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.


  1. What a pleasure, to read this posting this morning. Thank you for providing a link to a downloadable copy of George Hamlin Pitch's book, making it instantly available to read. He echoes sentiments you have expressed here before re: the lifelong rewards that come from a genuine thirst for knowledge (plus some very interesting (and sometimes hilarious) anecdotes about various mentioned writers. And I didn't even have to leave my house to go to the library or bookstore to find this! Thanks, Paul.

  2. It is my pleasure in service to my loyal readers! By the way, I absolutely love Google Books and The Gutenberg Project. I know there are all kinds of issues with the scanned books and copyright problems, but I love being able to call up so many books on my computer. I agree with the late Helene Hanff: she never bought a book she had not read first. She went to the library, which is fine, but to have both the physical library and the digital one is indeed the best of both worlds to me. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Very nice. We need more paeans to this technological marvel called the Book. I worry about what will become of books, and the increasingly expensive printing infrastructure in the age of the iPad. What will happen to reading in the Third World without fourth-string hand-me-downs from the First? How will we actually preserve the fragile electronic signals we have taken to calling "libraries"?

    For love of books I recommend Nick Basbanes, especially A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World (HarperCollins, 2003).

  4. I have many, if not all, of Nick Basbanes books on books. Some I even purchased twice, forgetting that I already had them buried in my to-read stack. I have made a point to collect books about reading and books, including those of the two authors featured in the post. Down at the far end of the stacks I found a whole collection of old books about reading and books, so I have the Mount library to thank for that. Wonderful place to spend quiet summer days, down on the first floor next to Vicky the Archivist's digs. Thanks for commenting and I will venture over to your blog to return the favor.


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