by Bradley Shingleton
The Montreal Review, January 2011
They crowd the house, upstairs and down, boxed, stacked and shelved. They continue to arrive, by mail, in bags, cartons and under my arm. I share my home with a small family and a horde of books.
Though they are all made of paper, thread, glue and cloth, their outward appearances vary wildly. A few in the den bookcase have gilt lettering, leather covers and sewn bindings. They do you the courtesy of lying flat on a table when opened. Others are manufactured of cheap paper and glue, and often must be forced open. They age poorly; time and glue do not get along well, and time always wins out. More than once I've opened a mass-produced book only to have its spine crack and chunks of pages pop out. These are called "perfect" bindings.
My books also veer to extremes in size and weight, and their dimensions usually reflect their content. Fact-stuffed books tend to be thick and stand formidably on the shelf, like the dark-brown phalanx of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the den. Volumes of verse, such as Housman's or Rilke's, tend to be slender and refined, their spines embellished with artful design and typography, exhaling esprit de finesse. The few textbooks I still own are rugged and heavy. My metaphysical volumes, oddly, are either fat or skinny and rarely middle-sized. Some books are made for a pocket, others take up your entire lap. Their provenance is often obvious. The German books have a damn-the-cost quality, the few from India are loosely-bound and have lumpy paper, and the British ones bear elegant typefaces and gold-lettered spines. The American tend to extremes of handsomeness or homeliness.
I admit: concern with the exterior of books seems misplaced. Lord Chesterfield sniffed in one of his letters that 'men of sense' give due attention to the inside of books and have due contempt for their outsides. By this standard, I lack sense. To my eye, a well-made book has something to say before you even open it. It announces itself and dispels the disjunction between medium and content. What I read becomes tinged by how I read it. Other means of delivering words to readers dispense with any feint of elegance. A drug-store paperback or a digital reader provides the same content as a cloth-bound version with impatient efficiency. Fine and good; but we are sensate souls. Though economy and speed have its place, so does the spendthrift delight in a well-made book that has somehow found its way into your hands.
That said, of course the inside of a book matters more. It not only has content but also character. That is what I tend to remember, years after I put a book down. Some of my books are sober and brook no monkey business; others are full of monkeys. An earnest book tells you something that you don't already know; consequently, it expects you to sit up and pay attention on its terms. The thick books on geology and history, shelved in the den, are like this, as well as those on economics and biology in the corner. On the other hand, a volume like Auden's commonplace book has a twinkle in its eye, and delights in tweaking your nose. Books like it don't pretend to tell you anything; they simply take you on a joyride. Yet other books, like Mann's thick novels, Barfield's esoterica, or an anthology of modern Swedish poetry, play hard to get, withholding themselves until you prove yourself up to the task. Some books are bright, others nettlesome or winsome. But all are patient and can put up with being ignored. Books in the downstairs bookcases are waiting to tell any time night or day everything anyone would want to know about butterflies, Hopi ethics, English medieval architecture, or what to take along into the desert. Volumes in the den are ready to recount Arabian history, describe Arctic wildlife or dissect Aristotle's ethics. I am armed for insomnia, whenever it may choose to strike.
But every love invites difficulty. Browsing leads to more browsing, acquiring prompts more acquiring, and the books heap up. Collecting books is a maze you enter and never emerge, short of swearing off books altogether. The challenge is housing and organizing them. I have pulled off the first part and fallen grievously short with the second.
I first tried to organize my books in separate bookcases, then in separate rooms; now the best I can do is to group them in different parts of the house. Fiction and poetry are in the den, at one time arranged by author, now by who was there first, and wherever they fit. A gaggle of parenting books takes up the corner shelves, along with those of the dismal science. History fills the case next to the window, American, especially the Civil War, on top, English on the bottom, German and French in the middle. The basement has philosophy and religion, roughly ordered by author or subject, along with science and a number of old Boy Scout books, now stiff. Books of special significance are in the living room: gifts (firsts of Look Homeward, Angel, and You Can't Go Home Again), those tied to places (Moby-Dick bought in the house where it was written, a Welty from Mississippi and a Hemingway from Key West), local history and a few hoary volumes of verse once owned by distant ancestors.
