Sunday, February 25, 2018

Books on a Shelf (I)

An historical claim that never fails to annoy me is that nobody cared about the countryside, or about "nature", or about wilderness, before the Industrial Revolution. I don't know whether it's true or not. I suspect it's as false as the claim that "nationalism" was discovered in the nineteenth century. But the idea is galling, one way or the other. (I suspect that the people who make such claims enjoy making them, and this is what galls me the most.)

I don't like to believe (and I don't believe) that the human race was ever that inclined to take their surroundings for granted.

To take my own case: I've been working in a library for sixteen years, but the romance of books on a shelf hasn't diminished one whit for me.

I grew up in a house full of books. I can identity with the words of C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy, at least as they apply to books:

I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient state of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.

(Incidentally, the "gurgling of cisterns and pipes" is one of my favourite noises in the world, along with the hum of voices on the air.)

I grew up in cramped surroundings, but there were always books. My father, like Lewis's, kept every book he ever bought, and my older siblings contributed to the collection. I also grew up with the "certainty of finding a book that was new to me" on the shelf.

The books that belonged to my siblings usually had pen drawings on the flyleaves. My elder brothers would draw pictures of Greek and Roman armour, and my sisters would draw pictures of flowers and of mannequin-like female figures with almond-shaped eyes who always wore hats and had their hands folded across their laps.

The variety of books in my home was quite bewildering. Everything was there. Who aquired Portugese Africa and the West? Or V.I. Lenin's Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Social Revolution? Or The Ascent of Man, an idiosyncratic work of "theological biology" by the evangelist Henry Drummond (died 1897)? Or Into Print, a guidebook on how to produce your own newspapers and magazine, filled with photographs of very earnest and geeky-looking men from the nineteen-seventies, poring over papers? Or Trial, a far-out book of social protest by a  far left activist called Tom Hayden (who only died this year, was formerly married to Jane Fonda, and admitted to wanting the white race to disappear)? Or The Jungle is Neutral, an account of guerrilla warfare in the Malaysian jungle in World War Two?

I've not read a single one of the books listed in the above paragraph, but I dipped into most of them, at one point or another.

Of course, not all the books were idiosyncratic. There were plenty of popular novels, conventional history books, biographies, and so on. Pretty much everything was there.

I believe that this variety of books has played a role in giving me my life-long love of diversity. "Diversity" is such a vexed word, in our post-modern society. My own university has a diversity czar who has just recently announced that hundreds of bathrooms in UCD will become "gender neutral".

Needless to say, I'm not talking about this silly notion of "diversity", which is simply another word for decadence (and is generally used to squeeze out meaningful diversity, such as the difference between the sexes and between nations). I'm talking about genuine diversity; what Louis Macneice called: "the drunkenness of things being various." (The original Trivial Pursuit board, with its colour-coded squares representing the different areas of human knowledge, and its quaint line drawings illustrating these, has always been my favourite evocation of this diversity.)

But it wasn't just the diversity of these books that impressed me, on a subliminal level. It was the indeterminacy. There were too many to keep track of, too many to take in. Everything that extends further than our sight (or our minds) can encompass has an aspect of the eternal, the infinite about it.

I had the uncanny feeling that something was happening between the covers of the books, that they were "alive" in a certain sense. This idea was far from subliminal. I often pondered it. I suppose it's a relative of the old "what happens if a tree falls in the wilderness?" riddle. What sort of life belongs to printed words that nobody is reading? They are still there. They still mean what they mean. They still "say" something. The sentences still "run" from left to right, and down the page. It's extraordinarily difficult to put this idea into words, but the idea itself was far from faint-- it was very vivid.

All of this suggests that I was that proverbial creature, a "voracious reader". But I don't believe that I ever was. Today, I can't read for more than twenty minutes at the most without feeling rather fatigued. 

Did I have more reading stamina in my childhood? Again, I don't think so, because I've always felt ashamed of how ill-read I am. Literature, books and learning have always seemed like the undiscovered country to me. I suspect they always will, but I don't feel too bad about it.

Reading was always a self-conscious act for me, something that was knowingly virtuous. I felt ashamed of the hours and hours of television I watched, and (later on) of the hours I spent listening to popular music. I felt that I should be reading, and I've never felt that I was reading enough. I don't remember ever being "lost in a book", although perhaps I was. I was most certainly aware of the cultural prestige of books.

At the same time, I was an avid reader of comics, and I don't remember feeling any shame about this. In my teens, I remember encountering at least two articles in which writers admitted the shame they'd felt for reading comics in their youth. It had never even occurred to me to feel ashamed of reading comics. Perhaps this was because I lived in the era of TV, which made anything printed seem worthy by comparison.

