Rooms Full Of Books: Soulful Abodes

In Books: A Memoir Larry McMurtry writes:

[I]t puzzles me how bookless our ranch house was. There must have been a Bible, but I don’t remember ever seeing it. My father did read the range cattle books of J. Frank Dobie, but the only one I remember seeing in our house, which, by this time, was a small house in the village of Archer City was The Longhorns, which I borrowed for my father Mr. Will Taylor, a wealthy and elderly oilman who lived in a great mansion just south of our hay field.

I now own Mr. Taylor’s mansion and have filled it with about twenty-eight thousand books, which took a while.

That’s quite a mic drop right there. (The jacket inscription notes that McMurtry “lives in his hometown, Archer City, Texas, where he owns and operates a vast bookstore comprised of nearly 400,000 used, rare, and collectible books.” It also makes note of the fact that McMurtry “is the author of twenty-eight books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove.”) I remember being awed by the size of Susan Sontag‘s personal library–which ran to some fifteen thousand books; McMurtry’s library runs to almost twice that. This wonderful video shows Umberto Eco walking around his personal library; it is mind boggling. Of course, the number of books means little in terms of erudition if a significant percentage of them remains unread, but these worthies clearly seem to have read a great many of the books they collected. Their collections generate envy and respect in those of us who love books and like having a lot of them around.

My living room and my office are where my books live; they’ve traveled with me to Australia and back; I will take them with me wherever I go, to wherever we next decide to set up home. I did not bring any books with me when I moved to the US some thirty years ago, and I couldn’t have; my collection then, thanks to my budget, was very small, and I relied largely on libraries to keep my reading habit going. At home, they take up eight shelves; in my office, another three. Over the years, many have fallen apart, been lost, or been borrowed never to be returned. (I loathe loaning my books out and hope to never have anyone again ask me to borrow one.) But those that have survived contribute, in no insignificant measure, to making our living-room the ‘soul’ of the house. (As one recent visitor to our humble abode described it–and he was right.) When I sit at my work-desk in one corner, to write, to read, to browse and waste time, and look around on occasion on the books that surround me, at their dimly visible titles which speak to diverse intellectual domains and inclinations and interests, their colorful jackets, their histories of procurement jostling for attention in my memories, I feel a curious, calming, pleasure; I am reminded of the fact that as a child I had often told my mother that I “dream of living in a room full of books”–and that that dream has been realized.

CUNY And The Public University That Couldn’t

In the fall of 2015 I taught my philosophy of law class in a hostile environment: my classroom.  With windows and doors open, it was too noisy to be heard; with windows and doors closed and the air conditioner turned on, it was too noisy. With the air conditioner turned off, it was too hot. We–my students and I–struggled with this state of affairs into November, till the time it finally became cool enough to allow us to conduct the class with the door and windows closed. Till then, sometimes we shouted, sometimes we sweated; mostly we fretted and fumed, irate and vexed by this latest evidence of the City University of New York’s inability to provide a working infrastructure to facilitate its educational mission.

Over the weekend, the New York Times finally brought to this city’s attention a state of affairs at CUNY that for its students and staff has been a grim reality for too long: a severely underfunded educational institution that has gone from being an ‘engine of mobility’ to the little public university that couldn’t. A crumbling physical foundation; no contracts for its staff and faculty; overpaid administration; reliance on underpaid contingent labor; all the pieces for eventual failure are here.  A strike might yet happen in the fall.

It is common, among progressives, to bewail the continued under funding of public education as an act of class warfare, one animated by racist prejudice. It is worth making that claim explicit: public education is a threat to established social, economic, and political orders; it threatens to bring education–not just textual knowledge, but critical thinking, reading, and writing–to the disenfranchised and politically dispossessed; that fact, on its own, paints a bulls eye on public education’s back, inviting pointed assaults by a surrounding neo-liberal order. Make no mistake about it: public education is under attack because it seen as serving the wrong communities for the wrong reasons.

