Books: What to Do?

by James Como (October 2020)

The Readers, Theresa Bernstein, 1914



I had been acquiring books since the day I spent a week’s pay ($40, 1962) at Barnes & Noble on 18th St. and Fifth Avenue: I walked out with about thirty items. I was fifteen. Twenty years later a fire destroyed half my personal library, which I thereafter spent three decades rebuilding. Occasionally a visitor would ask, “have you read all these?” I would answer variously. The literal answer to a question taken literally would be No, though I knew, and had used, each intimately. Finally I settled on this: “What matters is that they have read me.” Stares, but no more questions.

       Upon retiring from full-time professing nine years ago I donated nearly a thousand volumes to my college library, and the departures hurt. Since then book-shedding has remained the mode. Salt in the wound was the need to end my membership in the private New York Society Library, a full-service, old, and old-school institution on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Worse: today I saw this sign, “We’ve Closed,” on the two-storey, well-served, comfortable Barnes & Noble on 86th St. near Lexington Avenue (the only nearby venue carrying The Claremont Review), just a few blocks from my apartment.

       I have resorted to a Kindle, a decent Plan B. I read it on a tablet that allows me to dance from book to book (Pryce-Jones’s Signatures, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, Death Comes to the Archbishop, Cicero: His Life and Times, Hamnet). I was surprised to see that white lettering on a black background is so inviting, an advantage for a reader as restless as I, and as slow.  

       I still own a few hundred books. These are mostly collections (e.g. C. S. Lewis), reference works (no Google search can replace a good browse in Adler and Van Doren’s The Great Treasury of Western Thought or in The Complete Oxford English Dictionary—in one volume, with magnifying glass), medieval matter, anthologies, old texts from English and Spanish Lit and from Western Civ, favorite authors (e.g. Helprin, Davies, Wilder, Undset), and non-fiction favorites that continue to amaze, such Curtius’s European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages and From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun (published in his nineties), and essay collections by the polymath Martin Gardner, with whom I’d had the pleasure of dining twice.

       What to do with or about them here in the darkening purple of my eighth decade?  These dear objects are like ghosts— but welcome ghosts. So I would not exorcise them even if I could. (Many long gone continue to haunt: often I reach for this one or that, then hunt, then remember.) Sometimes I do find myself gazing at rows of spines along the wall and in the cases. I re-arrange them and keep them neat, that is, straight in a way that won’t tire them out.

       Alas, that fondling has its limits, including its psychological limit, but it has helped me to remember this: as I combed through the library to trim it how dimly I recalled—and, frankly, how unthoroughly had visited—much of what was left. So with an ocean of quotidian time I decided to re-summon these old spirits, hoping that some path—some central boulevard—would appear, first through one labyrinth, then another. Take care, though, I thought. Some favorites will draw you back to them: Borges, Maugham, Dr. Johnson, Chesterton, Chaucer, Will, rhetoric, or Will and Chaucer and their rhetoric.

       Then, wondering where to start, I noticed this sign: the great anniversary (b. 1770) of William Wordsworth. Saint George (the patron saint of books) had tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. I would stroll the path of a Great Beginning, that of the English Romantic movement and its avatar. But immediately a Caution sign appears. Like any path this one has its byways, so alluring as to make one forget the highway.

       For example, my devotion to comic books, especially Classic Comics. When I was seven years old, I found myself—that is, I realized I was—reading. It was Uncle Scrooge who had worked that magic. Then came war comics, some Archie and Little Lulu, fantasy and horror (this before the crimping Comics Code: when we moved house my mother made my brother and me throw them out—a fortune, Mother) and—Tarzan. I would go on to read most of the books and would appreciate Gore Vidal opining that no one wrote physical action better than Burroughs.

       During this period, Uncle Lou, my book-binding uncle (not book-making, a mistake I learned not to repeat), took my Classics and Tarzans and turned them into three bound volumes. I wore those out (and also learned a bit about book binding: look for the headband at the top of the spine, sign of sturdiness.) I also developed a habit even I thought strange, but not so strange that others, I would learn, didn’t share, namely, to smell new books. What promise there is in that crafted shop-smell, especially those coming by mail. (Big books smell the best.)

