Saturday, August 27, 2011

if I know one thing better than another

Meanwhile Holbrook Jackson talks about book collectors, and bookworms, and people who love to bind their books, and people who love to assemble libraries of books they never read, and impoverished people who spend their money on books instead of food, and people who will decorate a wall with false bookshelves, but this Bibliomania of his was published initially in 1930 and when I'd finished it I realised that he hadn't mentioned lists of books, which today are everywhere, and then I wondered if I should say to myself, "That's proof the book is old, people didn't publish book lists back then, they didn't make a big thing of them," or if I should say, "They did exist and he forgot them," but instead I wavered and said: "In this respect I am not adequately informed about the habits of bookpersons; I do not know," which only confirms the usefulness of knowledgeable books like Holbrook Jackson's.

1001 Books to Read Before You Die, is one of the lists I'm thinking of, and then there's the ones you see on blogs or just online: My Favourite Books, My Desert Island Books, My TBR Pile, Books I Bought Recently, My Latest Library Haul, Books On My Shelf, and Reading Challenges (the Cat Book Challenge, the Daphne du Maurier Challenge, the Scandinavian Reading Challenge, the Modern Library Reading Challenge, the Essay Reading Challenge, the Art History Reading Challenge, the Read Your Name Challenge for which "the challenge is to read your name in book title first letters, ultimately spelling out your name," and more)* until it seems that if the world was made for nothing more than the production of a book as Mallarmé said, then books were made for the making of lists of books, and that, faced with the great spreading-out of viewpoints that books represent, the reaction is to apply a focus, as we try to make the sun more useful by putting it through a magnifying glass and setting an ant on fire.

A search for focus, for accuracy, for measurement -- huge measurements if the list is a Great Literature canon, and measurement on the micro scale if it's one of those personal canons, like the one Junot Díaz gave to his Oscar Wao, although from the point of view of a person, which is the point of view we all have, I think it's the other way around, and the macro foreground is the personal canon, acquired with our own labour, and the background, the more minor thing, is the Great Literature canon, which exists somewhere like a cloud on a mountain (glance up and there it is, the cloth on the rock, and this, say the Capetonians, came about after a pirate had a smoking competition with the devil -- and likewise the Great Books canon is assembled out of other people's huff-and-puffing work), and phantom university professors might flit by your shoulders shrieking at you if you haven't read Candide (Nick Hornby suffers from that vision) but I think you can neglect the cultural canon in ways you can't neglect the personal canon, the personal canon nestling close to the heart, discovered by you, and the other one existing mystically, outside, like the neighbourhood outside your window, into which you step, but in which you do not live (as John Berger would like you to live) -- no, you live inside your house, among your furniture. Lord of the Rings is part of Wao's furniture; he's furnished the house himself, he puts his books in order solemnly, setting up this secret name or hieroglyph, on which he might meditate as Berger meditates on one of his landscape paintings: "It is only its shortcomings that fascinate me. In these I can see the possibilities of a more accurate metaphor: I can feel all that has escaped me."

The painting is a disguised arrow, pointing to the landscape he has seen and to the idea of himself seeing it, it is the painting not of a tree or a hill but of his viewpoint and contained in that painting invisibly is John Berger, sitting in nature with a paintbrush and possibly a folding chair, both eyes open. "John Berger is not blind," says the painting. "In case you thought he was."**

The private canon, pointing to the personality of the owner, is charged with meaning when the owner looks at it, although other people might grin. "Lord of the Rings? Then he's just a run of the mill fantasy geek," an ignorant boy, this Wao kid, suckled on the obvious. "He hasn't even bothered to go searching for unusual fantasy novels, he's just grabbed the big fat blatant one."

-- the world says, staring at the Wao bookshelves. "I like fantasy," it adds, "but eclectic fantasy please, I like to dig a little, you know what I mean? I have taste. I like Lud-in-the-Mist. Hope Mirrlees. Older than Tolkien. Nineteen twenty-six!" I stare at people's bookshelves, and I feel closer to them when I see a book I know, although I wonder what they think of it; something different to me probably, and so we are apart after all.

The personal canon or the desert island book list is another face for yourself, built by yourself, not the one nature happens to have given you, no, I'll do my own, and stick it together out of the debris I've come across, Wao might say, this fortress and this signboard, yes, Lord of the Rings here and the Dragonlance novels there -- and these are scraps that I will solder together, selecting and discarding (only the first two Dragonlance trilogies, not the later books), and with them I will build a cyborg part, or addendum, which will reach out into the world like a tentacle, directed by myself but not made of flesh, my new hand, waving to strangers and saying, "Hello, I'm here," or, as I watch, picking up a pin that was too small for my natural fingers. If Holbrook Jackson's people had met Nell from The Haunting of Hill House they would have wanted to cure her with books: if I know one thing better than another I know this, that my books know me and love me, he quotes from Eugene Field, and better a library than a monstrous house.

The reader knows that Nell hears the Bibliomania people calling to her, because her excuse, when she tries to explain to Dr Montague why she has been running out of her room at night in a haunted house, is, "I came down to the library to get a book" -- which she offers up as proof of absolute sanity.

* Examples: My Favourite Books, My Desert Island Books, My TBR Pile, Books I Bought Recently, My Latest Library Haul, Books On My Shelf, a page of Reading Challenges, and 1001 Books to Read Before you Die.

** Of course this means that if you own a realistic painting, a landscape or a portrait, then there is an invisible painter sitting on your table or standing on the kitchen counter, or hovering around whatever room the painting is in, exchanging a constant gaze with the artwork, staring ferociously at your wall, and you walk through this person, or put plates through them, or something like that, every time you move in front of the painting. My aunt has two photographers eyeballing walls in her dining room.


  1. ' we try to make the sun more useful by putting it through a magnifying glass and setting an ant on fire.' Speak for yourself - I can honestly say I have never set an ant on fire. Do you like Junot Diaz by the way? I have a sense of inadequacy, having failed to derive much pleasure from his work so far

  2. Nor have I, to be honest. I went between "ant on fire" and "lighting a fire" and settled for the ant. I haven't read anything of his except Oscar Wao, and most of my pleasure in that book came from the fantasy nerdism he built up around the male lead, and that was the pleasure of recognition and memory, because I remember all those things. Wao reads the Dragonlance books and wants to be Raistlin -- mysterious, tragic, and powerful -- that's a perfect touch, and it's funny, too, because the idea of fantasy geeks reading Dragonlance and wanting to be Raistlin is virtually a real-life running gag. There's a tonne of old online fantasy forums out there with people calling themselves Raistlin. So that part of the book, I loved.

  3. (I mean "nor have I" with regards to the ant, not Diaz's work and deriving pleasure from.) Wouldn't worry about feeling bad if you don't take pleasure in something. It's not the same as not understanding it, or not trying to think about it, which might be something to feel inadequate about. There are chunks of Joyce that I don't take pleasure in, but I admire the creation of them.