New York City’s financial health is considerably better than it was during those periods of time when the university was fully funded by the city and the state, when it was able to educate the children of immigrants and send them out to work the engines of the nation’s economy and move themselves and their families up the rungs of American life. But priorities have changed over the years. Now city and state budgets must attend to: university administrators and their desires for bigger salaries and plusher offices; management consultants and their latest pie-charted dreams for ‘process’ and ‘best practices’ and ‘unique selling propositions’; capital projects that do not advance core educational missions; and a host of other diversions that have nothing to do with learning. Run education like a business: shortsightedly, with an eye to the next quarter’s profits; learning be damned.

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.


The Virtuous, Ubiquitous Skipping Of Lines And Pages

In Immortality (HarperCollins, New York, 1990), Milan Kundera writes,

If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

As a child I was frequently accused by my ‘friends’–never by my family–of skipping lines and pages; perhaps because I was thought to read quickly, too quickly. I detected, even then, some envy in these accusations, some resentment (or ‘ressentiment‘) even as I never took myself to be engaging in any bragging about my supposed speed-reading prowess. I defended myself against these charges strenuously but they stuck, hammering away at me, casting doubt and suspicion upon my assessments of my reading abilities and accomplishments. It made me hyper-sensitive about making sure I had read every single word and line in the books I consumed; those accusations bred a peculiar sort of anxiety and insecurity. (Even though, as Kundera notes, everyone skips a line or two.)

Years later, when I first encountered ‘difficult texts,’ ones that required working through, I was still sensitive to this charge; a book was either read cover to cover, or it was not read at all.  This immediately induced a crisis: I was now constantly a failure. I could not read many of these texts from cover to cover; they were too long and doing so took up too much time that had to be spent elsewhere; they were too difficult and simply could not be engaged with at the level required for too long; and so on. As a child, when I was confronted with a book that did not catch my fancy, I dropped it and took up another. But as an adult, ‘dropping’ a book–or skipping lines and pages–became an indicator of all sorts of moral and intellectual failure; there was no virtuous ‘flitting around.’ It was all straight ahead, nose to the wheel, or it was not reading at all.

Now, as I look at the many unread books on my shelves, the length of my wishlist on Amazon, and the size of the directories that house the various electronic books I have procured through methods of varying legality, it seems that tactical and strategic skipping of lines, passages, and perhaps entire texts is a practical and intellectual necessity. So much yet to read; so little time left; perhaps a little flitting around is in order? As my dear friend Doris McIlwain once said to me, “you need to be a child again; drop the book you don’t like and move to the one you want.” And yet, old and new guilt persists: I am not a serious enough reader (or worse, ‘scholar’), an easy fear to entertain when one is afflicted with the impostor syndrome; I’ve always been this way; I’ve been persistently inauthentic; and so on. As I noted in an older post, these fears tap into a host of others, all concerned with whether we possess the requisite nous and inner resources with which to deal with this life’s challenges. Reading being a particularly acute one; here we find a very particular challenging of our supposed virtues.

On Meeting An ‘Illiterate’

As my daughter approaches that miraculous stage in her cognitive and intellectual development when reading independently will start to become a possibility, opening up a portal to a world whose outlines she has, with some astonishment and delight, started  to sense, I am reminded of a childhood encounter which first made clear to me the singular importance of literacy.

During my childhood, an annual visit to my grandfather’s home was a much-anticipated event. One of the indulgences that awaited us there was the opportunity to eat food cooked by my grandfather’s faithful cook, Gopal, a long-serving and dedicated worker who had, over the years, perfected his craft to a point where it surpassed my grandmother’s cooking. Now, she supervised the kitchen from a distance, and left its daily operations to him. He awoke early in his quarters adjoining the main residence, fired up the coal braziers used for food preparation, laid out his cooking implements and got to work. Tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea, dinner–these issued from his domain effortlessly, each consumed gratefully and appreciatively by our family. An almost literal icing on the cake were his dessert treats, made for us youngsters on special request. He was supremely indulgent in this regard, ever willing to rustle up some concoction or the other which would artfully deploy sugar or jaggery in manners previously unimagined. We–my cousins and I–saw him as an avuncular figure; there was a great deal of affection and respect in our interactions.

