“Many Ways to Stuff a Watermelon” is up at Numéro Cinq.
Pierre Senges explores the relationship of writers and fictional characters to libraries. It was hard to translate.
There are sections on Flaubert (Bouvard and Pécuchet), Casanova, Borges, Jean-Paul Richter, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Browne, Émile Borel, Cervantes, Sorrentino, Moby Dick, Diodorus, Réjean Ducharme, Aristotle, Miklós Szentkuthy.
“In my youthful days, I never entered a great library, suppose of one hundred thousand volumes, but my predominant feeling was one of pain and disturbance of mind, — not much unlike that which drew tears from Xerxes, on viewing his immense army, and reflecting that in one hundred years not one soul would remain alive. To me, with respect to the books, the same effect would be brought about by my own death. Here, said I, are one hundred thousand books, the worst of them capable of giving me some pleasure and instruction; and before I can have had time to extract the honey from one-twentieth of this hive, in all likelihood I shall be summoned away. This thought, I am sure, must have often occurred to yourself; and you may judge how much it was aggravated when I found that, subtracting all merely professional books—books of reference, as dictionaries, &c. &c. &c. — from the universal library of Europe, there would still remain a total of not less than twelve hundred thousand books over and above what the presses of Europe are still disemboguing into the ocean of literature, many of them immense folios or quartos. Now, I had been told by an eminent English author, that, with respect to one single work, namely, the History of Thuanus, a calculation had been made by a Portuguese monk, which showed that barely to read over the words (and allowing no time for reflection) would require three years’ labour, at the rate of (I think) three hours a day. Further, I had myself ascertained that to read a duodecimo volume, in prose, of four hundred pages — all skipping being barred, and the rapid reading which belongs to the vulgar interest of a novel — was a very sufficient work for one day. Consequently, three hundred and sixty-five per annum — that is (with a very small allowance for the claims of life on one’s own account and that of one’s friends), one thousand for every triennium; that is, ten thousand for thirty years — will be as much as a man who lives for that only can hope to accomplish. From the age of twenty to eighty, therefore — if a man were so unhappy as to live to eighty — the utmost he could hope to travel through would be twenty thousand volumes,— a number not, perhaps, above five per cent, of what the mere current literature of Europe would accumulate in that period of years. Now, from this amount of twenty thousand make a deduction on account of books of larger size, books to be studied and books to be read slowly and many times over (as all works in which the composition is a principal part of their pretensions), — allow a fair discount for such deductions, and the twenty thousand will perhaps shrink to eight or five thousand. All this arithmetical statement you must not conceive to relate to any fanciful case of misery. No; I protest to you that I speak of as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed. And it soon increased; for the same panic seized upon me with respect to the works of art. I found that I had no chance of hearing the twenty-five thousandth part of the music that had been produced. And so of other arts. Nor was this all; for, happening to say to myself, one night as I entered a long street, “I shall never see the one thousandth part of the people who are living in this single street,” it occurred to me that every man and woman was a most interesting book, if one knew how to read them. Here opened upon me a new world of misery; for, if books and works of art existed by millions, men existed by hundreds of millions. Nay, even if it had been possible for me to know all of my own generation, yet, like Dr. Faustus, who desired to see “Helen of Greece,” I should still have been dissatisfied; for what was one generation to all that were past? Nay, even if it had been possible for me to know all of my own generation, yet, like Dr. Faustus, who desired to see “Helen of Greece,” I should still have been dissatisfied; for what was one generation to all that were past? Nay, my madness took yet a higher flight; for I considered that I stood on a little isthmus of time, which connected the two great worlds, the past and the future. I stood in equal relation to both; I asked for admittance to one as much as to the other. Even if a necromancer could have brought up the great men of the seventeenth century, I should have said, “What good does all this do me? Where are those of the twentieth century? —and so onward! In short, I never turned my thoughts this way but I fell into a downright midsummer madness. I could not enjoy what I had, — craving for that which I had not, and could not have; was thirsty, like Tantalus, in the midst of waters; even when using my present wealth, thought only of its perishableness; and “wept to have what I so feared to lose.”
Thomas De Quincey. “Letters to a young man whose education has been neglected; and other papers.” Pages 82-85.
William H. Gass’s writing is so good, it’s overwhelming, almost too much. Metaphor is like junk food to this man, so he says. If you’re slightly more of a Gass fan than I am, you would find the following of great interest: three previously published essay collections are being re-issued this year: On Being Blue, Tests of Time and The World within the Word all coming back into print, that’s pretty amazing (NYRB, Dalkey). And last year the online exhibit “William H. Gass: The Soul inside the Sentence” went online (and in gallery).
