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The Living World of Books — Life and Love in the Margins

in 1946 in the Village, our feelings about books … went beyond love. It was as if we didn’t know where we ended and books began. Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn’t simply read books, we became them, we took them into ourselves and made them into our histories …. Books were to us what drugs were to young men in the sixties.

—Anatole Broyard, from Kafka Was the Rage

My copy of Volume 2 of the Norton Anthology of English Literature looks its age. The spine is so faded you have to get close to read the title. The corners are frayed and there’s a tear in the front hinge. Still, it’s held together nicely all these years, even more supple now than it was when it was given to me by the College Department at Norton, my working copy. The genius of The Norton Anthology was its compatibility. Unlike most college texts, you could, as the introduction boasted, read it under a tree. This is the same copy I curled up with, studied, loved, warmed my hands by, in various motels from Mississippi to North Dakota when I was on the road as a college representative talking up a text that was by then already in demand in English departments across the country.

When the Norton Anthology’s general editor M.H. Abrams, who turned 100 on July 23, was recently asked by the New York Times (“Built to Last,” August 23) “Why study literature?” his response was “Ha! Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury.” He went on to say that literature “illuminates what you’re doing,” “enables you to live the lives of other people,” “makes you more human,” and “makes life more enjoyable” (not to mention, he might add, contributing to your longevity). Abrams’s younger co-editor Stephen Greenblatt (b. 1943) chimed in to the effect that literature enables him to “enter into the life worlds of others … other times, other places, other inner lives.”

Life and Love on the Page

That phrase, life worlds brings to mind two of literature’s most complex and enduring “inner lives,” Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), the 17th-century physician philosopher who wrote Religio Medici, and the inimitable Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who once observed of Browne, “A library was a world to him, every book a living man, absolute flesh and blood.”

Among the many things to love in Coleridge is his penchant for writing thoughts like that one in the margins of books that often did not even belong to him. It’s a thought I quote whenever I get a chance and it serves as the epigraph for my novel, Rosamund’s Vision. Coleridge’s scribblings fill six fat, masterfully documented volumes of Marginalia in the Collected Works of S.T.C. published in the Bollingen Series by Princeton University Press, wherein Coleridge, the so-called “damaged archangel” of Norman Fruman’s biography, gives us an intimate blow by blow account as he makes his way through the works of the “crack’d Archangel” Browne (as he’s named in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick).

When Browne writes “I never yet cast a true affection on a woman,” Coleridge can’t resist declaring — all but breathing the words in your ear — that he has loved and still does love “truly, i.e. not in a fanciful attributing of certain ideal perfections … one Woman.” Ten pages later, when Browne wishes that humans “might procreate like trees without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition,” Coleridge comes right back at him: “Are there not thoughts, & affections, & Hopes, & a Religion of the Heart, — that lift & sanctify all our bodily Actions where the union of the Bodies is but a language & conversation of united Souls?”

There’s a hint of the thought process behind today’s preferred modes of communication when Coleridge, after, in effect, blogging Browne, presents the intimately annotated volume to his “one Woman,” Sara Hutchinson, the lost love of his life, along with a letter that takes up three pages preceding the title page. It’s after midnight, March 10, 1804, Saturday night, Barnard’s Inn, Holborn, London, when Coleridge begins the letter (“But it is time for me to be in bed”) in a state of playful wonderment after quoting Browne at length (“what Life! what Fancy! — Does the whimsical Knight give us thus a dish of strong green Tea, & call it an opiate?”). With that, he signs off: “I trust, that you are quietly asleep,

And all the Stars hang bright above your Dwelling

Silent as tho’ they watch’d the sleeping Earth!”

Leave it to Coleridge to say good night with two lines from his own poem “Dejection: An Ode,” which he first worked out in a letter to Sara said to be the only other surviving piece of their correspondence.

When you think about it, it’s an outrageous violation of textual dignity, to scribble at length on the pages of a book you’re presenting as a gift to someone you love, using Sir Thomas Browne as a sort of go-between, a messenger bearing a lecture and a love note. Today Coleridge could have done it all online without marring the original. And there’s the rub. What better example of the qualities and capacities and organic essence of actual documents and tangible volumes vs. the web and high tech devices like Kindle? At the same time, aside from my key source, Volume I of Princeton’s Marginalia, I could never have assembled this column, or any others, without the mysterious Archangels of cyberspace.