One aspect of this affectionate interaction was a desire on the part of my brother and I to share with him–as best as we could–our lives elsewhere: on air force bases, in New Delhi. To this end, one fine morning, I excitedly called Gopal over to look at a book–borrowed for a four-week loan–from a library in New Delhi. I pointed at an illustration and the caption, which I think, had amused me to no end. Gopal laughed along with me and then, abruptly, he said, “What does it say?” I replied, “Here, take a closer look.” Back came the answer, “No, you tell me; I can’t read it.” I said, “Right, sorry, you don’t know English.” He clarified, “No, I can’t read.”

I stared at him, stunned. Gopal was, at the time, over  fifty years of age. He had just informed me that in all that time, he had never learned to read; he had never read a book, a newspaper, or  even a recipe. He had never sat down to immerse himself in a printed page; he had never traversed those spaces made accessible by reading a book. I considered myself to be possessed of an active imagination but at that moment it failed me; I could not comprehend what such a life could be like. I say this–and thought it–without any condescension; I just did not know what it was like to not read, to be possessed of so much seeming incomprehension.

At that moment, something and someone I considered familiar had become utterly strange; I realized the extent of the gulf that separated my life from Gopal’s; and the extent of my fortunes all over again.   

Adam Phillips On “The Leavisite Position” On Reading

In the course of his Paris Review interview on the Art of Non-Fiction (No. 7, conducted  by Paul Holdengräber) Adam Phillips says:

If you happen to like reading, it can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect….It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible….The Leavisite position…is that reading certain sentences makes you more alive and a morally better person, and that those two things go together. It seems to me that that isn’t necessarily so, but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about. [link added]

As I noted in these pages a while ago, we often do not remember what we read. An acknowledgment of this fact can provoke considerable anxiety as one ages: time is speeding by; I must savor each moment; and yet, I am spending them in a pursuit which leaves no tangible trace. Then, as I noted, we should pay attention to the fact that:

The act of reading is pleasurable in itself; it is not a means to an end, it is an end of its own. While reading, we are…transported. The encounter with the book is refuge, journey and scholarship all at once….While reading, for that period of time, we enter into dialogues and conversations with several selves–the author and ourselves, at the bare minimum–in several registers. The end of the reading of a book is not, and should not, be occasion for ‘outcomes assessment’; it might be more appropriate to mark it with farewells to a companion that is able to–for the hours that we let it–remove us from a world ‘full of care.’

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. If we are to be continually instructed to stay in the proverbial here-and-now, then how should we best do so? Reading a book sounds like a very good answer.

The ‘unconscious evocative effects’ Phillips speaks of are crucial. We–or at least the conscious components of ourselves–might not remember the details of the books we read, but the experience changes us nonetheless. We spent our days differently; there were distractions we ignored or only partially paid attention to; we altered somehow–to use an overworked phrase–our neural pathways.  We have, even without our knowing it, changed our orientation to the world’s offerings. That melancholia we feel, that sudden upswing in our mood, that unaccountable response to a movie, poem, a child’s pranks, an adult’s intransigence; an archaeology on them might yet reveal to a more omniscient species the bookish well-springs of their provenance.

There are no free lunches in this universe; but nothing goes to waste either. Read on.

Serendipity In The Library Stacks

I like libraries. Always have. My most favored writing space these days is a library, that of the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan. I arrive by subway at the 34th Street station, exit at 35th Street, enter the B. Altman Building through the lobby, buy myself a coffee, and then head upstairs to the second floor. If my favored by-the-window spot is not available I seek out others and get to work. The ceilings are high; the light is good; and scholars around me remind me I should not spend too much time dilly-dallying on social media.

But the real reason to like working in a library is that I’m surrounded by books. CUNY folks are used to griping, endlessly, about the relatively small size of our collections, but be that as it may, there are still many, many stacks of tomes here. And it’s not just the books that are immediately relevant to my writing projects that make a library a favored zone of work; it’s all of them, arranged according to a scheme whose workings I do not fully understand (and don’t want to.)

