Looking Ahead to the Byrn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale With the Other Donald
Ultimately we read in order to strengthen the self. — Harold Bloom
Like it or not, there will always be a market for self-help books. While readers whose lives have been enhanced by poetry and literature tend to patronize that seemingly inexhaustible genre, anything worth reading could be studied and enjoyed under the same heading. Taking the idea to the most enlightened extreme, it’s fair to say that that a wealth of “self-help” books will be on the tables at Princeton Day School between Friday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 29 at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale.
In an interview on bookbrowse.com about his book How to Read and Why (Scribner Touchstone 2001), Harold Bloom mentions being deluged with mail from people saying how pleased they are that he’s “writing about literature for the common reader.” As a result, he became aware of a need that he felt “highly qualified and highly driven to meet” for “a self-help book, indeed, an inspiration book, which would not only encourage solitary readers of all kinds all over the world to go on reading for themselves, but also support them in their voyages of self-discovery through reading.”
When asked how reading great literature can provide an alternative to the sort of self-help books that top the best-seller lists, Bloom singles out the stories of Chekhov because they have “the uncanny faculty, rather like Shakespeare in that regard, to persuade the reader that certain truths about himself or herself, which are totally authentic, totally real are being demonstrated for the very first time.” It’s not that either author “created those truths,” but that “without the assistance of Shakespeare and Chekhov, we might never be able to see what is really there.”
Just as “assistance” can be taken to mean help in the broadest sense, “totally authentic, totally real” defines one of the most compelling attractions of the Bryn Mawr sale in the era of e-books, Kindle, and the drastic loss of stores where “the real thing” can be found. Another tangible benefit is knowing that these books have been read, held, handled, pondered over, and experienced; they show signs of use, not to mention their implicit value in helping fund scholarships for students at two prestigious colleges. In that sense, even the glossy like-new items with the telltale jacket flaps stuck forever at page 12 are fulfilling at least the semblance of a worthy purpose.
The One and Only Donald
It’s a bit daunting to realize that my childhood sense of myself was reflected and reinforced through the family life of an anthropomorphic duck and his three incredibly resourceful nephews. As much as I may have learned from an early engagement with Classic Comics like Moby Dick and Les Miserables, I found more substantive help, meaning more companionship and more healthy, instructive amusement, in Walt Disney’s comic book version of Everyman with his predilection for folly in spite of his many talents (rainmaker, snakecharmer, super salesman). What put me in mind of this early stage of my personal reading history is that this year’s Collector’s Corner at Bryn Mawr features reprints of graphic rarities from the golden age of Disney like Donald Duck and the Mummy’s Ring and Donald Duck in Dangerous Disguises (both three-volume boxed sets), not to mention an anthology devoted to Uncle Scrooge.
While Classic Comics may have given me a child’s guide to literature, those relatively drab adult narratives were no match for Donald Duck, especially the brilliantly drawn single story adventures by Carl Barks featuring Donald and those little madcap geniuses Huey, Dewey, and Louie on their travels to the Andes, or amid Totem Poles in the Klondike, or rubber plantations in Malaya, or with a pixilated parrot in Brazil, or snakecharming a Disneyfied Loch Ness Monster. I still have well-worn copies of Luck of the North and Land of the Totem Poles, where Donald’s nephews sell a steam calliope to a human hairball who calls himself Herman the Hermit and where outraged natives (“Gettum Paleface!”) chase Donald (“Feet do your stuff!”) after the products he sells them are mis-used (women foaming at the mouth after eating bars of soap, etc). While it would be a stretch to see anything much beyond a roused interest in faraway places in these 52-page comicbook novels with their sometimes politically incorrect stereotypes, the fact that the nephews frequently outwit Uncle Donald helped strengthen a pre-adolescent sense of self even as the hours of being intimately absorbed in reading helped create and encourage a lifelong habit.
