Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Time, The Place, and The Book

On the very first page of Islands of Books (1951), Lawrence Clark Powell sets up his thesis: “There is a power in certain books to evoke the time and the place of their first reading, when by merely giving a glimpse of their backs they take us backwards to that time of discovery which now seems magically inevitable.” He is speaking here of staring at his book shelves and reading the spines of the books therein, and this acts as a fuse to light up his memory.

In this cloth-bound, old book, Powell celebrates reading. He talks about his bicycle trips to the library and filling his bag with books he hasn’t read, and then pedaling home to spend the evening in bed with his finds, eating chocolate and satiating his boundless appetite for the written word. Heaven. He also writes of his library writer’s room as an adult, nine feet by nine feet, lined with books, the voices that comfort and inform him on his journey through life. This is a delightful book about books and the power of reading to set fire to a life of the mind. Powell has a library named after him on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Powell takes us through his reading of Rabelais and Chevalier de Seingalt (we know him as Casanova), D.H. Lawrence, Melville and Whitman. Powell writes of books the way M.F.K. Fisher writes of food—the beautiful, the colorful, the tasty, the sensual. He revels and celebrates writers and writing by making a poetic tribute of his own, and his work makes for thrilling reading for those of us who love the smell of binding glue and cottony paper pages.

Powell is a book collector, and the impulse begins at an early age. He remembers being a “starveling book clerk” and happening upon a beautiful book special ordered from England. He sneaks the tome home and types himself a copy of the nine thousand word essay. No digital copiers in those days. It is his special privilege to buy a copy of the book, Glory of Life by Llewelyn Powys, when his ship finally comes in many years later. His favorite author is Robinson Jeffers, and he spends time in his career researching and writing about him. Because of this, Powell’s unique vision focuses on California. It is rare to find a Californian celebrating literature; we are not known for our intellectual pursuits according to the stuffy east coast denizens. We are a film and Hollywood culture mired in the doldrums of escapism and Saturday matinees. This, of course, is an insupportable stereotype. We go to the movies every day of the week, not just on Saturday afternoon! Read books? Only if they’d make a good script.

I love Powell’s use of symbolic objects as literary talismans. He writes in “Ripeness Is All” of a mobile hanging in his study. Made of twigs, bone, shells, and thread, it turns in the thermal air generated by a space heater. He compares the mobile turning in the heat to the works of Yeats, Gide, and Bunin simmering in his fevered brain. Can we all cite books that did that to us, the books we stayed up all night to read in those sweltering summers?

Comfort Found In Good Old Books from 1911 is another gem from the past, one that qualifies itself in reference to the title: this book is now itself a good, old book, one hundred years old. George Hamlin Fitch writes out of the grief and desperation of inescapable tragedy. “These short essays on the best old books in the world were inspired by the sudden death of an only son, without whom I had not thought life worth living.” It is in his “darkest hour of sorrow” that Fitch finds his only comfort “from the habit of reading.” The story is heartbreaking. Fitch and his son Harold were in the habit of meeting for dinner every Friday evening. On that particular Friday, Fitch waited for his son until six o’clock. “I left a note saying I had gone to our usual restaurant,” he writes. “That dinner I ate alone. When I returned in an hour it was to be met with the news that Harold lay cold in death at the very time I wrote the note that his eyes would never see.”

Out of tragedy comes this little book. First came the loss of Fitch’s library in the “great fire,” (San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fire?) and then the death of his son. This book is a celebration of literature for the common man. Although he admits to reading six hours a day, Fitch writes for mere mortals who can spare only an hour. His target audience was one without university or even high school degrees. For sure, this book was written in another time for a different audience. Fitch’s tone is simple and clear with brief articles on Shakespeare, St. Augustine, Cervantes, Thomas a Kempis, Dante, Milton and others. His explication of great works is gentle and avoids the pedagogical fog of academia. He never writes down to his audience, and that makes his prose sweet natured and quaint.

The illustrations throughout the book are pasted in place in a process known as “tipped-in.” Evidently, this is consistent in every edition produced by Paul Elder and Company, San Francisco, and lends each copy a hand-crafted appeal more common in art books. Fitch compiled the book from his articles in the San Francisco Chronicle where he worked as a book reviewer for many years. He too, like Powell, is a California writer. Of special note is the annotated bibliography at the back of the book. Fitch gives the history of each work’s publication and the best edition or translation as of 1911.