       Particular reading episodes remain vividly in my memory. Alexandra and I traveled to Santiago de Compostela, a stunning trip, not least because of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Then there was a vacation in Mallorca at a Club Med. Three times I had tried to read The Lord of the Rings

       During my first trip to Peru (now engaged to be married), I was given a bedroom at the front of the house. It had a wide arched window protected by wrought iron bars, ambient candlelight, fresh flowers, and a full stationery kit. I wrote some, but mostly I read: Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad (Ajax was terrifying) and Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (a spiritual Other World I’d never known and that would never leave me). To this day, each of those books instantly transports me, Madeleine-like, to the rooms—shape, size, furniture, drapery, smells—in which I first met them.

       As it happens, my father, an inveterate reader (like his father), had set me up for these pleasures. He would read at red lights. Having seen that as a child, I took up what suited me: Lassie Come Home, horse fiction (The Black Stallion series, My Friend Flicka) and fairy tales (collections of Andersen and Grimm that I have to this day). Along the way I tried Zane Gray and Tom Swift—nothing. Now and then I’d ask Pop the meaning of a word. Almost invariably he would send me to the dictionary; we had two until, when in college, I bought a third—Webster’s Second—into the house, followed by the unabridged Random House and the American Heritage (with its Usage Guide).  

       In elementary school I’d written a few stories—long ones, I thought, two or three hand-written pages. But when I decided to get serious, I took a book on the writing of mystery stories out of the local library and assiduously set out, not only reading it but making page after page of notes. That taught me to pay attention to technique, at least as far as I understood it at the time.

       A few years later, in my freshman year at Queens College of the City University of New York, in English 8 (the second of a two-semester required sequence), I encountered Wordsworth. Now he draws me to two books, English Poetry and Prose of the Romantic Movement (ed. Woods, 1950) and Selected Poems and Prefaces (the Riverside paperback, ed. Stillinger, 1965). The first—an old-school, large format, thick anthology with prefatory engravings and small, double-column print: the kind one no longer finds—the first book puzzled me; I hadn’t bought it. But inside I saw the name C. P. Del Greco and remembered: he was a neighbor who became a tug boat captain on the East River. The book had been a gift.

       The second I did buy, for a course on the English Romantics. I do not recall that instructor, but the chap who taught English 8 (and, later, the Eighteenth Century), was Robert Towers, one of the very best professors I’ve ever known: a low key but engaged gentleman who clearly loved both teaching and his subject, and who respected his students.

       Now, upon summoning Wordsworth, I wondered if would I feel the same thrill that ran through me when first I encountered The Prelude, or “Intimations of Immortality.” Closer to the point, would I experience the same kind of thrill that drew C. S. Lewis, my earthly master, closer to belief in God, by way of what he designates as ‘Joy’, a desire calling us away from this world to the next? Moreover, I know now what I did not know back then about Wordsworth. He died a crotchety old man, a ‘conservative’, and was not all that nice to begin with. In The Personal Heresy, Lewis tells us that the poet’s character should not influence our judgments of the poet; a purely literary experience is not biography. And he’s right, I think. But ‘response’ is not ‘judgment.’ Does not a Voice sound from the page? And should not conviction and sincerity be part of that? Or are the poem and poet alternate realities? Old questions, sure; but each reading begets a new answer. First I would enter the thick book, hardcover and heavy . . . two hours later. Like a child I had been taken with the pictures first (surely an instance of Late Onset Comic Book Syndrome), then the Table of Contents: thirteen authors in Eighteenth Century Forerunners (230pp.) followed by the main text, thirty five authors (over 1000pp.), some of whom (e.g. Allan Ramsey) rang no bell whatsoever. Then an Appendix: Pope, Johnson, Burke. When it occurs to me to return to the main road, it is in the company of my old friend, the paperback Wordsworth.

       He revised over and again, both his short poems and the narratives; many were not published during his lifetime, and his long poem The Recluse was left unfinished, though we do have one whole part, “The Excursion,” written early, revised often, and published under varying names (“The Ruined Cottage,” “The Pedlar”). It would be a philosophy of mankind and its place in creation: “On Man, on Nature, and on Human Life, /Musing in solitude, I oft perceive /Fair trains of imagery before me rise.” He will sing of “Truth, of Grandeur, Beauty, Love, and Hope” and of “that Intelligence which governs all— /I sing: —‘fit audience let me find though few.’” My response both then and now is the same: for this poem I am not among those few—as I am, for example, with Pope’s Essay on Man.

