The Lament of Books

If we lament our book-swamped age, it is because we sense that it is not by reading more, but by deepening and refreshing our understanding of a few volumes that we best develop our intelligence and our sensitivity.  We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.

Alain de Botton.  Religion for Atheists.


How often do we reread books, especially “great” books that impart, if we’re open to receiving them, moral lessons or insights into how to live a more soul enriched life?  Alain de Botton points out that a wealthy English family in 1250 would probably have had only three books: a Bible, a collection of prayers and a compendium of the lives of the saints.  And that they would have read their few books every day, a ritual of belief and comfort.

I’ve read John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces eleven times, also for comfort, although I suspect not with the same intent as the Book of Common Prayer.  For me it’s a balm for anxiety.  It makes me laugh—laugh out loud reading in bed at night.  I love Ignatius J. Reilly and his outraged affront at the modern world.

In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.  Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offences against taste and decency.  Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

I love that my friend John Leonard introduced me to his own favorite book, and gave me his much-read, well-worn copy, a paperback rebound in half-calf by an Italian bookbinder.  John wrote, “My favorite book, once a tattered paperback lovingly bound in Milan, now battered anew.” It’s a treasure.  Perhaps it does have much in common with that twelfth century book of prayers.

My son David has reread The Lord of the Rings as many times.  Most Tolkien fans have.  Frodo’s journey is an endlessly entertaining, and emotionally moving, parable of hardship endured, questioned, and overcome.  When David was a child I could always tell when he was anxious and stressed because he would be rereading his collection of David Eddings.  (I thought it was a step up in rigor when he moved on to Tolkien, not understanding the relief the Eddings provided.)

There are other books to which I return for reasons often apparent, sometimes not.  Since high school I’ve read the Iliad over a hundred times.  I’ve read The Magic Mountain five times; Women in Love, three.  There are poems that I’ve read, for years, more times than I can count: Sunday Morning; Among School Children; Voyages; For the Union Dead.   Reading aloud Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful poem When We With Sappho to a woman I loved forged its meaning into my heart forever.  Words can do this.


At Bowdoin I took a course called Literature as Philosophy, taught by the incomparable C. Douglas McGee. These books we read back in the ‘70’s have remained with me ever since, all reread several times at different junctures in my life, times when I needed them.  Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus.  George Santayana’s The Last Puritan.  Moby Dick. The Brothers Karamazov.  Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.

I think we reread books for specific reasons.  Some comfort us, not only with their plots and characters but with their warm familiarity.  (Movies, too.  I’ve watched the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of A Room With a View at least a dozen times because I like it; it makes it happy without the slightest uplifting message.  I’ve watched Ken Russell’s over-the-top adaptation of Women in Love as many times because the characters are so wonderfully acted. For years I wished I had been born Alan Bates as he played Rupert Birkin–who bore no comparison to the character in the novel. .  And only a few months ago I watched Gosford Park on five consecutive nights.)

I’ve read Brideshead Revisited several times to wallow in lost love, not to assuage it.  I read W. G. Sebald over and over because he only wrote four novels before he was killed in a car crash and their melancholy theme of memory haunts me.  He makes me think about my own memories and mortality.

“And yet, what would we be without memory?  We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past.”  The Rings of Saturn

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts sits at my bedside, as does M.F.K. Fisher’s Journals.  I understood immediately why Anthony Lane wrote in his New Yorker profile of P. G. Wodehouse that he reads “Uncle Fred Flits By” once a fortnight.  Some writing renews itself every time it’s read.


There are also books that are so well written, well constructed, with wonderful characters and high emotion, that I go back to them over and over for the sheer joy of reading: Wuthering Heights.  The Quiet American. The Turn of the Screw.  Billy Budd. Antony and Cleopatra. The Importance of Being Earnest.  Tom Jones. Howards End.

Rereading books, and the hope of rereading books, is my excuse for maintaining a “personal library.”  It’s obvious to me that this is a conceit, a vain imitation of some 19th century English gentleman.  I’ve used these physical books as a metaphor for me—I am what I’ve read and there I am on all those bookshelves!   The fallacy is that while I am, in part, a thinking adult as a result of all that I’ve read and absorbed, it’s not the physical evidence that counts.


I’ll never convert my books to a digital library.  Nevertheless, I don’t need two-thirds of the books I own (and we won’t even speak of the ninety-seven cartons of books languishing in a Westchester County storage facility.)  A critical, spiritually necessary, task for 2013 is to pare down my collection to only those books I treasure for their content, their beauty, their personal significance.  I already know which books they are.  I won’t sell my complete collection of H. V. Morton’s or my prized thirteen volume early edition–beautifully bound–of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.  I have, in fact, read all of it. I watched the row of green bindings sit unbought on the shelves of Bell’s Books in Palo Alto for more than a year, hoping against hope no one would buy it, as I saved up to purchase it myself.

I’ll keep my collection of books about and published by Bowdoin College, and hope that David or Adam will someday want them.  I’ll keep all the Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent art books because I think they inspire my watercolor painting (vanities of vanities.)

I have a plan for dispersing all of these books. I’ll sell all the art books at Russian Hill Books—this being a sneaky plan because I get 25% more in trade than in cash, so I have my eye on two rare and expensive books that I hope to get in exchange.

(I previously sold more than fifty cookbooks to Russian Hill. My test was if I hadn’t opened the book in five years it had to go.)  The owner of Russian Hill Books, Carol Spencer, is one of my neighborhood saints.  Her store is like a station of the cross: I can’t walk by without reverence and awe.  It’s an addiction.  I really need Book Buyers Anonymous!

Other books will go to Friends of the San Francisco Library.  Some will be, with luck, sold on eBay.  I hope to give my collection of Jargon Society books to Bowdoin College.  Some will be given to friends and to my sons.  I think the Pleasantville Library will benefit from the books in storage.

After all of this book reduction is accomplished, my spirit will be free, the chi will flow unencumbered through my apartment, artifice will be banished—and I’ll for sure have to take to my bed with The Confederacy of Dunces and reread it for the 12th time.  I’ll need my friend Ignatius more than ever.


All photographs by my Bowdoin friend Abelardo Morrell.

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1 Comment

  1. David

     /  February 3, 2013

    Yet, I like Dune even more and may have read it more times.


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