Monday, December 1, 2014


December 1, 2014:

          If it's a choice between eating and reading, said Erasmus, buy books.

          Well, that's a little extreme, I suppose. I bring it up because a brand new book store has opened in Sag Harbor, called Harbor Books, at a time when independent bookstores are closing all over the country, Barnes & Noble can't seem to thrive, and, from my end, as a writer, it's harder and harder to get books published. But here is a sign of hope--a new bookstore, with a young lady as a proprietor. And another sign: a niece of my wife's has let it be known that she, too, collects books, she's a registered nurse, and one doesn't often hear of registered nurses collecting books. Signed copies, in her case. I'm impressed.

          I have signed copies, too. Dozens of them. But then I'm a writer, and writer friends sign copies of their books for me and my wife whenever they appear, or whenever we ask them to. I have thousands of other books, too, but then I'm a writer, mine is a working library, and almost all my books are associated in one way or another with subjects I myself hope to write about someday.

          Which is not to say that I don't collect books. I have been doing that all my adult life and once had a collection of rare books that impressed some people, although it didn't much impress me because so many of my purchases were targets of opportunity. I would find odd or intriguing volumes in the used book stores I  haunted in New York City or wherever else I found myself and snatch them up. One of my favorites--a little volume from the 1850s or so called "How to Be Pretty though Plain"--I bought simply for its title. Another, from just after the Civil War: "Is a Lie Ever Justifiable?" I used that once in a talk I gave before a chapter of the Ethical Culture Society, where I told my audience a story from that book, about a plan Union prisoners had cooked up to escape from the infamous Andersonville Prison Camp in the South. But it involved telling a lie and an essential member of this escape plan refused to do that. On principle. Then I asked the audience what they would have done, and why, and it began a lively discussion which obviated the need for me to lecture them.

          I also have other old books that don't fit a pattern, books I bought because they weren't beyond my means and they were interesting in themselves. My oldest book came from an antique shop in upstate New York where the woman had no idea what it was. It is a small pocket-size edition of one of Cicero's philosophical works, in Latin, of course, it's handsomely bound in its original vellum binding, and it was published by the Aldine Press in Venice in 1546. I take it off the shelf sometimes to show friends what an old book looks like: beautifully printed on hand-made paper with no wood pulp anywhere nearby when it was made, so the paper is still white and fresh. The Aldine Press, founded by Aldus Manutius, was one of the great presses of the Renaissance. I paid $10 for it. Because somebody once used what looks like red crayon on a few pages, it's not worth much, but I don't want to sell it anyway. I was also able to buy quite cheaply at auction many, many years ago a copy of the first, 1710 folio edition of Nicholas Rowe's translation of Lucan's "Pharsalia," his epic poem on the civil wars in Italy between Caesar, Pompey, and the rest. I'll have that until I die, too. The full-leather binding is a mess, but internally the book is fine, it's full of wonderful etchings in great condition, and it gives me pleasure just to look at it once in a while. To get it rebound would cost probably $1,000 or more, which I don't have, so I'm happy to keep it. I've sold most of my rare books, the Modern Firsts, the 17th-century editions of English translations of the classics and the like, but these few I'll keep. And the working library, which I trim once in a while, sometimes dramatically, I have to keep. It's my life.

          But despite the two little hopeful signs I mentioned above, the sense of decline that pervades high culture in this country persists, and grows, and I, for one, feel like a dinosaur staring up at the approaching asteroid that's going to wipe me and my kind off the face of the earth. Anyone who collects books, who thinks that reading, the acquisition of knowledge, intellectual passion, is the highest pleasure life offers, cannot view the creep of ignorance, outright stupidity, and determined anti-intellectualism that seems to be one of the pillars of American self-esteem  penetrate into every corner of our national life without despairing. Young people abjure books. College students don't know who fought the Civil War. Congressmen who ought to be versed in American history don't know anything. In the book collecting world I know so well, rich  people no longer buy anything but the big highlights, "The Great Gatsby" in original dust jacket for two or three hundred thousand dollars (but no other Fitzgerald), "Moby Dick" for an astronomical amount (but no other Melville), "Ulysses" for a small fortune (but nothing else by James Joyce). This is trophy collecting, not book collecting--see, my checkbook is bigger than yours.

          I know, this is an old fart's lament. But it is connected--when Congressmen tell you that they're "not scientists" and therefore won't answer questions about global warming, well, guess what? It's their JOB to educate themselves about issues, however technical (and there's nothing that complicated about global warming), because they vote on them. I consider it my job as a citizen to keep myself informed about issues as well, because I, too, vote on them. And educating yourself means reading books. No other way is so thorough or leads to more knowledge and more understanding. But the dumbing down continues unabated, shamelessly, unconscionably, and the nation seems to be increasingly proud of its ignorance.

          What do you get from reading? A wider world. Insight. Understanding. It's like travel--it broadens the mind. It leads you to think. It can't make you think, but it offers the opportunity. It's like Mark Twain's discovery when he first saw India and the Indian people that their dark skin had a kind of glow to it, and that the colors they wore were beautiful and wild, and that he was utterly entranced.

          If you have to make that choice, in short, between eating and reading, buy books.