My Own Private Alexandria

A response to a suggestion.

Back then, you might see a young woman reading a book at the Cafe Hawelka in Vienna, maybe at the Cafe Bastille in San Francisco, or anywhere in between. From a distance you could see what she was reading. From that came possibilities.

“It was too bad about Prince Andrei. But Natasha and Pierre…oh, you haven’t read that far? Sorry.”

My first copy of War and Peace I picked up at the discounted book table at the PX (post exchange, a sort of general department store for military personnel) at Fort Belvoir, an army base on the Potomac River, not far from George Washington’s Mount Vernon. That edition was bound in a red hard cover. I don’t remember any introduction, but there were some pen and ink drawings every few hundred pages. I read it nights on the floor of my office where I lived and slept for a few months.

“I really can’t see why so many people liked the book. I mean think about it, Roark was a rapist and domestic terrorist.”

My mother had a copy of The Fountainhead. She had told me she enjoyed reading the book while in college, but there were some disturbing aspects to the story and she really didn’t agree much with Ayn Rand. I admire a writer who can write in another language, and every now and then Rand wrote a very nice sentence. But Rand was and is for the most part a joke, and I agreed with my mother’s assessment.

“You don’t see many women reading Portnoy’s Complaint.”

A great book to share at an all boy prep school. The quote we’d say to each other the most was the line about getting off ‘ten or fifteen savage strokes’ as the main character rushed down the hall to the bathroom to get some relief.

Today if you saw her, or perhaps her daughter, it’s not quite how it used to be. We’d be at a Starbucks, which could be anywhere and therefore nowhere. Like everyone, she is doing something hidden by the anonymous sameness of her smartphone. Getting a dopamine hit from a Facebook like? Doing the same for her friends because they did so for her?

Books were not simply a way to meet someone, but it was a much better opening line than something along the lines of “Didn’t I see you at the youth hostel?” (back then), or “Hey, I see you have a shiny new Steve Jobs soon to be toxic landfill thingy. I have one too” (today). A book said something about her, even before I knew her name.

What is it about books? For one thing, not only are there are stories in the book, there are also stories about the book.

The story about the book is who gave it to me. The Book of Five Rings from Bill, Andrea gave me The Tao of Pooh, Courtenay gave me Notes to Myself, Keith gave me Shantaram, and at my long ago confirmation ceremony, the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer (1928 version) from my mother. Courtenay, Keith, and I have all read and shared the wonderful John T. MacDonald’s Travis McGee beach bum private-eye series; all the titles have a color in them; my favorite was the last— The Lonely Silver Rain. Alex got me Look Who’s Back and Catherine, guided by the staff at Le Bookshop, got me An Officer and a Spy. Next to me as I write this is the 1978 version of the Prentice Hall Handbook For Writers, required by my high school writing teacher Willis H. Wills, who thought every boy should go to Hamden Sydney, and liked to repudiate the rule of not ending sentences with prepositions with the question, “What are you talking about?”

The story about the book is who recommended the book to me. Tony—The Practical Cogitator (which sat in my truck for six years until Dane rescued it and sent it to me, and I have here now); from Richard Anderson, my usability professor, Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building; John and Amanda recommended The Trustee From the Toolroom, and from Dennis the wonderful fiction of Anton Myrer. During my freshman year at the university, my etymology class was taught by classics professor Dr. Barbara Rogers—lately from Berkeley, she often told us about growing peas in her garden there—she recommended The American Heritage Dictionary, because it had the best etymologies. She also told us the Farsi word for snow sounded just like the word barf.

Dictionaries are books, and they tell a story of their own. I know I can look up foreign words on Google translate, but I like the feel of the pages of my Langensheidt’s German or Collins French dictionaries. I like that the entries are in blue, bleu, blau. I like the sound of the pages flipping and the texture of the paper on my fingertips. On the way to one word, I’ll stop at another, read a bit, then move on to my original destination, unless something else catches my eye.

The story about the book is where I bought it. I bought Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts in a hotel’s used book shelf in a little village on the southern part of Crete on the Libyan Sea. Later I bought Fermor’s sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, at the Green Apple bookstore in San Francisco. I bought Roger Deakin’s story about swimming around England, Waterlog, in Montreal, and Erich Maria Remarque’s Flotsam at the Gecko Bookstore in Chiang Mai. In a place as unlikely as Hagerston, Maryland, at Wonder Book and Video, I bought The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, whose writings could be applied not only to painting, but to just about any discipline or pursuit.

I prefer used bookstores, because it’s there, as Joseph Epstein writes in his essay, “The Bookish Life”, that ‘you find books you didn’t know you wanted’.1 ...continue

The story about the book is where and when I read it. I read The Soul of A New Machine, about a stressful engineering project, while working at Frame Technology on a stressful engineering project. I read Robert Little’s The Company while sailing from Auckland to Papeete. I read his son’s book, The Kindly Ones, in Montpellier. On the over night ferry from Heraklion to Athens I read A Time of Gifts. I read Jaws (this was before the movie came out) as we drove across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way to a summer vacation at Bethany Beach on the Atlantic.

