket, or wearing a suit and tie; a man who smoked a pipe; a man who read poetry; a man with big, square glasses; a man who had seen something of the world; a man with gentle but keen eyes. He is a humanist, whether he believes in the supernatural or not.

Surveying what I have written, I feel that I have expressed some of the most elusive thoughs and feelings in my soul, and yet I wonder if I have expressed anything. Are such private fascinations capable of expression? Worth expression? I don't know; but somehow I felt compelled to try.

3 comments:

  1. This makes me wonder how today’s children will work out their place in time and space. They could now easily go through childhood without setting eyes on much of what you describe. The Internet is a new 'continent' - it is the our 'New World' and we are still in the heady rush to chart it, let alone to colonise it. So perhaps the 'old continent' of books might seem not only unfamiliar but uninteresting at first.

    Then there is the way in which the 'digital age' is its own era, that seems to draw a line under everything that went before. Once I think it was probably most people's belief that mankind never essentially changes (and so the Church is never obsolete); now I think it requires a great, honest and counter-cultural effort. By Internet standards, even 2005 is now ancient history. It's dizzying.

    That sounds a bit pessimistic, so I should say that from web-page to web-page you can certainly span as much as a bookshelf, and stumble upon all kinds of obscure knowledge. The 'Random article' button on Wikipedia is irresistible for this reason! I can't decide whether it matters that it all passes through the prism of a cold blue screen, though. Something instinctive in me is bound fast to books.

    What you say about distance and epic grandeur also resonates, in space as much as in time. For instance, I love old films of working cities, especially if seen from afar (particularly with plumes of smokes like banners or flags), and half-wish that I could have seen the mills and foundries of northern England before they vanished. Not a very environmentally-friendly day-dream! But I think it is the thought of looking from a distance upon striving industry - 'all things original, spare, strange' flourishing irrepressibly - that in a way is similar to your bookshelf. Of course, it is probably the age of the films as much as anything that has this effect.

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  2. This makes me wonder how today’s children will work out their place in time and space. They could now easily go through childhood without setting eyes on much of what you describe. The Internet is a new 'continent' - it is the new 'New World' and we are still in the heady rush to chart it, let alone to colonise it. So perhaps the 'old continent' of books might seem not only unfamiliar but uninteresting at first.

    Then there is the way in which the 'digital age' is its own era, that seems to draw a line under everything that went before. Once I think it was probably most people's belief that mankind never essentially changes (and so the Church is never obsolete); now I think it requires a great, honest and counter-cultural effort. By Internet standards, even 2005 is now ancient history. It's dizzying.

    That sounds a bit pessimistic, so I should say that from web-page to web-page you can certainly span as much as a bookshelf, and stumble upon all kinds of obscure knowledge. The 'Random article' button on Wikipedia is irresistible for this reason! I can't decide whether it matters that it all passes through the prism of a cold blue screen, though. Something instinctive in me is bound fast to books.

    What you say about distance and epic grandeur also resonates, in space as much as in time. For instance, I love old films of working cities, especially if seen from afar (particularly with plumes of smokes like banners or flags), and half-wish that I could have seen the mills and foundries of northern England before they vanished. Not a very environmentally-friendly day-dream! But I think it is the thought of looking from a distance upon striving industry - 'all things original, spare, strange' flourishing irrepressibly - that in a way is similar to your bookshelf. Of course, it is probably the age of the films as much as anything that has this effect.

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  3. I do think the internet has a romance of its own-- in a way, it's like thought itself in the way you can pass (almost) from any web page to any web page in a flash-- but I think everyone would agree that you lose much of the deeper romance of books when we become 'webizens'. I do hope, though, that the glamour of books will not disappear, because people still seem very attached to them. I can still imagine children growing up in houses with overflowing bookshelves and I think their imaginations will do the rest. I hope!

    You might have quoted Tennyson as well:

    Make me feel the wild pulsation that I felt before the strife,
    When I heard my days before me, and the tumult of my life;

    Yearning for the large excitement that the coming years would yield,
    Eager-hearted as a boy when first he leaves his father's field,

    And at night along the dusky highway near and nearer drawn,
    Sees in heaven the light of London flaring like a dreary dawn;

    And his spirit leaps within him to be gone before him then,
    Underneath the light he looks at, in among the throngs of men:

    Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
    That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:

    I bet you are a Lowry fan!

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