But even this rudimentary order has been overwhelmed. New arrivals crowd in on the long-term residents, or wait in temporary stacks wait to be put in their proper places. Increasingly, I rely on memory: where did I last see it? If I can't recall, then I can only search. Searching is a long-shot proposition and sometimes I simply throw in the towel. Many are in boxes, a hindrance to browsing and even worse for searching. To retrieve a book from one box (assuming I know which is the right one) I may have to move three other boxes first. No sauntering to the shelf and pulling out a volume while stroking my chin. This past spring I had an urge to flip through Spring in Washington by Halle; there are few better books about that season. I have it somewhere, but hadn't any idea where. It is a small paperback, and was probably buried beneath larger books. I could find it if I had to, but it would be more efficient simply to get it from the library. Recently, things have gotten worse: I am unsure at times whether I even own a certain book. This is a book collector's Waterloo.
There is a way around this. Digitalization sidesteps the problems of storing and organizing since every volume you own is one place. But if I read on an e-book I am not reading a book, only pixilated images produced by binary code. The words are disembodied, displayed not on ribbed paper, but in a metallic case. No room for scribbled marginalia, no fingers between pages, flipping them back and forth, nothing to prop a door open with, or to throw across the room.
This kind of reading is an encounter with words alone; the book has disappeared. The words have no indicia of prior ownership and therefore no history. A printed book exists apart from my reading or my handling of it. I can hold the books my father gave to me: Black Beauty by Walter Farley ("To Brad on his eleventh birthday"), Llewellyn's Bramble Bush (To Brad, on beginning law school), a volume of poetry ("To Brad, for his thirtieth birthday"). I can hold the massive family bible, with its ornate, sculpted leather covers, time-weakened hinges, and genealogical charts that reach back to remote villages in Norway and sleepy towns in antebellum South Carolina . I know I am holding something that has lasted longer than I ever will.
If you cannot hold a book, you cannot lend it or give it away. How many friendships have been sparked or have foundered because of a borrowed book? And you can't record how and where you acquired it, at least not in a way that carries much weight. I came across my salmon-colored copy of Jefferies' Wild-Life in Southern England in a small Scottish town at the edge of the Highlands on the last trip I took abroad with my mother, when she was pushing 80. Older editions of Jefferies are hard to find, and it was already one hundred years old when I laid eyes on it. The volume is a delight, all the more because when I open it I read: "Callendar, August 2006".
I need physical books because they mark time passing. I have tattered paperbacks from my off-balance adolescence, pawed-through college texts, dog-eared parenting tomes, panicked underlining. When a book comes into my possession, I add my name (leaving room for later owners to do the same), along with the date and place of acquisition. Why? These simple facts mark my comings and goings. The blue Chesterton volume in the living room bookcase, What I Saw in America, takes me back to a small bookshop in Stockholm on a summer trip when the sun hardly ever set; two turquoise volumes of Aldous Huxley's Collected Works return me to a medieval town in France where I improbably stumbled across them; a collection of Goethe's correspondence with Carlyle, in a pea-green binding with gold lettering on the spine, ruefully reminds me of the antiquarian bookshop near my house, now long gone, where I made several delightful discoveries. And when I pick up Vrooman's Good Writing, I am back in 10 th grade English class. All three of my given names are written on its first page in large, looping letters, proudly announcing ownership. These inscriptions can be abashing. Recently I pulled down a thick history of poetry I have dipped into now and again, and that I plan to finish someday. I was surprised to see that I acquired it a decade ago.
Books provide happenstance. That is hardly imaginable with digital files because they are not browse-worthy. Printed books can be collected, and when batched together, they can be explored with a sense of anticipation and adventure. You can't do that on the Internet. With a few key strokes you can access more books than you could ever read, but you can't take a single one in your hand, flip its pages, quickly decide whether it is inviting or forgettable. You can't pluck out a volume simply because the binding looks interesting, like Paul Horgan's books, each with its title bounded by thin, hatched lines. You can search on the Internet, but you have to know for what you are searching. Your looking is narrowed by your search. What do you do if you are not looking for anything at all, only looking? Aimlessness is the soul of browsing; it can happen in a bookshop where a batch of books thrown together by circumstance. A couple of summers ago, when I was for some reason thinking about happiness, I came across a book unknown to me: "The Art of Happiness" by John Cowper Powys. It was burind in a jumble in a roadside bookshop in New England run by an elderly woman. It is a quirky piece of writing if there ever was one, but it was good for a couple of memorable ideas, such as the 'ichthian leap'- "a swift lumping together of all the evils of your life. followed by a fierce leap of your inmost identity." If I had searched online for books on happiness, the odds are I would been glassy-eyed when I came to Cowper Powys, and no doubt I would have sailed past it. Digitalization surfeits the searcher, roadside bookshops offer serendipity.