Books sometimes have marginalia, one line stories that might not have anything to do with the text in hand. In her copy of Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand, and Stars that Courtenay must have had for a literature class at Edison High School, was written “Beauregard Selznick2not his real name is wearing Topsiders!”

A book does only thing, but it does it supremely well. It is a pure singularity of concentration and attention, these latter two found today only in antique stores. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. These alone are qualities enough, yet there are uses beyond the words on the page: a book is also a piece of art, a piece of furniture, a paper weight, a whiskey glass coaster. You can drop it and it won’t break. You can write it in with your own handwriting.

Part of the blame must rest with my mother: Baylor graduate, captain of the college debate team, teacher of high school English and journalism. Education and intelligence were expected. “What’s all this mewling and puking?” she once said. That’s from Shakespeare. Once in a while she launched into some sort of almost rapper like riff, about St. John of Patmos (the troubled author of the Book of Revelation). I think she had writerly aspirations: while raising us kids and moving every two years and being an Army wife, she wrote a monthly column for Army Magazine; she kept book long journals about each of her three children; and she wrote the occasional article for The Washington Post. I think if she had her life to live over, after graduation she might have moved to New York City, and spent her days there working in the publishing industry, a variation on Elizabeth Hardwick.

The more I write and read, the more I miss her.

When she sent me to St. Stephen’s it was just oil on the fire: summer reading lists, and a heavy amount of reading across all subjects during the academic year.

I notice books in homes. Before they moved from Toulon to Nice, I liked visiting Sofia and Constantine, not only to visit with them, but also to see their huge wall of books, in English, French, and Greek. I hope their new home has a similar, book laden wall. Bill and Mary Jo have a lovely library, books interspersed among all their nautical do-dads. Tony and Leslie do too, although instead of nautical things there are CDs of Blue Oyster Cult and Puccini. In fact, Tony had to buy another house to hold all his books, although he pretends he got the property just to grow grapes.

I notice books in movies. In Serendipity, John Cusack spends years looking for a particular edition of Love in the Time of Cholera so he can find the lovely Kate Beckinsale’s phone number. Books are all around Hugh Grant in the opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral (with Andie McDowell). In another movie about him getting the American girl (Julia Roberts in Notting Hill), Grant owns a bookstore specializing in travel books. There are no books to be seen in yet a third movie about Hugh Grant and an American, Sandra Bullock in Two Week Notice (what was wrong with Elizabeth Hurly??). Matt Damon has book stacks on the floor of his one room fleabag apartment in Good Will Hunting. Bill Murray, quite good in this unknown film, burns books to keep warm during his spiritual quest in The Razor’s Edge. In Groundhog Day (about a Canadian pursuing an American), Bill Murray and Andie McDowell talk about 18th century French poetry, and Murray quotes Chekov.3Alert readers will note that this ...continue

Books mean too much. I’ve stolen books from my school library. Another time I got caught stealing books from a store. The store manager told my mother my life would be ruined if I had a police record. I was eleven years old.

Why read? Why books? It might one of those questions that if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand the answer. Mark Edmundson, writing about why everyone should first be an English major before going off to study economics or chemistry, provides one of the best reasons for reading. Substitute here ‘reader’ for English major:

The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people….Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to only live once? The English major lives many times through the astounding magic of word and the welcoming power of receptive imagination.4This is a wonderful essay: ...continue

Unlike Frost’s traveler standing long in a yellow wood, we don’t have to make a choice between this path or that path—we can take more than one, and then some.

I read to learn about writing. Words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters. What did this author write about? What did that author leave out? How can I do what they did my way? They = James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. I want to understand how they use language, how they wrote what they wrote so wonderfully well. Again, Edmundson:

The English major at her best isn’t used by language; she uses it. She bends it, inflects it with irony, and lets hyperbole bloom like a firework flower when the time’s right. She knows that language isn’t there merely to represent the world but to interpret it. Language lets her say how she feels.

The English major believes in talk and writing and knows that any worthwhile event in life requires commentary and analysis in giant proportion. She believes that the uncommented-on life is not worth living.

Why read? I want to know everything. I want to be smarter, or if it’s too late for that, then at least try to keep learning. With no lecture halls or seminar tables nearby, I turn to books. Joseph Epstein:

…reading the right books, the best books, puts us in the company of men and women more intelligent than ourselves. Only by keeping company with those smarter than ourselves, in books or in persons, do we have a chance of becoming a bit smarter.

