Archive for December, 2008


I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust

So in case you haven’t heard, the world’s economy is not doing so well, and the closer we march towards an economic ice age, the frostier the outlook on “book&reading jobs” as well: disappearing jobs in American academia, library closures in Britain, universities going bankrupt in Germany, not to mention the closing of bookstores all over the place. Given these dire prospects, it is very uplifting and encouraging to hear some good job news, too.

Anxious about my own uncertain future, I find my reading invigorated by a sense of urgency and verisimilitude. I have read Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday a couple of years ago and it struck a chord, but as I am rereading it now, passages such as the following resonate much more deeply:

How Lilliputian were all these cares, how wind-still the time! It had better luck, the generation of my parents and my grandparents, it lived quietly, straight and clearly from one of its life to the other. But even so, I do not know if I envy them. How they remained blissfully unaware of the bitter realities, of the tricks and forces of fate, how they lived apart from all those crises and problems that crush the heart but at the same time marvelously uplift it! How little they kney, as they muddled through in security and comfort and possessions, that life can also be tension and profusion, a continuous state of being surprised, and being lifted up from all sides; little did they think in their touching liberalism and optimism that each succeeding day that dawns outside our window can smash our life. Not even in their darkest nights was it possible for them to dream how dangerous man can be, or how much power he has to withstand dangers and overcome trials. We who have been hounded through all the rapids of life, we who have been torn loose from all roots that held us, we, always beginning anew when we have been driven to the end, we, victims and yet willing servants of unknown, mystic forces, we, for whom comfort has become a saga and security a childhood dream, we have felt the tension from pole to pole and the eternal dread of the eternal new in every fiber of our being. Every hour of our years was bound up with the world’s destiny. Suffering and joyful we have lived time and history far beyond our own little existence, while they, the older generation, were confined with themselves. Therefore each one of us, even the smallest of our generation, today knows a thousand times more about reality than the wisest of our ancestors. But nothing was given to us: we paid the price, fully and validly, for everything.

Of course, our current situation in the West does not (yet) compare to the devastation that took place in the first half of the 20th century, and I hope we have learnt enough from history to avoid another such cataclysm. Fingers crossed. But just in case we fuck up once more, I’ll give The Waste Land another shot. Ti theleis?


We Read No More That Day

According to a new survey, nearly half of all men and a third of all women lie about what they are reading to impress potential partners, and some even let themselves be “caught” reading on purpose while waiting for their date. I feel compelled to usher a warning to all book lovers (or pretenders) intending to fall in love over the act of reading: chances are that you end up swirling in the first circle of hell for eternity — with compliments from Paolo and Francesca.

One day we read for pastime how in thrall
Lord Lancelot lay to love, who loved the Queen;
We were alone — we thought no harm at all.
As we read on, our eyes met now and then,
And to our cheeks the changing colour started,
But just one moment overcame us — when
We read of smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,
Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,
He that may never more from me be parted
Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say
The book was Galleot, Galleot the complying
Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day.

Bookporn at the Morgan

If this blog  had webcam access, you could watch your humble host drooling over the prospect of visiting the Morgan Library’s current exhibition, Protecting the Word, a display of the collection’s most precious book bindings. I’ve been to the Morgan before to feast on their treasures — it is a must-see for bibliophiles, a book palace, rivalled in the richness and the intimacy of the book experience only by the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

But who was this Pierpont Morgan? A successful financier, no doubt. An avid reader, perhaps. But most importantly, a voracious collector and one of the outstanding bibliophiles of the Golden Age of American book collecting in the beginning of the 20th century. During his lifetime, Morgan spent today’s equivalent of roughly one billion dollars on his book and artwork collection. His accomplice was the smart and beautiful Belle da Costa Greene, librarian outré and Morgan’s secret agent for purchases and auctions. The first journalist who was allowed to enter Morgan’s book sanctuary (bequeathed to the public in 1924, 11 years after Morgan’s death) wrote in 1908: “Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan is probably the greatest collector of things splendid and beautiful and rare who has ever lived. There is no one with whom we can compare him except, perhaps, Lorenzo de Medici, and he surpasses even that Prince in the catholicity of his taste.” (Nicholas Basbanes, A Gentle Madness, 176). The story goes on:

