Tome Sweet Tome

ESSAY

October 30, 1994|By John E. McIntyre

Three steps from my desk, I can put my hand on a shabby paperback with a faded pink-and-white cover. Anyone else would see Houghton Mifflin's edition of selections from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." I open the book and hear Professor John Yunck reading aloud in Middle English with zest and glee. It is the spring of 1971 in East Lansing, Mich., and I am young.

Across the room rests a battered one-volume complete Sherlock Holmes, the first grown-up book I purchased with my own money. I found it at a store in Cleveland in 1962 on a visit to my older sister's home. Everything in it (except the tedious "Valley of Fear" -- Conan Doyle is not at his best in American settings) has been read and reread more times than I can count.

Near Holmes are a number of ratty drugstore paperbacks -- Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe canon. Every few years, having forgotten the plots, I can enjoy them all over again. Nothing so pleasant after a long day at work than to sit for a time with a drink in a still house, reading about disagreeable people meeting violent ends.

A great gulf separates those who own books, who crave them, from those who see books as a dust-gathering impediment.

An impediment they certainly are.

The 2,000 on the shelves around me -- a number kept moderately stable by a periodic culling of the herd -- have been boxed and lugged up and down stairs more times than I can comfortably count. They have little monetary value. And they are mortal: Many of them are paperbacks yellowing with age and dying, eaten up by the acid in the paper. Books, as George Orwell wrote in 1936, "give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die." (I have the book in which he says that.)

Wait -- I'll concede more.

Displaying one's books is one of the more obvious forms of intellectual snobbery, like dropping names of authors and titles in conversation to underline one's erudition. "Golly, have you read all of those?" is the reaction to be elicited, "Some of them more than once," the urbane -- and evasive -- reply.

In reality, the mere ownership of books is in itself no more praiseworthy than the accumulation of an equivalent number of thimbles, beer cans, refrigerator magnets or the other objects that people have a mild mania to collect.

Moreover, the whole collection has nearly been lost twice during domestic upheavals, redeemed only at considerable financial, physical and emotional cost.

At one's back one hears the cry of the noncollector: Why bother?

These books are more than an amusement; they are also my past, in the way that the Chaucer makes immediate those university days at Michigan State.

The volumes of W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Philip Larkin evoke the people with whom I first read the poems.

In one city and one marriage, I bought John Cheever's collected short stories and read them straight through. In a different city and a later marriage, water dripping from a plant above the bookshelves stained and warped the book. Both of us have been through a great deal.

Trollope's "Autobiography" I have in the shapely little Oxford World Classics series, found on a balcony during a foray at the now-vanished Scribner's bookshop in Manhattan. I can't go back to Scribner's, but I have the Trollope.

On one shelf is the nearly unreadable -- well, I haven't tried very hard to read it -- "Davis Memorial Volume; or Our Dead President, Jefferson Davis, and the World's Tribute to His Memory," by J. W. Jones, D.D., published in Richmond (where else?) in 1890, and bearing, faintly, in pencil the signature of E. J. Early, my grandfather's elder brother. Having it is a connection to my family's past, even if they were secesh and I am not.

Books exist to be read or consulted. Text comes first. But books possess extra-textual qualities as well, personal associations 11 that one would be sorry to lose. They are objects that can evoke an entire past at a touch.

In the Middle Ages, as half-literate monks illuminated manuscripts, surrounding text with gold and color, the book itself was a sacred object to be preserved from the surrounding ruin. For Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, books were the source of magic and power. There is a Jewish tradition of putting a drop of honey on a child's first book so that the child can lick it off and make the first crucial association of learning with sweetness.

In the present age, electronic devices are the means to magic, and text is a fleeting electronic image. Books -- we are repeatedly told in the print of articles and books -- are becoming obsolete. So, too, the implication runs, are the people to whom books are important.

Very well. But for one bookworm, these volumes -- purchased, read, shelved, shifted, ransomed and restored -- are talismans against boredom, charms to preserve the past, maps to the interior world, gateways to the larger world. They are the friends who have endured.

JOHN E. MCINTYRE is a deputy chief of The Sun's copy desk.

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