       That judgment is not the simple result of a preference for the eighteenth-century masters (even though I do prefer them). To check myself I re-visited Shelley in my big book; again he tells me that he falls upon the rose and bleeds, and bleeds, and, again, after more than fifty years, I just want to smack him. I’ve always seen the wisdom in Wordsworth’s judgment that poetry is intense emotion “recollected in tranquility.” But much of English Romantic poetry is not that; rather, too much of it (for me) seems self-indulgent posturing (pacem C. S. Lewis, a Shelley partisan).

       But not the early Wordsworth, whose “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” reminds us that “The rainbow comes and goes,/ And lovely is the rose.” Then, famously, we learn that we do not enter the world “in utter nakedness,/ But trailing clouds of glory” —only to find that “Shades of the prison house begin to close [cf. Lewis’s “The Prudent Jailer”]/ Upon the growing Boy.” That is at the fifth stanza; by the last, the eleventh, we know all is never lost: “And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,/ Forebode not any severing of our loves.” If read in the right mood, without haste, the poem can ravish. Can the same be said of “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud”? No, it cannot. But a reader, though lightly and briefly, can be taken out of oneself by it:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils. . . .

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. . . .
I gazed— and gazed— but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought . . . .
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

       And there we are, as though by a Vulcan mind meld, together seeing, feeling, hoping . . .

       Then—The Prelude, a deep and deepening, crypto-sermonic achievement of very great value. As a bildungsroman it will report mistakes and their emotional consequence. Books Nine, Ten and Eleven, for example, treat of Wordsworth’s time in France, where he travels from enthrallment to sadness over the Revolution: “a far more sober cause/ Thine eyes must see of sorrow in a land,/ Though with the wreck of loftier years bestrewn— /to the reanimating influence lost/ Of memory, to virtue lost and hope.” The end, however, Book Fourteen, strikes a different note. “What we have loved,/ Others will love, and we will teach them . . . / how the mind of man becomes/ A thousand times more beautiful than the earth/ On which he dwells, above this frame of things . . . / In Beauty exalted, as it is itself/ Of quality and fabric more divine.”

       With that Wordsworth closes the circle: we are reminded of the beginning. There, having compared himself to a “wandering cloud” away from the city, he has “shaken off” his “unnatural self.” He reckons his early childhood, when he “made one long bathing of a summer’s day.” As a boy he would row alone, and there came the famous “craggy steep . . . a huge peak, black and huge . . . like a living thing” that “strode after me.” Later he reports how the image haunted him. Pastoral images were replaced by “huge and mighty forms, that do not live/ Like living men.” They “moved slowly through the mind/ By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.” Approaching the end of Book One he mentions “first-born affinities that fit/ Our new existence to existing things . . . / The bond of union between life and joy.” Soon he reminds himself and us that, though some of the memories are gone, “witness of that joy/ Remained in their substantial lineaments.” The recollected hours, “the charm/ Of visionary things . . . throw back our life,” almost to “remotest infancy.”

       Of its kind there is, I think, nothing better: not more calmly stirring, nor more beckoning— nor instructive. Whether or not it elicits a cascade of Sehnsucht is, of course, entirely subjective. For me it does not quite make it. But it certainly did for C. S. Lewis, who without it could not have written Surprised by Joy: the Shape of My Early Life as he did, nor have become a Christian when he did. Moreover, Lewis is right: the poet’s ‘personality’ is utterly irrelevant; the sensibility is what matters, and that is the antithesis of crotchety.

       Today came this providential news. The Strand bookstore has been on Broadway and Twelfth Street for some seventy years: used books galore on three floors—world famous. And now, as of merely weeks ago—honest, true to its parent, well-stocked on two floors— a Strand bookstore appears on Columbus Avenue and Eighty-First Street. Hardly less convenient than Barnes & Noble, and far, far more interesting. For example, they have an entire, full-length rotating rack of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, right there. By Saint George.

       Meanwhile, a very happy 250th birthday to you, brother William, and our thanks.

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James Como is the author of The Tongue is Also a Fire: Essays on Conversation, Rhetoric and the Transmission of Culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015). His most recent books are C. S. Lewis: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2019) and The Folk Tales of Brusco and Giovanni, in three books (KDP, 2020)

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