Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Monday, September 20, 2010
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Part 1, in which I recollect how I got to this point and fixate upon my prize copy of the Rubaiyat
The first week of August, I quit my job in a faraway state, drank sparkling, white, and red wine at my going away party, pocketed the going-away cards, and set off for the northeast. Upon arrival, embarrassed by the giant moving truck parked in front of my humble new dwelling, I immediately threw away copious amounts of belongings. This included, with a surprising lack of self-pity, box upon box of my books. So disgusted I was with my overflowing material baggage, I did not even bother to sell or donate the books, but instead chucked them into a long, tall dumpster. I did not even say a prayer or good-bye.
Returning to the calm of a clean, freshly-painted apartment, I settled into my condensed book collection and without much conscious design arranged them on what remained of my bookshelves. They, too, had not been spared the sunny bin. Shortly thereafter, I snapped a few photos of this handiwork, a casual visual documentation that has now erupted into a series of essays on the matter.
Admittedly, no bibliophile can work in true mindlessness when arranging a bookshelf with his own books. A certain degree of necessity plays a role; I only naturally put together books of a common series, keep some especially old volumes away from sunlight, and move delicate hardbacks to high shelves away from the clutches of a book-greedy toddler. The biblio-archaeologist might also find some thin thread of my past arrangements residing in this current state, but otherwise I have made no efforts towards order.
The recent and significant reduction has dashed the traditional categories in which I had my collection set up: cinema and filmmaking, poetry, language primers and linguistic texts, history, anthropology, books in German and French, novels, drama. Originally, I possessed an entire bookshelf just of philosophic readers, critical analysis, and mainstream reviews of movies. The self-contained library was seeded by a gift from my grandmother—supposed to be her last opportunity to give her grandchildren any significant amount of money. If I remember, the check was for $1000, and I believe that I spent $300-400 on books about movies. That was ten years ago, and my grandmother has just celebrated her 100th birthday—the books, on the other hand, until recently many still unopened or at least not by me, are now gone.
All of this is a rather insignificant prelude to what was to me an astounding discovery. On the top shelf of my oldest bookshelves, and without any intended design, I had slid seven books beside one another, from each of which I have something memorized.
I find this a remarkable coincidence. Standing on the left, and the tallest and grandest of the seven, is a hardcover, 1947 book club edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Every page of the book has a border, extending an inch or more from the edges towards the center, on which is depicted animals and things of nature in pale green ink, flowing and repeating like grotesque paisleys or a woven Persian rug. Many pages feature soft paintings, perhaps watercolors, facing the text.
I always pick up unique copies of Omar Khayyam when I pass them. This particular one descends from a Friends of Fondren Library Book Sale, one of those frenzies of pulp opiates in which treasures like this sell for one or two dollars. I once found a handful of Penguin classic editions, each for some trivial price at Half-Price Books in Houston, and bought every one of them. I have just one left—my reading copy—while the rest have been given to friends and family. A habit I learned from my professor Douglas.
Douglas assures me that Edward FitzGerald’s translation is more beautiful than the Persian, a statement that I cannot back up and which was strange coming from a man who insists on reading everything in the original. But a translation is a separate entity, not an alternate version. The King James Bible makes the whole thing mellifluous, making you think that you might even enjoy reading the whole thing from Genesis to Revelation. But the Greek New Testament reveals something about the story that no translation can. Both worthy books, but different.
One day Douglas was, for no apparent reason, carrying around the Persian version of Omar Khayyam, swept across and through with Arabic letters that can easily hide thousand-year-old poetry from an American boy. I find it rude to ask someone to speak in a strange language, but I could not resist. It was the only time I have ever asked Douglas to say something in another language that I would not be able to understand. But he resisted, blowing out his lips and waving his hand and saying, “It wouldn’t make any sense.” It seemed like he wasn’t just talking about me, but about everyone in the room and himself and anyone in the world who might try to read it. Incomprehensible.
So thank you, Mr. FitzGerald, for comprehending number 23:
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End!
I find the poems weary at ceremonies, where exotic recitations have become something of a requirement. They are so personal, universal, transformative—everything that a poem should be—that it seems impossible to fruitfully share them with a crowd of intellectual heathens such as are on display at a graduation ceremony. It would be better to throw them their diplomas from behind some large shield and then scurry off to the nearest beneath-ground tavern for shelter.
