Alan Loney, one-time poet, longtime printer, and theorist of the book, participated in the Threads Talk Series, given between 2009 and 2012, and later co-published by Granary Books and Cuneiform Press in 2016 (I cited Loney's essay in an earlier post on the "undifferentiated poem"). In his essay Loney assesses his library, and reflects on his retirement from printing -- which leads to thoughts about reading. (I preserve Loney's orthography in these excerpts):
But I am about to cease making books, and my thought turns to the books about the house, most of which are unread in any normal sense, tho I have glanced at a page or two, here & there, in each of them. In some. I have looked only at their paratexts: titlepage, epigraph, endnotes, bibliography, index and so on.
my library, for want of a better term, is not large. It has approximately one thousand volumes, and at my reading speed it would probably take me about forty years to read each volume once only, by which time I would be 110 years old. If I have actually twenty years left to me, you can see the problem.
Even so, he says,
liberated from printing books, maybe now I can learn to read them
Loney's essay had already been published in The books to come, a collection of his own writings (Cuneiform Press, 2012), which collectively form a provocative meditation on "books" — objects that Loney understands expansively to include "other modes of textual transmission", such as bus tickets, magazines, and street signs.
Walter Benjamin has a brief essay on his personal library, or rather his "collection" — offered as a rumination on the occasion of "unpacking" his library, which, he writes, had languished in storage for the prevoius two years. In that essay, which is complex and which I adapt to my own purpose here, Benjamin sounds a similar theme to Loney's, suggesting that owning books but leaving them unread is routine among collectors. Benjamin develops his essay by outlining the several ways that individuals acquire books, such as borrowing, where he suggests that,
The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervor with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books. If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it. And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, "And you have read all these books,. Monsieur France?" "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?"
The original impetus for this post was my reading a collection of letters that John Ashbery had written to Mark Ford, which the latter published in the English literary magazine PN Review after the poet's death. In one of these, Ashbery wrote:
I've been trying to supplement my usual reading of the Times, LRB and TLS with something more nourishing, and decided to crack open some of the hundreds of unread books I own. A friend just gave me P.G. Wodehouse's Damsel in Distress, which was made into a thirties musical starring Fred Astaire and someone other than Ginger Rogers, as well as harebrained Gracie Allen. There's a rather nice scene in an amusement park fun-house, but I can't seem to revive my 12-year-old passion for P.G., maybe because of all of those broadcasts during the as yet unthought-of war. So I decided to crack the work of George Meredith. I thought of trying Diana of the Crossways or The Tragic Comedians, but David said the type was too small and brought me instead Lord Ormont and His Aminta. I see that his most salient characteristic is oddness, which I, surely, have nothing against. Frank O used to like a poem of his called 'Jump for Glory Jane', it seems to me, and of course 'Modern Love' is peachy, don't you agree?
(5 June, 2015)
This reference to "the hundreds of unread books I own" likely rings true with many collectors. As a lifelong bibliophile, collector, (and reader) of books, I too have been confronted with the "standard question", as reported by Anatole France via Walter Benjamin. When I lived in Morristown, New Jersey in the late 1970s, our combined living-dining room had a long, high wall, where after moving in I right away built and installed a bookcase made of pine boards that were 1" thick and 12" deep. I cut them to size, stained them a dark brown, screwed the boards together, braced the corners, and set the whole thing against the wall, propping up the long shelves at evenly spaced intervals to minimize sagging.
I've forgotten the exact dimensions of that bookcase, but memory suggests it was roughly seven feet high and twelve feet long — with nearly all of that space taken up with books. Some months later, after we'd settled into that apartment, a dinner guest popped the big question — had I actually read them all? At that time, I could answer with a qualified yes, but that would change on relocating to Philadelphia to enroll in graduate school -- where I learned that graduate students have a special way of "reading" books.
I began purchasing books as a kid in my home town of Paterson, New Jersey, where I could walk down Mary Street to Main Street, towards the local pharmacy (which bore the name "Apteka", the Polish word for "pharmacy", on a sign set above the door), and where there was a small revolving book rack standing off to one side of the entrance. There were other neighborhood sources of books as well — there was the small lunch counter/ice cream parlor right across Barclay Street from the Apteka. St. Joseph's Hospital, where I was born, was directly across Main Street, while a small distance uphill on Barclay Street there was a small church, whose members were Syrian Christians from Aleppo (which last time I looked had transitioned to a Pentecostal church for Latinos).
Growing up, I felt that the Syrian church, along with the Polish Apteka, cast a special aura over the neighborhood. Indeed, there was an established and growing community of Arab peoples just a few blocks south along Main Street, with bakeries and small eateries offering breads and foods from the various home countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey) of residents and merchants of that neighborhood. There were also a number of bodegas nearby, owned by Puerto Ricans who had settled there in the post-war period. My old South Paterson neighborhood has changed quite a lot since then, with newcomers arriving from Turkey and nearby countries, gravitating toward that same area along South Main Street, the Puerto Rican community later giving way to Dominicans. I believe that they or some other Latino communitiy now worship at that erstwhile Syrian church on Barclay Street.
By the time I'd turned eight or nine years old, I was a steady consumer of books. Apart from an interest in their contents, I was probably attracted by the cover art or design, by simply picking up and holding the book, or by the descriptive blurb on the back cover. I visited the public library on Grand Street too, but even at that relatively young age I wanted to own books. The books filling the neighborhood racks back then cost as little as 25 or 35 cents, and I had "income" of my own, mainly from scavenging soda bottles and returning them to local stores for the deposit, or from "junking" — collecting discarded newspapers, or stripping parts from abandoned cars left on the street or in empty lots (starters, generators, alternators, etc.) and hauling them to the local junkyard for a payout. I was often on hand, too, to run errands for elderly people in the neighborhood, who would tip with a nickel, or have me keep the carefully calculated change from whatever purchases I'd made for them. And of course, in winter I shoveled snow for those same neighbors.
Looking back, some of those book titles are surprising, others not — I especially remember The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, and Lost Horizon by James Hilton. But there was also Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, books by Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island and The Black Arrow), or Rudyard Kipling (Kim and The Jungle Book), and books by Jules Verne. I began reading contemporary science fiction at that time too — Lester Del Rey, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Andre Norton. I recall liking Norton especially much (though I don't believe I read any of the books she wrote for young people). There were other writers and other books as well, too numerous to be named here.
I held onto those early purchases for many years, fetishizing them as mementos or, less prosaically, valuing them as starry messengers from my childhood. Whichever it was, they formed at first the embryonic and then the continually evolving substrate of my being — a bookish, though not scholarly individual, with a lifelong affinity for books and an abiding urge to acquire them. Those very early books gradually fell away, some left behind at my parents' house following the decisive breakaway from my birth family, some later misplaced or discarded while moving or relocating. There have been several iterations of culling, up to the most recent version — downsizing. I've given away many hundreds, amounting to thousands of books — to local libraries, to used booksellers, and most recently to a neighborhood typewriter repair shop, whose proprietor is setting books out for display around the storefront and sidewalks, in an effort at community building.
In his Threads Talk essay, Alan Loney discusses the many things I myself have wondered about – whether or not to continue adding to my existing library (at my age), the dual nature of books (book as codex vs. book as text), and so on. This gets at the argument Walter Benjamin was making, that books, in certain hands, can exceed or transcend their texts; they are indeed a magic conjuncture. Meanwhile, I expect that this post will engender a further post, where I plan to look more closely at Benjamin's essay, and explore Alan Loney's writings in more detail.