“That Adorable Man”
Also in Collector’s Corner this year are numerous volumes from the Princeton University Press/Bollingen edition of the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge donated by the estate of Peter Oppenheimer. In a 2005 column celebrating the centenary of the Press, I referred to the way Coleridge can “reach across centuries, speaking to you one-on-one, making his concerns your concerns.” Speaking of the intimate writings of “that adorable man,” the poet Elizabeth Bishop marvels at “how contemporary he sounds.” Coleridge will always be “contemporary” by virtue of spontaneous, unguarded, deeply personal notebook entries on practically all aspects of everyday existence, his own aches and pains, longings and frustrations. To this day, I can open the Notebooks at random and find the equivalent of truths that, in Bloom’s words, are “totally authentic, totally real.”
In Other Lands
Wherever in the world you happen to travel, reading often offers the only available means of fending off boredom or discomfort, which happened one late March in Taormina as one of Europe’s coldest winters spread freezing temperatures all the way to Sicily. In a frigid room with stone walls and marble floors and no heat, my only recourse for the better part of a week was to huddle under the covers reading George Eliot’s Adam Bede, a novel I might have given up on if anything else in English had been available. Though I was often out of sympathy with the characters (notably the oppressively pious Dinah Morris), I was grateful for their company under the warmth of the covers (“any old port in a storm”) where I could escape to rural England in 1799.
A three-day train ride from Baghdad to Istanbul may sound exciting but it was deadly dull sitting up all that time in a packed compartment with nothing to read. My salvation was the loan of a copy of Alan Morehead’s The Blue Nile from a British nurse not unlike George Eliot’s Dinah, except her version of piety was a self-righteous mission to impose the wealth of England and all things English on a needy world. Never mind that, here was everything I needed in one precious paperback; it was like oxygen, sustenance, a canteen of water in the desert. I was completely absorbed, boredom had been annihilated, and better yet, I was learning something. I had self-help at my fingertips — until we pulled into Gazientep, the first city in Turkey, where a group of schoolboys were on the platform yelling up at us, practicing their Engish, as we leaned out the window. The nurse found this charming, and in the interests of spreading the wealth, she took The Blue Nile out of my hands and bestowed it on the schoolboys of Gazientep just as the train began leaving the station. I was only halfway through the book! Reader, I had to bite my tongue to keep from violating my normally benign view of humanity. If looks could kill, she’d have been as dead as a Dickens doornail. But thanks to the way this incident loomed in my memory, all was not lost. Fifteen years later in Princeton, I turned the nurse into the charming if willful heroine of my novel, Rosamund’s Vision, which begins on the Baghdad-Istanbul train when Rosamund throws her eventual husband’s book out the window to bring “English” to the schoolboys on the platform.
While there is nothing by Chekhov in Collector’s Corner, chances are that one edition or another of the stories or the plays will be on the Literary Classics table when the sale begins. Writing in How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom says Chekhov’s “greatest power is to give us the impression that here at last is the truth about human existence’s constant blend of banal misery and tragic joy.” Bloom also quotes Chekhov to the effect that “one should write so that the reader needs no explanations from the author.” In other words, the author gives us everything we need to make sense of the world of the story — not self-help so much as do-it-yourself reading, or what Richard Poirier called “the work of knowing” in his study of Robert Frost.
Having been binge-reading Chekhov from the first hour of 2016 to the present moment, five volumes of stories finished and ten to go, I’ve had first-hand experience of his “uncanny faculty” for making us feel certain truths about ourselves “for the very first time.” Chekhov is the essence of reading. Even at this moment, about to finish a novella called “My Life,” I’m feeling for a young woman stifled by routine, browbeaten by her father, reduced to a loveless monotonous spinsterish existence, until she comes to life with love and literature, showing her brother the books she’s borrowed from the library that she says “have awakened me to self-realization. They have been my salvation; they have made me feel myself a human being.” The brother, who is telling the story, knows her better than she knows herself, and when she talks of lying awake at night distressed to think how much of her life she wasted before books “opened her eyes,” he knows that no amount of reading will be enough to save her. The fatal truth is beyond her in that abiding “blend of banal misery and tragic joy.”
A quick look at the partly completed Literary Classics and Drama tables shows that Chekhov is indeed present at this year’s sale, with a collection of rarely seen work in The Unknown Chekhov and a copy of his collected letters, as well as the Modern Library edition of his plays.