Archive for the ‘Library’ Category

Gotham Diary:
Where to Find My Library
10 January 2013

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Mr Morgan’s Library  

The last essay in James Wood’s new collection, The Fun Stuff, concerns his late father-in-law’s library, which it fell to his charge to pack. I read the essay with bulging interest, as the disposal of my library is much on my mind these days. It’s not that the end seems nigh. What has dawned is the realization that nobody will be interested in possessing my collection of books as such. It will be as individual volumes that the books dissolve into the used-book universe. I am learning not to regret this, learning, that is, what my library really is, and where it actually exists.

Two of Wood’s anecdotes — neither about his father-in-law — stuck with me when I put the book down. One of them I had heard before. It was something that happened to Frank Kermode when, toward the end of his life, he moved house, and the boxes of books that he wished to keep were mistaken, on the sidewalk, for rubbish, and carted away, leaving him “with a great deal of literary theory,” Wood writes.

The story once seemed horrifying to me, and now seems almost wonderful. To be abruptly lightened like that, so that one’s descendants might not be lingeringly burdened!

It still seems horrifying to me, because poor Kermode was still alive. The other anecdote presents Susan Sontag in a now=familiar blaze of insecurity. I won’t repeat it entire; here’s the end:

… and it seemed strange of her not to comprehend what I intended to say, which was simply that, like her essays [Sontag’s point], her library was also more intelligent than she was.

I understand what Wood means to say here, but I would put it differently, probably because his essay sparked my mind on to what I think is a better grasp of the matter. I would say that anyone’s collection of books is more intelligent than its owner. But I would insist that the library itself, the library within that collection, is centered in the mind the person who has read the books in it, and held on to a memory as well as to the book.

That is why my library will not survive me, even if someone begs to take the whole lot, even if someone goes so far as to replicate the blue room in a museum. To anyone but myself, the collection will be just that, books on a shelf. What binds those books into a library is the web of connections in my head, some of them quite conscious, others all but unavailable. This had already been intimated to me by the work that I’ve been doing on culling the books, but I lacked the manner of expressing it.

My misgivings about personal libraries were awakened several years ago by a visit to the Morgan Library and Museum. In the grandiose library, I was peering at the spines through the grilles. It was all rubbish. Old travel books, I recall, or old translations of things. The books might have been valuable as objects, but their contents would be of no interest to anyone but a scholar, and, as such, ought to be uploaded into the clouds for permanent and universal access. It is not a library at all, but a collection put together for the greater glory of J P Morgan. It is hard to imagine him reading much of it. To put it another way, I should like to know of what books Morgan’s true library consisted. That would be interesting to know. (I do hope to leave behind a book list!) The library itself, however, died with Morgan.  


Scouting the Internet for reviews of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, I felt a bit foolish getting so excited by a book that came out last spring. I know why I shouldn’t have read it then. I was in the depth of my English commitment, reading one Elizabeth Taylor after another, and then, as i recall, reading and rereading Alan Hollingshurst. I was also loosening the compulsion to read all the new reviews. The mere appearance of “halftime” in a book’s title would have steered me away.

I don’t think that you’ll find me compiling ten-best-of-the-year lists of anything, but I have to say that it was the way Ben Fountain’s novel kept coming up on other people’s lists that concentrated my attention. The decisive pointer was Laura Miller’s rather harsh list of five books that she couldn’t pick up or get through. One of them was Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, the “other” Iraq novel of 2012. Miller compared it unfavorably to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The buzz had piled up in my mind. That, too, was part of my library; it still is. And, now that I’ve written it down, what is it? An annotation to my book list, I suppose.

Library Note:
Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

As I was tidying the bedroom on Sunday, I had second thoughts about putting a stack of books back on top of a dresser after I’d dusted it. Instead, I carried the pile to the laptop at the dining table, opened Readerware, and used the barcode scanner to autoload the books into the database. When that was done, I bulk edited the lot, assigning each book the same shelf location. Off the top of my head, I chose “Korean” to designate the location; the dresser in question is in the Korean style, or so we were told long ago. Now I have a handy printed list of the sixteen non-fiction titles that spend their time hidden by an array from framed family photographs, waiting for me to read them. At one point, they were all books that I was going to get to “next.” 

I continued to tidy my way around the bedroom, coming eventually to a pile of books that Kathleen plans to read. I brought this to the laptop computer as well, with “Kathleen’s Reading” as the location. Unlike the “Korean” batch, the books in “Kathleen’s Reading” were in no sense shelved; they were stacked in a pile. There are a number of such piles throughout the apartment, and by the end of the afternoon I had catalogued them all, even the multi-pile aggregation of 61 books located as “NonFiction.”