What I'm trying to get at is that, although I've always been a fairly heavy reader by objective standards, books have always seemed exotic to me-- not my natural element, but a foreign country. And I'm rather glad of it.

In spite of this, books seem more real to me than "real life". But putting it like that is simplifying it considerably. This is what I really mean: life seems most real to me when it's captured in the written word.

Very often, when I'm some particular experience or other-- listening to the ramblings of a drunk in a pub, or looking down at the clouds from an airplane window, or standing by a river and looking down into the water-- I find myself thinking: "This is the kind of thing somebody might write about". If I was reading somebody else writing about it, it would have more of a sense of reality than when it's actually happening to me. And when something happens to me, thinking how it might be described in a book or an article makes it seem more real to me. (Perhaps heightened is a better word than real there.)

The written word is comforting, because it's definite. It's about something. Reality isn't (on the face of it) about anything. A character walking down a country lane on a moonlit night, in a story, is in a very definite and meaningful situation. The country lane represents wilderness, freedom, loneliness. The moon represents poetry and soulfulness, or some such thing. One way or another, it all means something, and it has a very definite atmosphere.

But in real life, a country lane is just there. A moonlit night is just there. The sheer indifference of the outside world to our purposes and our associations can be horribly oppressive-- at least, to me.

(I'm not suggesting landscape and the outside world never seem to have a character of their own. They do indeed. Who hasn't felt cheered by the brightness of the morning, after a night of anxiety? But when we look for this, it always seems to let us down.)

However, I've rather drifted from my theme. I want to celebrate the magic of books on a shelf.

Just as experience seems heightened to me when it's mediated by the printed word, the world itself seems more exciting and full of promise when I see it "through" a list of titles on a shelf. It comes into focus, it takes on dignity.

Here's the first example that comes to my mind: my aunt lived in a rural area in Limerick called Ballybrown. Visiting it every summer was a formative experience for me and gave me my admiration from rural Ireland. Its roads and bushes and barns and corrugated sheds were full of meaning and poetry for me. But when I came across a book about the area, entitled A Corner of Limerick, it seemed to make it more real, more definite. It gave it the written word's seal of approval.

Real life, as it's lived moment from moment, is a blur, a flux, a mist. Standing in a bookshop, or a library, or even in front of private bookshelves, breaks it pleasantly into its component parts, so that they can be surveyed and appreciated. If we see a book entitled An Analysis of Verbal Slips and Their Psychological Significance, suddenly we think: "Yes, that happens all the time. I never thought much about it. But, come to think of it, it must be packed with meaning. Gosh. What else is happening all the time, that I don't even think about?". And suddenly life seems richer, denser, fuller, more dramatic.

My abiding fantasy, when I was younger, was that I would read so many books, and become such a know-all, that every single moment of my life would be packed with meaning. I would look at a fly buzzing in the air, and remember a poem from Burns, a painting by some New Zealand artist, and a scientific treatise on the velocity and trajectory of the common house-fly. I would hear children playing a skipping game, and my mind would flick through my encyclopaedic knowledge of skipping chants through the ages. I would look into a candle and think metaphysical thoughts too deep to be uttered.

I wanted to be like the typical aesthete who Myles Na Gopaleen satirised:

He is having a lukewarm bath; it is rather good, it is something real, something that has its roots in the soil, a tangible, valid, unique, integrating, vertical experience; a diatonic, spatio-temporal cognition in terms of spacing...all around this person in the bath, life is going on, nothing is ever lost, over in Harlem Einstein is testing a diminished seventh for over-stimulated thyroid, in Milan Bonaparte is writing the letter that ends, "Ah Josephine! Josephine! Toi! Toi!", in the Bank of Ireland Silken Thomas has lain his sword on the counter what will they allow him for it, in Bohemia they are throwing the Emperor's ambassadors out the window while always waddling comically into the polyphonic auerole of the sunset recedes the tragic figure of Charlie Chaplin, This is life, and stuffed contentedly into the china bath there sits the boy it was invented for, morbidly aware of the structure of history, geography, parsing, algebra, chemistry, and woodwork; he is up to his chin in the carpediurnal present, and simultaneously in transcendental sense-immediacy....

That's what I wanted to be. Even now, transcribing it from a blurry PDF on the Irish Times archive, I feel a pang of loss. Where did the dream go? If I'd spent my teens and twenties reading, I would probably be like that aesthete now.

I have so much more to say on this topic. More to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment