January 13, 2009

The Reading Room

Felt moments of sheer elation this week merely sitting in the bookroom, deep in my laboratory surrounded by all my potions and elixirs. I slowly turned my head to the right and the left, wanting to drink and bathe in the beautiful texts like the rich man covers himself in his money.

It’s only when something is withheld that you appreciate it and I was sufficiently lit starved (while simultaneously rich with new books) that I was overcome with emotion in my “Temple of Peace” as William Ewart Gladstone called his library. I always feel that the library is a fine counter to the routine of corporate life.

I was pleased too because I’d removed the television which free’d up two more shelves of chocolate walnut bookshelf space and I contemplated the emptiness and chocolateness of those shelves while imagining them filled with the 1911 Britannica’s that are a’ coming, a buy inspired by the late Fr. Neuhaus and imprimatur’d by Steven Riddle (who owns only 18,200 more books than I do, give or take). This set of Britannica's made number 28 on NR's list of 100 greatest non-fiction books of the century (ht: TB). (Helprin says: "The infinite riches of the world, presented with elegance, confidence, and economy.")

The late First Things progenitor off-handedly presented a scene of burnished beauty in my imagination a month ago: he in his personal library, consulting an entry from the politically incorrect 1911 Britannica, the dusty ancient volumes standing like miraculous time travelers. I take solace that RJN’s writings live on and that I have a few First Things I haven’t read yet. He, like WFB, will provide sustenance beyond his death.

Sometimes, surrounded by books, I feel the vague shadow of nag which first occurred on a Feburary day as a freshman in college when I heard the words of a Paul Simon song: “I have my books…and my poetry to protect me.” How cruelly mocking was the song “I am a Rock” and in its seeing right through me! Would Simon demean my joys and make them into mere addictions or crutches, no different than beer to the fraternity jock or the designer shoes of the sorority girl?

I was shaken by the song and I went to my books and my poetry afterward for consolation. *grin* Perhaps I missed the larger point, that of failing to take risks in order to avoid pain that relationships produce. But there’s no question Simon’s song was something extremely contra to my philosophy at the time, raised as I was by Thoreau and Sarton. Their load star was self-reliance, not other-reliance, and “I am a Rock” pristinely represented the anti-Thoreau vision though Thoreau saw nature and solitude rather than books as "the rock".

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