There were three distinct piles of books, “Chevet” (tucked into my nightstand), “Fiction Basket” (a dump in front of my nightstand), and “Fiction Annex,” a small pile in the blue room that didn’t fit anywhere else. The last pile to be catalogued ended up being called “Chair,” because I resolved to stack it in my reading chair whenever I wasn’t sitting there. This has already proved wearisome. It is a very tall stack. Thirteen books, plus a few extras. The extras are Rizzoli’s Treasures of Venice, and the Hallwag map of Venice, both of which are accompanying me through Judith Martin’s No Vulgar Hotel, an extremely amusing book about La Serenissima. No Vulgar Hotel by itself is not a thick book, but it makes a bundle with the guidebook and the map. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity is in the pile, of course, although I don’t think that it’ll be there much longer, as I am barrelling through the final quarter, my fondness of lingering over the great writing being trumped by the urge to shrink the pile, to which nothing will be added until there are only five books in the lot.

Another book that I hope to speed through is Jasper Becker’s book about Beijing, The City of Heavenly Tranquillity. There’s a Forbidden City guidebook to go with that, too, although I don’t need it anymore, as Becker has moved on to other parts of town. A third entry along these lines is Ina Caro’s delightful Paris to the Past, a sort of souvenir guide to day trips that someone staying in Paris might take to outlying sites of interest, such as Chartres and Malmaison. There’s Michael Ainger’s very good dual biography of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Giles Tremlett’s very something-else biography of Catherine of Aragon. Also Joseph Lelyveld’s book about Gandhi. A N Wilson’s new Dante in Love, which arrived the other day from the UK, went straight into “Chair.” The one book that Readerware’s autoload function detected as already in the database was a thick novel by George Sand that I retrieved from the storage unit last week, Consuelo. I don’t know if it’s any good — and that’s really the appeal. More than 900 pages! There are 105 chapters, plus a conclusion. I read the first one standing in the storage unit, and since I knew all the words I thought I might make a go of it. After all, it is set in Venice in the Eighteenth Century. I’m not sure that I’ll like Sand the novelist, but I already do like Sand the writer.

One book has already been knocked off the list: Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. It may have been the slimmest book in the title, but it was also the least congenial. Although I can’t say that I found most of it incomprehensible, I did have a strong feeling of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other. It is a very death-haunted book — understandably, if you know the context. (Barthes’s beloved mother had just died, and he was sparked to write about photography in part by a photograph of her as a child in which he felt that he really made her out, the mother he had known as a girl in a winter garden.) I will be on the lookout for temptations to use the terms studium and punctum. 

At the top of the pile is John Ashbery’s new translation of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. I know this prose poem via Benjamin Britten’s (very selective) setting, so it took a moment to find the sung work’s signature line (J’ai seul la clef de cette parade), because it comes after two paragraphs of what Ashbery translates as “Sideshow.” Rimbaud makes Barthes read like a comic book. At the bottom of the pile is James Gleick’s The Information, which I read right up to the penultimate chapter months ago and then set aside, because I wanted to digest the book before I finished it. Even though I’ll finish it soon and find a good place for it in the bookcases, it ought to remain at the bottom of the pile, because it’s what got me to get back to managing my library. I want to own the information. God wot there’s a lot. 

The most exciting book in the pile, if also the most tiring, is the Ainger, which is really a triple biography of W S Gilbert, Arthur Sullivan — and Richard D’Oyly Carte, the impresario who harnessed the incompatible artists and provided a showcase for their collaboration at the Savoy Theatre. The details are dense, but they don’t obscure the personalities, although poor Helen Lenoir has faded into a translatlantic blur. All sorts of things that I didn’t know: Lewis Carroll approaching Sullivan about adapting Alice for the stage. (Hmmm….) Gilbert’s yachts. Sullivan wading in a creek at Yosemite. I always thought that Sullivan got his knighthood (in 1883) partly so that Victoria could shout “We are not amused” at Gilbert, but this is arrant nonsense, not least because it supposes that the Queen was paying attention to the Savoy operas. Sullivan was by nature an assiduous courtier, and numbered the Duke of Edinburgh among his good friends; one of the fruits of this connection was a Te Deum that Sullivan wrote to celebrate the Prince of Wales’s recovery from typhoid in 1872. That would have endeared him to Her Majesty, the dedicatee. 

As a reward for all my hard library work, I came down with a cough and a touch of sore throat on Saturday night, and spent the rest of the weekend in a listless state. Reading until I thought that I’d explode with information.