Which is perhaps why I love to give away my copies of the book, but rarely speak of it.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
No book on my shelves can find comparison with this single volume. And it is not merely the cash value of an 1838 Webster’s Dictionary. I have avoided collecting pressed pulp for monetary profit, but instead gather to myself books that can withstand the act of reading.
This 15th edition of Webster’s great book was once owned by the Rev. W. G. Bonoman, if I am correctly deciphering the name. The script seems unpracticed, not as clear as one expects from the antique hand. It is also made in pencil on the blank cover page, rather than the usual bleeding ink lines. On the reverse side, in similar pencil lines but a different hand, is the simple name Mrs. J. M. Herndon.
Another pencil inscription, carved randomly on the top of a page of the book, appears to say:
Once my Fathers
now Mrs. J. M. Herndons
The outwardly simple reflection is yet cryptic, but the placement of the note smacks of spontaneity, as if written on some dreary day after receiving the dictionary of a father passed away. The definitions below offer no clear hints to why Mrs. Herndon was visiting those words on that particular day. All the words begin with BEA. Beat, beast, beatitude,
BEARHERD, n. One who tends to bears.
But the provenance of my Webster has little bearing on its dearness to me. I cherish the book for two reasons. One, of course, is the definitions.
SAUCE, n. 1. A mixture or composition to be eaten with food for improving its relish.—2. In New England, culinary vegetables and roots eaten with flesh.—To serve one the same sauce, is to retaliate one injury with another; [vulgar.]
Like a history book, an antique dictionary fills your mind with the words, and therefore a sliver of the worldview, of a time and people of the past.
My two favorite definitions from the famous book follow. They are simple, but exhibit an multi-dimensional archaicness to the modern ear and mind that is seldom equaled.
ELOPE, v.i. [D. loopen, wegloopen] To run away, to quit one’s station, without permission or right; to escape privately; to depart without permission. Particularly, to run away from a husband, or to quit a father’s house, privately or without permission.
ELOPING, ppr. Running away; departing privately, or without permission, from a husband, father, or master.
The second, and the most important reason why the book is dear to me, is for the silly fact that it was a Christmas present from my wife and was purchased using the very last of our money at the time. I still keep it in the unlabeled white box in which it rested when I received it, enveloped by brightly-colored tissue paper. I pretend that the thin sheets will trap any moisture making an attack on this precious volume.
Every time I open the book, I study the yellow splotches that spread across every page, and ache. I worry that I don’t care for the book enough, that I will some day have to dismantle it and have it rebound in some modern, foreign material. It has become a symbol of my marriage, and especially of my wife’s generous (though not endless) patience with my obsessive study.
I one day found a very special inclusion within my dictionary. Someone, perhaps Mrs. Herndon, pressed two small flowers in the dictionary. And until I found them, they had been forgotten.
Monday, September 6, 2010
I remember the moment clearly. Class was on the third floor of the Humanities building, a bright new building containing only nondescript classrooms of only modest size. Such modesty must have been imposed onto the Humanities and violently, in their fashion, opposed by same. I sat in the front row on the far edge of house left. This was my typical seat, facing Douglas, who sat in a chair at a folding table in front of the blackboard. The requestor sat slumped in his chair, his long lacrosse-playing legs sprawling out onto the vomit-patterned carpet.
What is the difference between psychotic and neurotic?
Without missing a beat, Douglas explained:
Psychotic means that you translate everything into purple cow activities. Neurotic means that you have to consult your emotional baggage constantly.
The definition sufficed for me and I imagine that it will continue to support me. Douglas’ ability to translate a technical definition into rich and useful everyday language is astonishing. I have taken his lead and begun work on a dictionary in this vein; a dictionary that requires one to think about the full and complete meaning of a word, without requiring the reader to jot off in search of other murky meanings for clarification.
I know that no psychologist would appreciate Douglas’ rendering, though he himself is no mean analyst. He has tracts of Jung memorized and has sent students trotting off to Zurich in pursuit of a certificate from the International School for Analytical Psychology. New students of his could always expect to have recent dreams analyzed early on in the semester. One girl was upset when he told her that her dream of cuddling a bunny rabbit related a desire to become a mother. She was dogmatically committed to having no children, and did not return for further analysis.