While browsing in my one remaining Barnes and Noble, I noticed there is no shortage of books about books and reading. However, I like Powell’s and Fitch’s books because they come from a time when kids and adults found escape and adventure in literature and auto-didacticism flourished. In an age of increasing demands for our attention, it is restorative to find comfort in good, old books. In these authors’ works of cardboard, paper and dreams, we can find enlightenment for a new age.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mencken and the End of the World

I could not help thinking about H.L. Mencken this past weekend while listening to the boobs and dunces on cable news proclaiming the end of the world. No doubt that is what he would have called them: boobs and dunces. Mencken was a journalist and cultural critic from Baltimore, and he never tired of finding innovative ways to denigrate the idiocy displayed by Americans. This weekend, I dipped into the middle volume of his three book autobiography, Newspaper Days 1899-1906, and came out the other side adding him to my list of influential writers I feel I know but have never met.

My first encounter with Mencken’s voice was through the character of Hornbeck, the cynical reporter in the play, Inherit The Wind, who was modeled after the distinguished newspaper man. From that moment on, I have been a dedicated reader of his work. However, this was my first foray into his autobiography. I found his writing here infinitely readable, although the times and people of which he writes are long gone. His were the days when America learned of itself solely through news print, and Mencken’s prose could both lacerate and eviscerate America’s sacred cows. Journalism also dictated the story, and Mencken tells us insider tales of rival reporters colluding on the narrative, sometimes resorting to minor fictions over absolute truths to advance the telling.

Journalism must be an objective art, as the academics tell us. A good reporter presents the facts and lets the reader decide. But any journalist worth his salt knows this is dogma and that the reality of the situation may call for a subtle influence on the part of the writer. Facts can be manipulated, especially when a writer chooses which ones to tell his readers, and how to place them in the story. Mencken was a master of this art. His work was not anonymous or interchangeable with other writers. As his reputation grew, he did not undergo as much editorial vetting nor suffer the homogenization of his prose by the rewrite desk. No sir, early 20th century newspaper readers knew Mencken’s prose when they encountered it. His writing was acerbic and sharp, and he was not afraid to call out the miscreants and hold their feet to the fire especially if they were politicians or other blowhards, all of whom were the same horny beast to Mencken.

So I did not have to think too hard to know what he would say about the end of the world charlatans of May 21, 2011. And of course, they were wrong, unless one lived in the path of those tornadoes in Missouri. For those poor souls, some of whom lost their lives and others their homes, it was the end of the world, but the world is always ending for someone somewhere, which renders those predictions meaningless.

In all the punditry and flailing on cable news, I hear no voices like Mencken’s. Newspapers have lost the war for relevancy as hard copies or first drafts of history. What news these former paper giants publish now is digitized and one might argue, superficial at best. Few aspire to say anything of depth or insight. Statements of the obvious are the rule, and we face a wall of sound hurled at us by those boobs and dunces pretending to offer analysis for the consumption by other boobs and dunces lounging in their recliners screaming their amens. We need someone like Mencken to cut through the crap. Yes, he had his prejudices and blemishes, but they were his own and not bought and paid for by corporate rapists and spin-meisters. He was smarter than that, and so were his readers. He could irritate and annoy, but his work challenged readers to consider their beliefs. These days we are beset with people who tell us what to think and then the message is repeated over and over again. We suffer from our own misidentified cleverness which in reality, is superficiality bordering on stupidity. Some of us have even crossed that border.

What I mourn for here are the days when good journalism challenged us to be better citizens, not offer us targets to blame for our own inadequacies. Writers like Mencken used to come along and report world events and help us make sense of the world where those events occurred. They were professionals, voices that came with a body of knowledge. Journalists were smart people who had a broad range of knowledge and experience. They lived their stories, and functioned as voices of reason in the wilderness of daily life. Nowadays, with all the noise and compromised pabulum disguised as reporting, it is difficult to hear the true voice over the cacophony of celebrity news readers, aka the pretty people who scream simple words devoid of substance on our televisions twenty-four hours a day. The only good thing about the end of the world is that hopefully, it will bring some much needed peace and quiet.