For between these stacks are passageways that must be traversed to move around within the library–those much-needed short walks to pick up a printout, a sharpened pencil for underlining and note-making, a trip to the restroom or water fountain for relief and refreshment, a short nap in the big armchairs by the windows. And as I walk among these stacks, among rows and columns of books, I encounter the serendipity of the stacks.

Here may be found entire domains of scholarship and literary and cultural accomplishment that I have not encountered and would never have had I not ventured into Stackland (and sometimes also into Returned For Reshelving Island.) Nineteenth century woman poets; obscure, marginalized ‘moments’ in art history; avant-garde novelists; dazzlingly incomprehensible mathematical monographs; presidential speeches; philosophers who never make it to graduate reading lists; Brazilian musicology; the list goes on. And on. (This exceedingly short list does no justice whatsoever to the richness of the offerings on display.)

I move quickly and briskly between the stacks, purposefully striding on toward my eventual destination. But the corners of my eyes are drawn towards the titles whizzing by. They pull me back toward them; they slow my steps. They bid me pick them up and inspect the spine, the cover, the table of contents. I am intrigued; I am awed by the labor of love so clearly visible. I am humbled; I am overwhelmed. I will never be able to produce scholarship this acute, this sustained. I am reminded, relentlessly, of how little I know. And how the vast edifice of human knowledge is built up by these constituents, arrayed here in their marvelous variety.

These walks are little expeditions of a kind; sorties and forays into uncharted territory. Who knows what I may find on the next one? I will never read all the books I glimpse here, but they do serve as reminders to keep reading. And writing.

On Stumbling While Reading

Sometimes your reading runs aground. You read and read, moving on smoothly, even if not effortlessly, taking in the written word, perhaps admiring the art and craft on display, perhaps envying a competence and creativity beyond your own, and then, abruptly,  jarringly, there is no more purchase, no swell to lift the boat. You stare at the page; it stares back at you. You re-read to no avail. You have lost contact with the author; that outstretched hand, which was guiding you across the shoals of a difficult theoretical movement, is now gone, suddenly frustratingly elusive. The trail, the track, is lost; you back up and try again. Again, to no avail. You find familiar territory somewhere in the rear, and you retreat to its safety, reassuring yourself that you have not lost the competency you once thought you had. You venture forth again and stumble back, chastened and defeated. This might be where the trail runs out, where you come to a halt.

Reading is a funny business; in this age of perennial distraction even more so. But even without distraction there is still something magical about how it proceeds, how our reading ‘voice’ becomes internalized, about how the reader finds purchase in the text and ventures forth into the unknown, carrying on a dialog with the author. This is a process that sometimes goes wrong even when it is going well. The comprehensible text, the flowing text, can become the incomprehensible, the statically frozen, the impenetrable. This occurs, at least in part, because the challenges of writing are not fully solved by the writer and thus become the reader’s.  The ‘finished version’ is merely the ‘last draft’; it is not uniformly accessible to the reader; it contains within it bad neighborhoods all of its own. Here might be where a particularly tangled web of the text’s narrative became a little too dense, a little too resistant to the author’s attempts to clear it away; here might be where a complicated argument got out of control and resisted taming. All the rewrites have not helped; the towel has been thrown in.

These zones of confusion can be large or small; they may offer temporary swamps or permanent barriers to progress. They may only interrupt, or they may derail. Sometimes the only option is to leapfrog them; to move on, and beyond, with nary a glance backwards. This can be occasion for bruised pride, for a bewailing and gnashing of teeth. But that is to protest too much; we should not expect every step of a journey to be an easy or painless one. To be sure, we run the risk of having missed out on the most crucial passages of all, those stones without which the foundation of the text before us will crumble. But perhaps that is a risk that is unavoidable, a discomfort that must be made bearable, if we are to ever to carry on, to discover what lies ahead and beyond. Besides other sectors of incomprehension.