I guess in her case, the diagnosis was neurotic.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
A 19th century Christmas gift, defense of an Anglo-Saxon Primer, in praise of Jesus in the Greek, and a much-needed mention of mid-century etiquette
At first glance after taking this photo, I decided that I had apparently begun this series on hopeless ground. Twelve inches of books of interest to approximately no one outside this author and a handful of outliers to society who think that the Attic Greek middle aorist is exciting. Sure, Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People there on the right has not exactly eclipsed the mainstream, but I think only middle-aged history buffs that consider Churchill’s multi-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples light reading would be invigorated at the sight. Good chance that, in fewer years than I would like to think, I’ll be middle-aged and crack its wood-scented covers to fantastic glee and think how much like my father I am, and happy to be so.
But I continued to stare at the photo—there was no need to retrieve the books as I know them all so well—and I started to see more interest in them than I first suspected. For the purpose of pleasing a more general public, I might discard Smyth’s phenomenal grammar book, the Latin dictionary of trade paperback caliber, Clyde Pharr’s Homeric Greek, the slim student’s Anglo-Saxon primer, and even my prized little volume on Latin etymology (without which I could not continue to wholesomely live); and these for only resting within what would today be a specialist's domain. But what is left would be a gem to really anyone possessing, in my opinion, the semblance of a brain.
From the left, I point out the Greek New Testament. Anyone unimpressed with the power of the Christian Bible has never read the NT in Koine Greek. One does not need to be a religious devotee of Jesus to have his or her vigor aroused at the actions of the man depicted in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. His words in the Greek demonstrate a passion and vitality that tends to flatten in modern English translations, and which I cannot due justice in this brief essay.
And I have long considered the opening words of John 1:1...
In the beginning was the word
...of course, in the Bible within this twelve inches of shelf (for those that are sticklers about this sort of thing) it is...
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
...to be an essential component of my intellectual M.O.
On second thought, I cannot pass up a brief mention of Henry Sweet’s little red Anglo-Saxon Primer. Henry Sweet contributed as much as anyone to the popularization of Old English studies or at least widespread understanding of the importance of the language to English civilization and Germanic philology, yet he never attained a professorial position. His outrageous phonetic authority was the inspiration for the character of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. This little volume itself is quite special, as it was given to me by my Old English professor and mentor throughout my undergraduate years at Rice University, Dr. Douglas Mitchell.
Following the tracks of Douglas, my possession of the incredible Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities is his responsibility. Edited by William Smith and published in 1859, this guidebook to the objects and customs of the Greek and Roman world has given me the freedom to literally dispose of other reference books covering classical antiquity. The book was purchased by me essentially by accident. Douglas had encouraged me to acquire a similar book, but one that addressed Greek and Roman mythology and religion—and which he commonly brought to class—but I ordered this from Amazon and have never regretted the error.
The book is one meant to be read. It appears to have accepted the assignment with diligence. The spine has been replaced with a weathered, dark khaki tape, upon which only the name of the book has been retained: glued to the spine in approximately the same spot it would have been originally. The boards, of faux red marble design, are destitute at the corners as if burned. Still tight, however, are the edges of the pages, the golden paper still shiny and reflective as though a polished stone mass like antique Roman dolabra.
The book appears to have been the gift of a widow, Miss Marjorie Aborn, to Western Reserve University. The Ex Libris fixture within the front board denotes the university library and the giver: given, it must be assumed, before 1967, when WRU became Case Western. There is also a handwritten dedication on the first page of the volume, from Andrew J. Rickoff to Frank Aborn. The precious dictionary saw first service as a Christmas gift in 1874.
Mr. Rickoff, I can state with utmost certainty, was a notable superintendent of schools in Cleveland in the second half of the 19th century, who it appears was responsible for a great period of improvements in the education system and schooling facilities in the city. Within Mr. Rickoff’s school system. Mr. Aborn was a master drawing instructor who also published manuals on drawing instruction. It is possible, but possibly not confirmable, that inspiration for some of his classical approach to drawing was issued in part from the very volume now on my shelves.
