Tuesday, December 21, 2010


December 21, 2010:

Yes, 7,000 books. I haven't actually counted them; what I did was count the books on a few standard-length shelves, then count the shelves, then guess the numbers of books piled up on various floors, and finally guess the number in storage. Doing this is to be reminded of Henry David Thoreau's rueful remark to somebody, possibly Emerson, after his publisher sent him the two or three hundred copies of his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that had failed to sell (the bulk of the printing), that he now had a library of six hundred books, about half of which he had written himself. I have something similar, several cartons of books I edited for the National Geographic Society Press, but I don't count those as part of my library. I'm trying to find a place to give them away to, but can't imagine why anybody would want eight or nine copies of, say, Sven Hedin's My Life as an Explorer, fascinating as it is.

The other day I picked up a book that's been kicking around my library for many years, Roland Barthes's Mythologies. It, too, is a fascinating book, and I looked through it to see what I had made of it when I first read it, because it's full of my notes. I had bought it in the early 1970s from England--I once had an account at Blackwell's, the Oxford bookseller--because English books were a bit cheaper than American books, and the bookseller's catalogues were far more interesting, and also because I wanted to keep up with French thought, which was beginning to take over humanities studies in this country. I thought it might provide a method; at the time I was trying to figure out how to approach the American dream. I had a contract to write a book about the history of the American dream, and it seemed clear to me that the American dream was a myth, but it wasn't clear what kind, or how it worked in the culture. And I thought Barthes might provide a way to think about such things.

The book turned out not to be all that helpful; rereading the book, I find myself as puzzled now as I was then by Barthes's analyses. On the ways the public "reads" particular events, like a wrestling match, or particular things, like wine and milk, he's brilliant. Wine, for example, he calls a "resilient totem," which is an excellent phrase, and notes that it "supports a varied mythology which does not trouble about contradictions." For the common man, wine connects him to his Frenchness; everyone 'knows' that French wine is the best, and that only the French really understand wine. For the writer, however, it serves another function. "The local white wine or the beaujolais of the writer is meant to cut him off from the all too expected environment of cocktails and expensive drinks (the only ones which snobbishness leads one to offer him). Wine will deliver him from myths, will remove some of his intellectualism," will turn him into a man of the people, in short, connect him with the proletariat he longs to relate to, make him more virile, and so on. It's amusing and illuminating; we all know intellectuals who hang out in bars because that's where the "real people" are, the carpenters and plumbers who play darts and watch football and occasionally get into fights.

But when Barthes writes about the more abstract questions of how myths operate semiotically, it becomes much harder to follow his distinctions. Here my old notes express confusion and frustration, and as I read the section over again I am no clearer on what Barthes is trying to say.

Nevertheless I love this book. It is, for one thing, quite handsome. The dust jacket is a soft purple, darkened with age, and the back cover holds a full-page photo of Barthes himself, looking sideways at the camera, a cigarette in his right hand, which rests on an open book--what is a French intellectual without his cigarette?--and a small, dry smile on his face, itself handsome and somehow very French. The book has been moved many times, from residence to residence; it has been packed in boxes, rearranged on shelves, and it shows its wear, not only internally with my notes--my handwriting has hardly changed at all in the last thirty or forty years--but externally, with little scuff marks, a scratch or two, and the oil that has come off my skin and soaked into the paper of the jacket and lent it a certain patina. We talk about rooms looking lived in. Books can look lived in, too, and one of the pleasures of collecting rare books is precisely this lived-in look they acquire with age; it is the smell, the feel of them, and their aura. I once owned a book that belonged to Daniel Webster; it had his signature in it, on the front free endpaper (in rare book parlance that's FFE), very firmly, boldly written. It is fatal to grow attached to books, or to anything, and I have sold thousands of my books over the years, including the rarest, but their beauty simply as objects, quite apart from whatever knowledge or pleasure the reading of them reveals, continues to attract me. They are the other half of a relationship that is in some ways like a friendship. Whom shall I be talking with today? The difficult Barthes, or shall I once again follow the elderly American Lambert Strether as he walks the streets of Paris for the very first time and begins to understand that the life he has not had any opportunity to lead is the life he was meant for. That, of course, is Henry James, the book is The Ambassadors, I've read it twice and my copy of it, which is not distinguished in any way, is also something I love. Because the text is not just a text, available on an electronic device nobody could possibly love. It is a physical thing, paper, cardboard, cloth, glue, ink. It has a feel and a familiarity that makes it yours in a way no electronic gadget can supply.

The only thing I have from my parents' house, my house, besides a few pictures and the family photographs, is a small round table that holds books in a revolving case beneath the top. I asked my mother for it and she gave it to me on the spot. I remember my father after he retired reading the World Book Encyclopedia, which they had bought for my brother and me to help us with our schoolwork, volume by volume, cover to cover. Sometimes I wonder where it came from, the various intellectual passions, the insatiable curiosity. Was it indeed my father? Does it come from forebears at all? I don't know. I'm probably living out my own mythology, trying to be the hero of my own story, the last independent scholar. It certainly seems so. And so it may be: learning may not be the way to enlightenment. But it's the way I chose and I'm not going to change now. What's the Zen saying? Live as if you were going to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were going to live forever. Exactly. If I thought I were going to die tomorrow, what would I be doing now? I would be reading one of my books.