Borrowing books from libraries avoids the storing and organizing. Some former book hoarders swear by them. But after you have read a library book you must rely on recollection. Memory becomes the only residue of reading. I could live with this if books could be exhausted by a single reading. Some, perhaps most, are, but they usually not the worthwhile ones. What if, in an insomniac moment, you have a desire to re-read Freeman's account of Lee's surrender to Grant ("His marches over, his battles done, Robert E. Lee unbuckled his sword forever."), or Shakespeare's Sonnet 115 ("reckoning Time, whose millioned accidents/ creep in 'twixt vows and change the decrees of kings.")? I am not surprised that books have piled up around me.
Tempus fugit. As I look around at my books, I realize I will never be able to read them all. Even if I disregard those, like the encyclopedia, never intended to be read nonstop, and even if I didn't have to work for a living, there are still too many. I am not deflated by this. Owning too many books simply boosts your chances of finding the ones that matter. Beware of a man of one book, Disraeli warned, and I have taken heed.
That said, in weak moments I wonder if my book collecting has become a self-indulgence, a proxy for reading, perhaps even a means of escape fueled by lust? When I see book hoarders in action at rummage sales, using their cardboard boxes as battering rams, furiously scanning barcodes and snatching volumes left and right, I am tempted to see book-lust as a sickness. While I have felt the allure of a uniform set of Dickens standing in the window of a shop, at bottom I am not a hoarder. I come by collecting honestly, beginning as a boy with bottle caps, rocks and coins - worthless, lifeless things, valued only by the attention I gave them. I felt rich in going through my various collections, usually kept in an old shoebox; I enjoyed sorting through them, inspecting, comparing and bartering the undesirable for the fetching. It was something about filling in the gaps, the vigilant search for the rare, the satisfaction of seeing a random heap take shape. Something of that early savor returns when I poke through my books. And more - a book is more than a bottle cap; it is a hatch, perhaps leading into a maze, or a dead-end alley, or a spot to dawdle or flee from in horror. At some esoteric level, my books whisper to each other, and to be able to hear those whisperings is a reason why libraries will always be necessary.
A few years ago a retired college professor I knew had to get rid of his personal library. He was preparing to move to a one-story condo on the outskirts of town, and there was no space for them there. It seemed a wistful situation to me, but he sounded ready to be rid of them. He invited me to visit and pick through his holdings and take what I wanted. I promptly drove to his house. When I arrived, he and his wife handed me a couple of grocery bags and pointed me to the cellar where the books were. They were stacked in the dim space, volumes on Irish mythology, mysticism, Indian philosophy and poetry. Many dated from his graduate school days in the 1950s in Chicago, most tight and dry, some worn and tattered, many bearing his scribbling. They now stand on my shelves, for the time being.
When I look at my books, I can't quite imagine what will become of them. Perhaps I will deal with them like my professor friend by passing them off to someone close to me while I can. There is also the church library, but I have noticed stacks of earlier donations on top of a shelf that have been waiting for years to be catalogued. Or perhaps my books will be scattered after I am gone, sorted by weary relatives, the choicest carted off by the highest bidder, the rest going to charity. A few might interest my sons, but probably not many. Understandably so. A library is a self-portrait in paper and cloth, and once the subject is gone, the books should be released to flow elsewhere. Some future hand will scratch through my name, just as I did with the names of others, and enter another. No book is owned, like no love is owned; it can only be held lightly and well, until the time to let it go.
Illustrations by Paul Béliveau.
Born in 1954, Paul Béliveau obtained his Bachelor's degree in Visual Arts from Laval University in 1977. Recognized for his expertise in drawing, engraving and painting he has since then had more than fifty solo exhibitions across Canada. His works can be found in many public and private collections throughout the country and has to his name some fifteen works of art integrated into architectural sites, notably the foyer of the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec, the renovated firehall which houses the Ex-Machina theatre troupe as well as the entrance to the Hopital de l'Enfant-Jésus.
"The creative act involves - in every instance - because it is an act of projection, recapturing the past, not in the least to simply return to it but rather to transfigure it." No statement could more accurately describe Paul Béliveau's aesthetic. By openly integrating into his compositions an iconography from the past and proceeding through citation and retrospection, he reveals the phenomenon of metamorphosis upon which imagination itself is based. In this way he brings to light the very principles of the mechanics of creation. Imagination, which consists as it were in the transfer of a perceptible representation onto an image belonging to another reality, thus sees itself in the presented. Consequently it is not the images themselves but the unique process of creative development which accords Paul Béliveau's works their originality and relevance.
-- Dany Quine "L'oeuvre du temps", 1996