As he proceeded through “bronze gates into a lofty hall of rarest marble,” the correspondent found himself “frightened by the task” of having to give “even the roughest description of some of the things I saw.” Everywhere he turned, there was a mind-boggling treasure to behold. He asked the identity of a “gorgeous jewelled volume,” and learned it was the Ashburnham Bible, an outstanding example of early British handicraft which Morgan had paid £10,000 to secure several years earlier. Passing by incunabula “that not even the British Museum can match,” he paused at William Blake’s original drawings for the Book of Job, Phiz’s illustrations for The Pickwick Papers, and the holograph manuscripts for Endymion, A Christmas Carol, Vanity Fair and Ivanhoe. He spotted Shelley’s private notebook, and then he glanced over handwritten documents and letters of Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Robert Burns, and Charles Lamb. […] When the visitor thought he had seen all there was to see, he was brought into yet another room where “the richest jewels in this marble casket” repose, including the only known manuscript fragment to survive of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. […] “I do not believe that any one in England knows how many things that ought never to have left the country are contained in these few cubic yards of space in New York,” he wrote. “I do not know whether it was wonder or sorrow that I felt the more.” (ibid., 176-178)

I profess more wonder than sorrow, I admit.

Regarding the current exhibition, I must confess I am not very knowledgeable on the topic of book bindings. The complexity of this craft (and book making in general) is beautifully captured in Annie Tremmel Wilcox A Degree of Mastery, and so I intend to return to that volume before visiting the Morgan. I think I’ve mentioned the subject briefly in my posts on cheap books and the transition from leather bindings to cloth, but that’s about it. The British Library provides a neat little brochure on the subject, Understanding and Caring for Bookbindings. I shall leave you with this close-up of a magnificent specimen of the craft: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poems bound in “deep blue goatskin, richly gilt to a floral mandorla pattern, with gilt and goffered edges, and with endleaves of Morris silk brocade ; signed and dated 1891. The delicate floral patterns, here using roses and tulips, are inspired by Morris designs but do not slavishly copy or follow them.”

Rossetti binding by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson

About the binder:

Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, a lawyer by profession, took up binding in 1883 at the urging of Jane Burden Morris, Pre-Raphaelite muse and William Morris’s wife. Janey’s instincts were on the mark: Cobden-Sanderson proved to be not just a talented amateur but a highly skilled designer and gilder. His bindings set the mark for designer bookbinders for decades, his tools and layouts revolutionizing the aesthetic of fine bookbinding. This is one of his most attractive, balanced, and accomplished bindings.

Picture and text courtesy of the Morgan Library.


Marcel Proust, “Sur la lecture”

Passionate readers fascinate me to no end, and I was lucky enough to meet such a reader recently when by chance I stumbled upon a tiny volume with the title “On Reading” by a Frenchman named Marcel Proust.

I found out later that Monsieur Proust wrote “Sur la lecture” (1905) as a preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. The first part is devoted to Proust’s childhood days, his room, a stroll in the park, and the pleasure and intimacy of reading. Young Marcel read voraciously, and old Marcel painfully remembers the interruptions he had to endure as a kid while reading his beloved novels, be that a playmate who was looking for him, a buzzing bee or the glistening sunrays, or his father’s “fatal call” for breakfast — “la parole fatale: ‘Allons, ferme ton livre, on va déjeuner.” Many readers, Proust fans especially I’d imagine, will cherish these passages, and the beauty and profound thought of descriptions such as this:

… la pendule et le feu qui parlent sans demander qu’on leur réponde et dont les doux propos vides de sense ne viennent pas, comme les paroles des hommes, en substituter un différent à celui des mots que vous lisez. (10)

But theory-minded me was more interested in the second part, in which Proust talks about Ruskin and reading in general. Unfortunately, my French wasn’t quite up to the task of deciphering the nuances of Proust’s thoughts on the matter, but there was one bit that caught my attention nevertheless. Commenting on the role of reading in our spiritual life, Proust writes that to the reader the book, once read, ought not to be a “conclusion”, but an “incitation”:

