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The power of old books

Part of my exit from Houston involved getting rid of most of my books. The post office lost the large part of the ones I meant to keep. So I’m just home from the Friends of the Library used book sale, where for a total of $37 I got such wonders as a complete hardcover Shakespeare, an edition of Sophocles, a selection of Chekhov’s plays (in a cherry-colored hard binding published in 1935 with beautiful woodcuts by Howard Simon), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, a wonderfully-designed old Max Beerbohm, Marguerite Yourcenar’s memoir, some essays, some letters, some biographies, some writers I’ve never even heard of before, and some old friends (how did I ever part with them? in which of my upheavals did I lose them?). Instantly I’m where I was when I first read them–in junior high in Hawai’i, certain I was the reincarnation of Emily Bronte; in high school with a pimpled face and immortal longings in me; as an actress in New York searching for audition monologs; as a single young mother in a rocking chair by a Louisiana bayou, my baby boy in one arm and a book in the other; as a graduate student in Texas, dreaming of a regular teaching job with health insurance and tenure. Old books are like old lovers: dear to the eyes and heart, reminders of such good times.  

Here is Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way (oh god, how I did fall in love with Edith Hamilton’s mind my first year of graduate school). She writes of Socrates: “Four hundred years before Christ the world took courage from him and from the conviction which underlay all he said and did, that in the confusion and darkness and seeming futility of life there is a purpose which is good and that men can find it and help work it out.” Priceless words. Hamilton was a model I desperately needed, a model of what an intelligent woman could do with her life. Think. Write. Read. And she didn’t commit suicide, die in childbirth, or give it all up for a family. I wonder how many women dons and professors have looked to her as their model.

And here is Louis Untermeyer’s Treasury of Great Poems, English and American (thirteenth printing, 1955). This is the one I can’t put down.  I know this book. It comes to me now like a dear friend; we meet and feel no time at all has passed since the last time we met twenty years ago. Dryden’s “Epitaph on His Wife”: Here lies my wife: here let her lie!/ Now she’s at rest. And so am I.” I was scandalized and thrilled by that in high school. 

And here is Milton’s “Lycidas”: Alas! what boots it with uncessant care/ To tend the homely, slighted, shepherd’s trade/ And strictly meditate the thankless Muse? I wrote a paper on Lycidas when Seth was a year old. He was toddling around by then, so I had to pay a babysitter while I went to the library for my research, but I had to use the grocery money to pay the babysitter, so then I stole some tins of tuna fish (slipped them into the diaper bag) to keep from starving. That’s all part of Lycidas for me.  Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise/ (That last infirmity of noble mind)/ To scorn delights, and live laborious days…. I could feel that in ways Milton never dreamed a reader would.

Untermeyer calls Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913) “one of the younger poets,” and the youngest poet in the book is Richard Wilbur.  The oldest is whoever wrote “The Song of Songs,” I am black, but comely,/ O ye daughters of Jerusalem.  A powerful way to open a volume. Here too the poems by Anon., who Virginia Woolf surmised was a woman: Sumer is icumen in; Lhude sing cuccu! and By-low my babe, lie still and sleep;/ It grieves me sore to see thee weep. 

My favorite Donne is here, and George Herbert. Here are poets I’ve so often taught, and I see between the lines the faces of students, the students who first heard them as we read them to each other in the rooms where I earned my living and they earned the credits they needed for theirs. I didn’t keep any of my teaching textbooks. This will do. This will do nicely. I’m satisfied. Of course there are all the things written after 1955, but I managed to hold onto a few volumes of those. I didn’t give up or lose everything.

Now I return to Hermione Lee’s brilliant biography of Virginia Woolf. This is testament to my insatiable greed. I am still reading Proust, Saramago, and Calvino; I tossed off Julia Cameron and a book of Hermione Lee’s essays like snack food, and that left me compelled to get the great thousand-page biography of Virginia. I find in it such delicious intelligence, such bright sparks of exciting ideas, I can’t resist.  I’m a reading fool these days. And this too is the bliss of not having to work for a living. Finally I can read the books I’ve been meaning to read forever. Nothing, nothing is more exciting to me than this privilege. All these books.

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8 responses to “The power of old books”

  1. Yes, they’re a very agreable way to pass the time ….

  2. Dave says:

    Thank you. I needed this post.

  3. Kathryn says:

    Well, that’s what I’m here for. An acquired and specialized taste, perhaps. But I always hope you need it. Or someone. Otherwise I could just put it into a journal and put it in the drawer.

  4. Diane says:

    I wonder frequently what I will do with time when my years of work and volunteering near their end. This is the answer. Recently I had the great opportunity to mine an estate sale of wonderful old books, some classics, some totally unknown authors. Some books were oriented toward my long standing interests, some about areas about which I know little but would like to know more. After having gone through a period of clearing bookshelves, those same shelves are now full and overflowing and books await the time that it is schedules that are cleared. Thank you Kendall for pointing the way to how those hours, when they arrive, might be fillled. Diane

  5. Bob says:

    One of the reasons that I love shopping for books in stores–particularly used book stores (or sales) is that there is the chance that I will come across one of those old friends that I haven’t seen in years. I so resonate with your comment–how did I ever part with them?–but a life that has been even moderately peripatetic has resulted in my shedding possessions, even books, that I can’t understand how I could manage without. So there is a fierce joy and, dare I say it, possessiveness, of coming across one of these books again. And of course, the memory of the time when I first got to know them.

  6. Tiger of the North says:

    Glad to hear that you’re finding some delights to replace the ones lost by the postal system. When you mentioned the loss during our Ashland drive, I felt a sadness, remembering items that have vanished unwillingly from my life. I still have a few books from my childhood, ones that I couldn’t give up to my group of great nieces and nephew, and there are a small number of handmade ones from friends that, if they disappeared, would be a whole other kind of loss.

    By the way, there is something coming in the mail, possibly by the coming weekend if the Canadian and US Postal systems behave.

  7. Kathryn says:

    Hi Northern Tiger! Thanks for this–and I’m curious to see what’s coming. I’m singing the Anticipation song.

  8. Christine Johnson says:

    Books. Reading. Can’t stop. They are like drugs (not that I’ve ever done any but you know what I mean), once you start you get a high and on it goes until the very last pages, then sated, you close the cover, sigh and come down. I thank my parents for my love of reading, it’s the one thing that takes your mind of things.

    When my children were ill, I would read to them, when they went to bed, I would read to them, when I went to bed I read for me until sleep overtook. But sometimes I couldn’t put the book down and I’ve been known to sit up reading – just another page or just another chapter – until it’s finished. They were the best books!

    My daughter has just started a blog and she put on her favourite quote, which goes:

    You may have tangible wealth untold;
    Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold,
    Richer than I you can never be —
    I had a mother who read to me.

    She’s 31 now and I never knew this was a favourite. I was touched to tears.

    Keep writing dear friend…..

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