Friday, May 13, 2011


The quiet, old, musty-smelling, echoes of history. The library has survived fires, earthquakes, floods. This makes it biblical, mythological, the field of Elysium for the mind life.

I have come to this library in late spring to read, to write, to consider where my life is going. All the students have left, and I am alone with my thoughts, and the thoughts of those lining the shelves. Mute testimonies from another age. I hear the voices calling me. I walk between the stacks, selecting random volumes: 1909, 1921, 1894, 1910. The spines are creased and lined, the type worn away. I open the books and find some have not been checked out since the 1950s. There they sit, waiting patiently for someone to come along and bring them to life again by reading.

The library is a four-story affair built on the side of a hill. You enter on the third floor. Spanish colonial architecture, all arches and vaulted ceilings. This is the reading area, now filled with computer stations. Above is a sort of balcony fourth floor—open-air, lofty, overlooking the main floor. I take the elevator down. The second floor houses the audio-visual department and more computers as well as a warren of offices and work rooms. The first floor is my destination. The stacks. Far side, a long narrow room of tables, shelves of art books, and windows with a view of the Pacific Ocean only a few miles away. This is where I belong, my home. Outside the window, a twisted pine stands sentinel. I am the monk at my wooden table dedicated to a life of study and reflection, staring out the window at the world. Here I can think, reconsider, revise. Here, there are no cell phones or computers. Here, paper and leather binding rule the world. I am Charlemagne in my purple robe of thought. I am lost and I am found. I am a paradox. I contain multitudes.

I have been told over these last months that we must imagine the lives we want in order to create them. Somewhere, all our dreams exist. In the minutiae of the universe, every possibility occurs, fracturing space like cracked glass, radiating out in every direction. This is the life I want: solitary, monastic, a place for the written word, but not the spoken one. I long to take a vow of silence. I will remain on this perch at the library table until all my thoughts return, until everything makes sense again.

From here, I can see forever, on and on, until the earth curves and the sky ends in the sea. I can sense the rising columns of warm air, the coming of summer, all of history both forward and back. I can speak with Magellan and argue with Galileo. I can climb the steps of Montmartre, and dip into the Aegean Sea with Odysseus. I can laugh with Whitman and cry with Mary Magdalene. My soul splits like an atom with the force of megatons.

This is the house of questions with a million answers.

I will stay here forever, even after I am gone. This is the paradox—I am alive in the midst of dead trees that record millennia of human thought. I am joy in melancholia, summer in winter, dreaming when awake. The paradox is inexplicable, the angel at my table. This is the crystal moment in the plasma-pause of time. In the library on the hill, light is primordial, elemental, eternal. Ideas echo and double back, swirl and gather in the afternoon shadows. I listen to the whispers. I feel the acceleration of time, past, present, future. Every thought that ever existed, lives here and now. I am poised on the precipice of the universe, listening.

*Check out Vicky the Archivist's discussion of my post and the library here. Vicky writes a wonderful blog about the life of an archivist in this digital age.  For those of us in love with books, printed matter and photography, her work makes for interesting reading.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mark The Grave

Remember when we lamented the demise of the independent bookstore? We swore the chains were conspiring to push them under. Barnes and Noble and Borders were the evil empires, crushing the poor mom and pop stores into oblivion.

Now we all gather to mourn the passing of the chains. In my neighborhood, almost all the Barnes and Nobles and the Borders locations are gone. I went from having the independents like Dutton’s—four locations in Los Angeles—and the chains—one Borders and two Barnes and Nobles within a five mile radius—to just one Barnes and Noble. Bookstores in Los Angeles are disappearing faster than spring flowers in Death Valley.

To add insult to injury, I drove by the most recently closed Borders location only to see it had already been etched with graffiti. Worse, one tagger’s pen name is “Thinnk.” That’s right: with two letter Ns.

Inside the shuttered bookstore with the shelves standing empty and forlorn, all the lights were on. In broad daylight!! I guess for the ghost readers who haunt the place?

Sure Amazon will deliver your books to your doorstep, but I am a dedicated book browser. I enjoyed wandering through the shop, discovering some gem on a shelf. Amazon works well if you know what you are looking for, but I love surprises. Now it seems the best used bookstore in town is Goodwill. Sad days, indeed.