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.

The Deadliness of Humorlessness

In the climactic scenes of Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose, Adso of Melk and William of Baskerville confront the old, blind, and malignant librarian Jorge, sworn, no matter the price to be paid in lives, to keeping  Aristotle‘s Poetics a perennial secret because of its subversive doctrines that not only analyze and permit laughter, but speak of it approvingly. Jorge senses the dangers that lurk were such a revelation come to pass, for laughter would bring in its wake gaiety that would disdain solemnity, the fear of the unknown, and the punctiliousness of church doctrine. In sum, it would bring about, and elevate to the status of desirable and necessary, a subversive, corrosive, irreverence:

But if one day–and no longer as plebeian exception, but as ascesis of the learned, devoted to the indestructible testimony of Scripture–the art of mockery were to be made acceptable, and to seem noble and liberal and no longer mechanical; if one day someone could say (and be heard), ‘I laugh at the Incarnation, ‘ then we would have no weapon to combat that blasphemy, because it would summon the dark powers of corporeal matter, those that are affirmed in the fart and the belch, and the fart and the belch would claim the right that is only of the spirit, to breath where they list! [Warner Books, New York, 1980, pp. 580]

In his humorless, grim apprehension of the power of the message of the Poetics, Jorge is not alone, and such fulminations are not unknown to contemporary readers.  Eco’s purpose in bringing this character to life, in populating him with such bombast and self-importance, seems to be that of  reminding readers of the Jorge-archetypes that even today, dog our every step in every walk of life, but do so most perniciously in the public, political sphere.

Most prominently, Jorge’s refusal to get the joke, to throw his head back and allow himself a chuckle or two, reminds us of the idiotic knee-jerk reactions of the pompously pious who are easily offended, hurt or otherwise insulted by satire, ridicule, parody, or indeed, the merest descent into something less than the unquestioningly reverential.  Sometimes they are priests, sometimes the lay devotee, sometimes they are politicians, sometimes they are their acolytes, sometimes they are academics. No matter their exact identity, there is always some doctrine out there, defended to the end by a band of the faithful, diverse in all manners, but yet united by a deep and fundamental, almost existential, insecurity, a frightening suspicion that the object of their firm and committed belief might not be all its cracked up to be, for whom even the miseries of hell pale into comparison with the uncertainties that might be induced by any attitude toward their devotional object that does not rise to the level of worship.

The protestations of these Jorges would be merely amusing irritants if they did not, like the suicidal, sightless character in Eco’s novel, also insist on adding other, more deadly, arrows to the quivers of their reprisals. It is then that the humorless reveal themselves to be the most dangerous of all.