It has to a real book, but technology has its uses: the audio book—some things are better heard than read. I’ve got Derek Jacobi reading The Iliad, Ian McKelller on The Odyssey, and Simon Callow reading The Aeneid. Who’s missing to make this a fab four is, of course, Alan Rickman, reading maybe…? But in general audio books cannot be considered serious reading: you cannot control the pace, pausing and going back are tedious, and the voice you hear is not yours. Epstein notes that ‘Reading and listening to someone else reading are two widely, I should even say wildly, different things’.

Certainly for those who prefer to read a lot of books and would rather not schlep them around, a digital reader is a great solution. But I have a hard time finishing a digital book. Maybe it’s the generic nature of the device? Maybe it’s something else. Epstein writes:

Nor, I suspect, is the bookish soul likely to read chiefly on a Kindle or a tablet. I won’t go into the matter of the aesthetics of book design, the smell of books, the fine feel of a well-made book in one’s hands, lest I be taken for a hedonist, a reactionary, and a snob. More important, apart from the convenience of Kindles and tablets—in allowing for enlarged print, in portability if one wants to take more than one or two books along when traveling—I have come to believe that there is a mysterious but quite real difference between words on pixel and words in print. For reasons that perhaps one day brain ­science will reveal to us, print has more weight, a more substantial feel, makes a greater demand on one’s attention, than the pixel. One tends not to note a writer’s style as clearly in pixels as one does in print. Presented with a thirty- or forty-paragraph piece of writing in pixels, one wants to skim after fifteen or twenty paragraphs in a way that one doesn’t ordinarily wish to do in print. Pixels for information and convenience, then, print for knowledge and pleasure is my sense of the difference between the two.

Oh yeah. And I’m okay with the hedonist, reactionary, and snob label. When on the train home after work, the sun shines over your shoulder, and the glare prevents your from reading the words on the screen if you are using some electronic thing to read. But have you a book, that same slanting sunlight illuminates the page so that even the serifs of the letters take shape against the textured white background of the page.

Books, and the places they live, libraries, are the antidote to so many of today’s poisons. A library is a place to read, to look for books, to study, and also to write: in the early 1950’s, in the basement UCLA’s Lawarence Clark Powell Library, Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a typewriter that could be rented, 10 cents for thirty minutes. It took him nine days and cost $9.80.

My first memory of a library is the John Marshall public library, part of the libraries in Fairfax County in northern Virginia. My sister worked there Sundays, and often I ended up there for the afternoon. My senior year in high school I made trips to the Library of Congress for research. The building is such that just walking in you feel your IQ go up a few points. The main library at the University of Vermont was a much as social as academic center, but the German department library was better: the German Russian Department took up one wing on the second floor of Waterman Building. After hours the door to the library was locked, but the key was placed on the sill of the door frame. Inside, books covered the walls except where there were windows or blackboard. One window looked out over Lake Champlain, and in the distance you could see the Adirondack Mountains. The room had a dining room sized conference table with chairs for ten. One evening there I learned from Karen, a senior who had just returned from a year at the university in Tübigen, about junior year abroad programs, and about three seconds later, unsure of any future details, I knew I’d be spending the next year in Germany. That next year in Heidelberg I visited several of the university libraries, including one whose books were arranged by the acquisition date.

In Montpellier there are series of public libraries, the flagship of which is the Emile Zola Meditheque, a huge, open and airy modern building located next to the Piscine Olympique d’Antigone. A gorgeous library next to a 50 meter pool—the French are geniuses. There are four floors with the expected sections: periodicals and public computer workstations, a music and media level, a children’s floor, and more floors with many, many books. My favorite place to go is the salle de travail, on the second floor. Sunday afternoons I take Catherine there for reading. The room is always full of students, high school and university—Catherine and I are the youngest and oldest; there is only the slightest talking, and while there is a bit of checking the phone, generally the students are quiet and concentrating, writing on their computers, copying formulas in the graph paper notebooks the French favor, and reading books.

According to Hecataeus of Abdera, above the entrance to the library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt was the inscription Ψ Υ Χ Η Σ Ι Α Τ Ρ Ε Ι Ο Ν or pysches iatreion: healing place of the soul. Good books and good libraries are like that, good for the soul. When bad shit has happened to me, books have been there to distract, console, perhaps advise.

~

Today perhaps it’s not all bad. Witness those French students in the library. And that same young woman today, at the cafe on her phone? She might be reading a digital version of War and Peace—nothing wrong with that. Even better, maybe in time she might become one of those young people, logging off, and finding the harder, subtler, much deeper joys of reading not on the screen.5An article about younger people logging ...continue

But in response to the suggestion: like music, art, friends, family, dogs, swimming, whiskey, the sea, and sex, I cannot imagine a life without books.

References   [ + ]

1. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/11/the-bookish-life
2. not his real name
3. Alert readers will note that this paragraph starts by describing a movie where an American pursue an Englishwoman.
4. This is a wonderful essay: https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553
5. An article about younger people logging off: See https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/29/teens-desert-social-media.

Leave a reply