Nous sentons très bien que notre sagesse commence où celle de l’auteur finit, et nous voudrions qu’il nous donnât des réponses, quand tout ce qu’il peut faire est de nous donner des désirs. Et ces désirs, il ne peut les éveiller en nous qu’en nous faisant contempler la beauté suprême à laquelle le dernier effort de son art lui a permis d’atteindre. Mais par une loi singulière et d’ailleurs prodiventielle de l’optique des esprits (loi qui signifie peut-être que nous ne pouvons recevoir la vérité de personne, et que nous devons la créer nous-même), ce qui est le terme de leur sagesse ne nous apparaît que comme le commencement de la nôtre, de sorte que c’est au moment où ils nous ont dit tout ce qu’ils pouvaient nous dire qu’ils font naître en nous le sentiment qu’ils ne nous ont encore rien dit. (32)

In other words, books cannot give us wisdom, they cannot give us answers, but they can inspire us and waken our desire to become wise, to find answers for ourselves. “Reading is the beginning of our spiritual life; it introduces us to it: it does not constitute it” —  “La lecture est au seuil de la vie spirituelle; elle peut nous y introduire: elle ne la constitute pas.” (34)

Proust does not elaborate on the notion of the “spiritual life”, but we gain an inkling of what he means from the role he attributes to art and the artist:

Le suprême effort de l’écrivain comme de l’artiste n’aboutit qu’à soulever partiellement pour nous le voile de laideur et d’insignifiance qui nous laisse incurieux devant l’univers. (34)

Reading as a means to throw off a “veil of disgust and insignificance that leaves us incurious about the universe”? Seen like this, Proust’s fond memory of childhood days makes perfect sense. The child, after all, is a symbol of uninhibited curiosity, always on a quest for beauty and poetry for their own sake, even though, on second glance, a child’s curiosity is superficial, a mere game where answers matter little.

Nonetheless, it is true that our youthful curiosity and our enthusiasm for questions tends to fade. Sometimes, we no longer have time to get at the bottom of things, or we get complacent. We might even stop asking questions altogether because we think we have all the answers, or because every time we dare ask a profound question, we are confronted with the hard truth that good answers aren’t easy to come by, and that to satisfy true curiosity takes hard work and endurance. Or perhaps we despair when we come to know that we don’t know.

For despite Proust’s suggestion to the contrary, a book can only do so much to rouse your interest and incite your curiosity. In the end, it is you, the reader, who has to ask the questions, probe the book’s answers, and let your mind be animated once the book returns to the bookshelf. Active reading must be done by the reader; the book cannot do it for you. And thus there lurks the danger that lazy readers will try to seek both answers and their questions from books, effectively reducing reading to consumption — a danger Proust was well aware of:

Tant que la lecture est pour nous l’initriatrice dont les clefs magiques nous ouvrent au fond de nous-mêmes la porte des demeures où nous n’aurions pas su pénétrer, son rôle dans notre vie est salutaire. Il devient dangereux au contraire quand, au lieu de nous éveiller à la vie personelle de l’esprit, la lecture tend à se substituter à elle, quand la vérité ne nous apparaît plus comme un idéal que nous ne pouvons réaliser que par le progrès intime de notre pensée et par l’effort de notre coeur, mais comme une chose matérielle, déposée entre les feuillets des livres comme un miel tout préparé par les autres et que nous n’avons qu’à prendre la peine d’atteindre sur les rayons des bibliothèques et de déguster ensuite passivement dans un parfait repos de corps et d’esprit. (37-38)

But what’s the cure for readers longing merely to escape, to divert themselves, or for readers without questions? How to help the bookfool, who lusts after books and pages, who might seek beauty and wisdom and poetry, but is distracted by the gentle caress of the binding? Is he condemned to read “How to read”-books forever? Or is there hope, in books and love, that for each fool there’s the one out there who can truly get at him, who transcends appearance and penetrates his inner-most self, a book that is able to lift the fool’s cap, the veil of material reading to open the gate to “la lecture spirituelle”? As Cicero said: Dum spiro, spero.

Proust, Marcel. Sur la lecture. Arles: Actes Sud, 1988.