Over at the online gallery you can
explore drafts of published and unpublished writings, recordings of his interviews and readings, photographs and scans of important documents and objects that have shaped his life.
Update: Also of note is this 2013 interview.
Earlier this week, Dalkey Archive Press published a brief, up-to-date version of their list of titles published (some forthcoming). It’s organized by country and much easier to browse than their website. Very handy, and worth a look — Dalkey’s catalog never ceases to amaze.
Their spring catalog of forthcoming titles is out too.
At his blog, D.G. Myers has a
pretty damn good long bibliography of American fiction of the sixties (+600 titles). This period in American publishing seems to have been an unprecedented explosion of literary innovation, and it seems equally overlooked by those who are enthusiastic and by those who deplore the state of literary fiction in America today.
An awful lot of forgotten authors in there, although – as Daniel Green pointed out on Twitter – a few are still missing: Ronald Sukenick, Gilbert Sorrentino, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Marguerite Young, William Goyen, Richard Farina… Even I had to remind Myers of Harry Mathew’s place in there, one of the greatest living American writers in my book. No such bibliography, the moral may be, can ever be complete.
The list of books read this year, ordered chronologically by date of original publication. In bold are works I consider well worth their time, and even a second read. Also included is a list of what I project I’ll read (or want to read) in the year to come. (Why, by the way, in the flood of “year-end reading lists” that bloggers flood the Internet with as soon as December hits, don’t I see others making lists of what they envision ahead in the year to come? My projections from last year from last year turned out to be risibly inaccurate to what I eventually read, and so I for one wouldn’t place much stock in what I say I’ll read… For now these French classics look like bliss.)
In the posthumous work Penser/Classer (which title one might translate as To Think/To Classify), Georges Perec outlined what he saw as the only possible criteria for arranging one’s books:
- by continent or country
- by colour
- by date of acquisition
- by date of publication
- by format
- by genre
- by major periods of literary history
- by language
- by priority for future reading
- by binding
- by series
The office of William Gaddis. Image from Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System, eds. Joseph Tabbi & Rone Shaver. U of Alabama P, 2007. P. 146.
we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized — William Gaddis, Agape Agapē, (1)
The simplest way to describe Toute la mémoire du monde is to say that it’s a short documentary film of the setting and institutional practices of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris as they were in the late 1950s. The film begins in the basement of the library, where gross heaps of documents are consigned to a process of slow degradation. Parce que leur mémoire est courte, les hommes accumulent d’innombrables prosthèses, Dumesnil announces. [Because its memory is short, mankind accumulates limitless prostheses.]
There’s a lot of dystopic-sounding studies of computers and networks out there, and it’s hardly a new trend: Trapped in the Net; Life on the Screen; The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace; Silicon Shock; The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet; Technobabble; Digital Diaspora; Cyburbia; Slaves of the Machine; Moths to the Flame; High Noon on the Electronic Frontier; Monster or Messiah?; Digerati; War of the Worlds.
Adapted from my paper “The Case for Thomas Jefferson as the Father of American Librarianship” and presented at the 6th Doctoral Symposium in Information Studies at the Université de Montréal, March 30, 2012:
Polymath of Albemarle county, Thomas Jefferson invented for his own use several ergonomic devices to reduce cumulative physical stress resultant from reading and writing. Of especial note is this ingenious revolving book-stand:
Shaped like a cube when not in use, the stand could be unfolded to hold five books simultaneously. Hinged at the top, the four vertical sides could be lifted up and angled out. A lip at the bottom of each let a book rest on the angled surface. Furthermore, the top of the cube could be tilted up to hold a fifth book directly above one of the lower books. Even when fully loaded with books, the stand could be easily revolved to let Jefferson quickly peruse multiple texts in succession.
Also remarkable: a portable writing desk constructed to his specifications. On the angled baize surface of this beauty, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Made of thin strips of mahogany, the desk was reduced to the minimum size and weight and produced the maximum utility of space. In addition to a folding writing board lined with green baize, it had a bookrest and a drawer with a lock for storing a supply of stationery, completed documents, ink, pens, wafers, and sand. Jefferson continued to use this desk until 1825, when he presented it to his grandson-in-law.
The Virginian statesman also devised a chair with a fully revolving base to facilitate easy interaction with print material:
Federalist William Loughton Smith ridiculed the chair in the anonymous The Pretensions of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency Examined, writing: “Who has not heard from the Secretary of State of the praises of his wonderful Whirligig Chair, which has the miraculous quality of allowing the person seated in it to turn his head without moving his tail?”