Book Sale Life

“A living world” — that’s my “fanciful attributing of certain ideal perfections” to the Friends of the Library book sale I’ve been helping with for more than 20 years now. The books on display October 12-14 have passed through and been held by many hands. Regardless of genre, books with a past are more than an assortment of bound pages, especially when they have spanned several lifetimes in the hurly burly of the world. A Kindle can give you the message, it’s handy, it can house a world of literature, but qualities such as atmosphere, touch and texture, author signatures and inscriptions, and the glorious illusion of being “in touch” with the author, are simply not available.

In Jackie’s Hands

It happens that we have a pretty good crop of signed/inscribed books at this year’s sale, not counting the one auctioned off at the annual meeting for a sum that shows how much a mere signature can add to the monetary value of a book. Hundreds of first editions of Roger Kahn’s popular profile of the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, are available online for as low as $10. But if you are fortunate enough to have the copy (first edition or no) that Jackie Robinson actually held in his hands and inscribed to a friend, the value soars. Thus this year’s first transaction occurred before the event when a copy of Kahn’s book inscribed by Robinson fetched $950 at the Friends auction.

So Long, D.H. and W.B.

I once owned and cherished a book of William Butler Yeats’s later poems signed by Yeats, bought from Logan Fox at Micawber. Another book that I treasured and also eventually sold was a book of poems signed by D.H. Lawrence. The truth is, there’s only so much you can derive from being able to read and fondle your signed Yeats or your signed Lawrence, thinking “the man who wrote Lapis Lazuli” held this, or the man who wrote Women in Love held this.” When the water heater conks out, or you need a new roof, or the basement floods, it’s so long Yeats and see ya later Lawrence.

Sgt. Randall Jarrell

Unless you’re a big Norman Rockwell or Paul Theroux fan, the most desirable signed book that we have this year is a first edition of poet Randall Jarrell’s third collection, Losses (1948), which is being offered for as much as $780-800 online; the only catch is our copy lacks the dust jacket. Otherwise ours outclasses the competition. Probably dating from 1951-52 when Jarrell (1914-1965) was teaching in the Creative Writing program here and living in T.S. Eliot’s house on 16 Alexander Street, the book is inscribed to a student “from her teacher (Sgt.) Randall Jarrell.” Since most of the poems in the collection (viz. “The Dead Wingman,” “A Camp in the Prussian Forest,” “A Field Hospital”) relate to Jarrell’s years in the Army Air Force as a celestial navigation tower operator, a job title he considered “the most poetic in the Air Force,” he includes his serial number, a unique touch (it seems unlikely that Norman Mailer or James Jones cared to add their dogtag numbers when inscribing copies of The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity). Another, more mysterious number is 7 above 7, in the form of an equation, which is explained in a note posted under the inscription, from a mother to the son she was presenting it to: “Mr. Jarrell was trying to enliven a book signing so he put in his army serial number. He added the 7/7 because I got all seven right on his modern poetry exam identifying poets given a sample of their poetry.”

Besides being known for his war-related poems (“the best poetry in English about the Second World War,” said Robert Lowell), the most famous being the frequently anthologized “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Jarrell was also one of the premier critics of his time. His main work at Princeton includes six lectures on W.H. Auden, the revising of his novel, Pictures from an Institution (based on his adventures as a teacher at Sarah Lawrence), and a number of poems, among them “The Lonely Man” and “Windows,” where a woman is darning and a man is “nodding into the pages of the paper” — “What I have never heard/He will read me; what I have never seen/She will show me.”

Jarrell’s untimely death at 50 (he was hit by a car while walking along a road in North Carolina; suicide was suspected but never confirmed) occasioned a memorial service where his friend from Princeton days John Berryman read “Dream Song 121” (“His wives loved him./He saw in the forest something coming, grim,/but did not change his purpose”). Robert Lowell called him “the most heartbreaking poet of our time.”

Literature-oriented browsers at the upcoming Friends book sale, particularly those trooping through the door at Friday’s 10 a.m. $10 preview, might keep an eye out for D.H. Lawrence’s rarely seen small volume, The Ship of Death and Other Poems; the first American edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses; and a first of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, in remarkably fine condition, the gilt title on the spine glittering clear and bright. Too bad we don’t have the dust jacket; copies so clothed are going for $10,000-$18,500 online.


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