Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Strange Necessity

On my rounds checking that the house is secure and being appropriately heated, I checked my mother's vacant room. I decided to try to set to rights the two layers of books leaning in opposite directions atop one bookcase (a task that required, as it turned out, both hands and a certain amount of quick movement and a willingness to engage cobwebs). Being there, I looked at the books. Nestled, for no clear reason, between _Peacock Feathers_ by Temple Bailey and two biographies of Oliver Cromwell, was a shabby-spined book whose indistinct labeling had been overwritten in white ink with "_Strange Necessity_" and "West" and "820.9". I knew the shelves were nominally biographies (the Bailey, not the Cromwell, was the odd one out), but who or what was this?

I flipped through and instantly fell into the first paragraph:



I SHUT the bookshop door behind me and walked slowly 
down the street that leads from the Odéon to the 
Boulevard Saint-Germain in the best of all cities, reading 
in the little volume which had there been sold to me, 
not exactly pretentiously, indeed with a matter-of-fact 
briskness, yet with a sense of there being something on 
hand different from an ordinary commercial transac-
tion: as they sell pious whatnots in a cathedral porch.
Presently I stopped. I said "Ah!" and smiled up into
the clean French light. My eye lit on a dove that was 
bridging the tall houses by its flight, and I felt that in-
terior agreement with its grace, that delighted partici-
pation in its experience, which is only possible when one
is in a state of pleasure.
As I read, my mind turned over possibilities: not a novel, I think, nor a biography; a memoir? a collection of reviews? while engaged in the pleasure of good writing and the usual seduction of reading about bookshops, book buying, and reading.

So it is is, to my neophyte surprise, Rebecca West, and the essay starts with her buying a book of James Joyce's poetry. I haven't got further - but I will - but what I'm here for is to share this moment of discovery. In my own pleasure and desire to share, I started to read it aloud, *wished* I could read it aloud to you, but there was nobody in the room but the cat.

You can't all come over to my mother's house and fall into the worlds hidden in her books (perhaps you can, but please not all at once), but here it is, the thing about books - BOOKS - I am snowed in this house where I've lived off and on for over forty years and this little time capsule opened to me today. A time capsule from my mother, who, if she did not read the book, selected it and shelved it; a time capsule from 1928, when it was published. This is what makes me so passionate about, so seduced by, libraries and bookstores and shelves full of books anywhere: the serendipity, the falling in, the latent experience waiting. I admired the Temple Bailey book's frontispiece - a classic Roaring 20s illustration by Cole Phillips - and I know Cromwell's interesting, I must someday read up on him, but today's adventure is in this book of essays on books. 

Can you read it online? Yes, though the edition I found had small textual changes, and in this one, I can look at the print and think of the physicality of typesetting, the choices made by someone once in simply laying out this text, this book, one among many. The container does not change the words. But the physical object connects to a time and place. And for stumblings across, for serendipity: books. When a used bookstore closes, I regret in part for the young people who will never discover in each one the unique configuration of books selected by each unique bookseller, never have their eye caught by a splendid or forlorn spine, a colorful dust jacket, a book found by pulling out another on the shelf, the heft and feel and smell of each book in their hand: the sheer sensation of so much possibility surrounding one in a crowded and cramped (almost always crowded and cramped) space. (In my mind, I am in the Yankee Peddler, closed after more than thirty years, and in Karen Wickliff's shop, and Caliban Books, but there are so many others.) This is, in small or large part, why I opened a bookstore. I leave these little time capsules hidden for others to find. I want people to open something small and have fireworks go off in their minds. Little streams flow, rivers rage, ideas wash over, tears, laughter, longing triggered, and I can feel the ripples.

There is a place for e-books. I read richly on-line, and connect deeply, too. But there is something important about shelves of books. Not just for my livelihood - and I would like to keep my livelihood, make no mistake - but because of the surprises, the breadth and depth, the unexpected results. What is West's pleasure in Joyce's poetry? Not in the poetry for itself, but for its badness, and what it means:

And because
he had written it I was pleased, though not at all as the
mean are when they find that the mighty have fallen,
for had he written three hundred poems as bad as this 
his prose works still would prove him beyond argument
a writer of majestic genius. Indeed, the pleasure I was 
feeling was not at all dependent on what my conception
of Mr. James Joyce is: it was derived from the fact
that, very much more definitely than five minutes be-
fore I had a conception of Mr. James Joyce. Suspicions
had been confirmed. What was cloudy was now solid.
In those eight lines he had ceased to belong to that vast
army of our enemies, the facts we do not comprehend;
he had passed over and become one of our friends, one
of those who have yielded up an account of their nature,
who do not keep back a secret which one day may act
like a bomb on such theory of the universe as we may
have built for our defence.
  For really, I reflected, as I went on my way down the
Street of the Seine, this makes it quite plain that Mr.
James Joyce is a great man who is entirely without
taste.     [...] And lack of taste, when one
comes to turn over the handicap he has laid on his
genius, is the source of nearly all of them. It explains,
for example, the gross sentimentality which is his most
fundamental error.....

This is after all a collection of essays which had appeared in The New York Herald-Tribune "Books" section, The Bookman, and The New Statesman, information I find in the "Explanation" (where West also justifies a neologism: "Certain persons concerned with the preparation of my manuscript have accused me of using in 'empathy' a word that is absent from most dictionaries. I imagine, however, that it is familiar to most people, as a term to express our power of entering into the experience of objects outside ourselves...."), so we may call it book reviews. But the first essay does not end until page 213. I expect to follow it wandering widely and deeply and perhaps meanderingly. As I say, I am a Rebecca West neophyte; except for being aware of her as a writer (_Black Lamb and Grey Falcon_ sits on the bookstore shelf) often quoted on the subject of feminism and doormats, I know little of her, and have read none before.

Why this book, today? Happenstance. It has been there all along. Many more await. There are many that will elude me. But it isn't only me they are waiting for: they wait for anyone, everyone. And if your house does not have books in it that someone left for you to discover - to open to find, long after she's died, a clue that this was your grandmother's favorite book, or that it used to belong to the local library, or for you to guess at its history from the time of its printing to its settling in your home - consider starting one. The books you select for your shelves leave messages for those around you, for your family, for visitors. Good books, bad books, escapism, manuals, textbooks, magazines - they're part of the mix: you don't know which of them will inspire something in someone else. You may never know. Salt the ground with these time capsules. Your bookshelf will change the world.

To read The Strange Necessity, find in or request it from a library, buy a used one at, it's on-line (visibly slightly different from the first edition, as noted), there's a Kobo e-book, or I can lend you this one. I did say I wasn't going to be very good in my blog about selling books that benefit my bookstore, didn't I? Catch me at the right time and I'll read aloud (that's a promise or a warning).

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