It may be added that the debt-ridden patrician of Monticello used several different polygraphs (copying machines) during his last 14 years to make a simultaneous copy of his vast correspondence over that period, polygraphing over 5,700 correspondences.
Sources: Bedini’s Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines, 1984;
Hayes’ The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, 2008.
Final note: It just so happens that Jefferson’s ingenious chair, with its revolving base, pops up in a passage from Joseph McElroy’s second novel, Hind’s Kidnap (1969):
Maddy’s desk faced the west window, which was even wider than the south or north. In his swivel chair past and present found shape: steel and white enamel plasticompo and the button that ran the swivel won only a tense counterpoise from the truth that this chair was in idea the same swivel Thomas Jefferson invented. Viewed from an approaching helicopter, Maddy Beecher’s office, a white concrete block, perhaps like a huge clamping not just thick enough to hide its bolt, topped the rambling… (p. 53)
Nicholas Carr believes — and shows, using lots of evidence drawn from research in neuroscience and cognitive science (the book is shelved in McGill’s Osler medical library) — that our interlinked computing technologies pose a serious challenge to deep thought, hampering our capacity to reflect and contemplate in meaningful ways. This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking claim; at least, not for anyone who has had the experience of, while piloting a web browser, being unable to focus for any length of time on the task at hand, or who has found their attention increasingly diverted and distributed through a web of hyperlinks. Figures of speech to describe our computerized, information-saturated mental state abound: popcorn brain, mental obesity are among the most apt. Forget information overload.
Also pictured: Information Anxiety (Richard Saul Wurman); Within the Context of No Context (George W.S. Trow); and Future Shock (Alvin Toffler).
Randall referred at length to Ernest van den Haag’s book The Fabric of Society […] and quoted Santayana’s words, ‘It is worth living in the twentieth century to get to read Proust.’ Then he asked, ‘Is it worth it to get to read Peyton Place? We ought to say what we know. It’s better to read Proust or Frost or Faulkner… better in every way: and we ought to do all we can to make it possible for everybody to know this from personal experience. When we make people satisfied to have read Peyton Place and satisfied not to have read Swann’s Way we are enemies of our culture… and Jefferson and Franklin and Adams would look at us not with puzzled respect but with disgust and despair.’ – on Randall Jarrell’s address at the National Book Award ceremony
‘Sir Tippy’ came to mind today, so, while I was volunteering at Montreal’s Atwater Library today, I hunted the reference down:
In contrast to the prevailing methods of careful display in public museums, private collectors often have a predisposition to disorder. Clutter appeals to the collector’s sense of discovery. History delivers numerous examples of the overwhelming disorder of private collections. For instance, the Victorian book collector Sir Thomas Phillipps lived in a state of domestic chaos; Sir Thomas, known familiarly as Sir Tippy, vowed to own ‘ONE COPY OF EVERY BOOK IN THE WORLD’ (Muensterberger 74). His vast and largely uncatalogued book collection infiltrated every room in his large country house. As a visitor from the Bodleian Library reported is 1854, ‘Every room is filled with heaps of papers, MSS, books, charters, packages & other things, lying in heaps under your feet, piled upon tables, beds, chairs, ladders, &c.&c. and in every room, piles of huge boxes, up to the ceiling, containing the more valuable volumes!’ (qti in Muensterberger 75). To feed his passion for books, Sir Tippy bought up entire libraries. In the latter part of his career, he purchased waste paper by the ton on the off chance of finding something valuable among loose leaves. In one lot of waste, he located the main part of William Caxton’s Ovid. At his death in 1872 Sir Tippy left what was probably the largest collection of books and manuscripts ever assembled by an individual: 50,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts. (Hepburn 27)
When Allan Hepburn spoke to a class of new MA of English students in the fall of 2008 (I was there), he said that Tippy’s wife and child(ren?) were actually relegated to a sort of annex or outhouse as a result of Phillipps’s hoarding. (My wife and I had a good chuckle when I told her this.) Read more about Tippy over at Wikipedia.
Hepburn, Allan. Enchanted Objects: Visual Art in Contemporary Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010.
Muensterberger, Werner. Collecting: An Unruly Passion. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994.
Let me say at the outset that this is not a book I intend to read soon in its entirety. The Anatomy of Bibliomania is extraordinary for above all the jocular, ribald hilarity of its table of contents. There are subsections on such topics as: “anti-bibliokleptic measures”; “books bound in human skin”; “bibliopegic dandyism”; and on the “belligerent usefulness” of books. Whole chapters are dedicated to: “book-drinkers”; “bibliophagi or book-eaters”; grangeritis; “the cure of bibliomania” (subsection 1: “whether it is curable or not”; 3: “Bibliophilia is the only remedy”).