Lastly, and wedged between the Bible and the Old English, are two small publications, one being How to Take the Fog out of Writing. This is a small, blue book, like a rather thick pamphlet, that is curiously and wholly from the 60s. Published in 1964, it was certainly an object that my mother purchased to guide her through high school English at Menlo High School in Menlo, Iowa. The little red beside this is a 25-cent “purse book” by the name modern etiquette, in all lower case, which, according to the editors, is “a way of everyday life, not merely a set of rules for formal occasions.” It was apparently revolutionary for its time, for it took into consideration the changing lives of Americans in the 1960s.
Just as many other customs and styles have changed radically in the past fifty years, so, too, have many of the rules for correct and gracious behavior. For example, modern etiquette takes into consideration that most homes are servantless, that many wives work, that teen-agers have greater freedom than ever before—that, to sum up, life in the 1960’s is faster, more informal and freer than at any time in history.
The contents are only what you would expect: the same tips as today, though few etiquette guides published in 2010 would provide expert advice on how to tip a cigarette girl. If they did, I doubt their suggestion would be in the range of 10 to 25 cents per purchase.
The emotional pull, and general gravitas, of this twelve inches must be said to come from the dictionary and the primer, although any book on classical language in my library is the direct result of Douglas’ influence and the repercussions of his instruction resonate on every shelf.
But I have to admit that diving into my mother’s little high school writing and etiquette guides have touched me in the deepest way. I find myself wistful for childhood summers spent at my grandmother’s in Menlo, and the plans she and I made for me to spend a year with her and attend school. Now that I am a parent, I can see why my mother and father shot down that idea without discussion—how could they live without me for so long?—but part of me still wishes that I could have spent a year in the little, little town and visited the farm and lived in the quiet, quiet house on the peaceful street and gone to the Methodist Church where I was baptized and every week put a penny on the train tracks behind my grandmother’s house. I would have kept the flattened coins in a can and given the rattling prize to my child or children, a time that is now upon me. Even as a child, I longed for the chance to live multiple lives, so that I could do everything: like take a year off as an adolescent to frolic in rural Iowa with my grandmother.
Today is her 100th birthday, and the retirement home staff have caught her once again sneaking out of bed at night to do her laundry and fold the lunch menus for the next day. I’ve just moved 1500 miles away from her and could not travel back for the celebration. I love her, and find these relics of life in Menlo fifty years ago to be hard tugs on those little strings suspending my heart in my chest.
Saturday, September 4, 2010
Working alone, the author has only his own mind as challenger and referee. The performance of his pen, the dictate of whether or nor what is written is good writing, relies on the discerning brain of this solitary, self-reflexive editor. How can one learn to write well if one’s constant companion is no better than oneself, and that companion tends to sympathize with the author’s verbal spewing.
I have found that the practice of writing often, writing tens of thousands of words and hundreds of little pieces and long pieces and existentially sublimated pieces and poetry and definitions and diary entries; all this—rather than incrementally sharpen some quillish intellect to producer ever crisper, neater, and more original prose—simply tires me of my clichés until I am so bored of my own voice that I have to make drastic changes in my style of composition simply to bear the sight of my assemblies of words.
From time to time, I will fall to this sad state. I will write on a notepad or in a journal and furiously negate line after line of horrible, hackneyed text. I become so bored with myself that I write cliché on purpose, unable to accept that I could do better or that I could be so terrible.
Yet I persevere. To overcome this disgust I reinvent my voice and style in some way that allows me to once again find some interest or value in the phrases self-provoked. And, as a writer, some kind of writer, I survive to set down another page.
I believe that most real change occurs only when painful frustration erupts out of some sort of crisis. Break-ups happen when one lover can no longer handle the miserable faction within the relationship. An auto manufacturer finally addresses latent safety issues when millions of recalled cars cost the company billions. Revolutions occur when the unbearable and sickening weight of oppression transforms into a moment when the insurmountable suddenly becomes the goal.
So I eagerly await the next crisis in my writing, knowing that whenever my eyes roll and I sigh and scream at the sight of my words, shortly thereafter I will be a new and far better writer.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
phi·lo·lo·go·phile n. one who loves those who loves words; fan of philologists, poets, writers, linguists, dictionary authors, and other assorted madmen; a critical reader of etymological dictionaries; collector of books about words and books about books; one in fruitless pursuit of his own dictionary of the contemporary tongue.