Friday, October 13, 2006
books! an addition to the ranks!
I whole-heartedly approve of Blacks, Latinos, gays, and even Freemasons mixing willy-nilly in our schools, businesses, and playgrounds. I'm a fervent believer that all humans are equal (of course, those of you who know me well know that in my mind, I phrase it 'all humans are equally evil' - but the point's effectively the same).
But when it comes to my books, I segregate ruthlessly.
There are four rings. In the outermost, the rectum of my collection, are the books steadily being culled from the shelves for a more-or-less permanent cycle of selling and trading. This cycle is of course vital to the life of my collection, but it's ironic, since my GOAL is to buy only those books I intend to keep forever. My outer ring is a wry, permanent testament to the fact that even when it comes to book-buying, my judgement isn't perfect (control your shock, my young Jedi!).
The next ring is by far the biggest: my collection at large. These are the dozens and hundreds of books lining the shelves of all my various dog-chewed bookcases. These are the books that take an afternoon to move on moving-day. These are the books I prowl every day, the books I re-arrange, the books that sometimes surprise me by simply being there ('when did I get THAT?')(or, as I confess I often find myself saying, 'when did I get YOU?'). Of course it's FROM these books that the to-sell books come, but that's not a worry: 95 percent of these titles are safe from any purge.
They're a miracle, really. In virtually all ages prior to this one, such a library - relatively minuscule (I'm fairly certain at least a couple of you in the Silent Majority have larger ones) - would have been the world's own envy of every reading individual.
And those individuals YEARNED for it, make no mistake. Books were rare and costly and unwieldy, and even the most avid readers usually didn't possess more than a couple dozen. And I'm always grateful for that, I am. History provides few more intelligent, hungry-minded individuals than Henry VIII, and I currently have ten times the number of books he owned in his lifetime. I have ten times the number of books Henry VIII had. This circle gets what the kids call mad props.
The next circle is far more exalted - they're the four or five dozen books that are invited into my room, whatever room I'm sleeping in, in whatever apartment I happen to live.
Some of you will know the tiny little nerd-haven I make of whatever room I happen to occupy. The outer apartment is one thing, but my room ... well, that's where the books I most treasure are. The ones I like to SEE every day. The ones I USE, which is the ultimate dream of every book ever written (and who knows if maybe a whole LOT of them don't get that distinction? After all, my room is duplicated by prisoners' under-beds and teenagers' window-sills, and they're filled with Stephen King and law books and Nora Roberts).
This is where you'll find my Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (a free book to the first of you who can tell me how many tons Thundra can lift - and no fair peeking! Do it from memory! Honor system, people!). Here you'll find my Readers Digest guide to North American wildlife. Here you'll find Clifton Fadiman's Little Brown book of anecdotes. Here you'll find all the good volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History. Here you'll find my beautiful Penguin collected Jane Austen (one big fat beautiful volume). Here you'll find my Chapman's Homer.
The books in this circle are exalted. They get boxed first and most lovingly in all moves. They get consulted, frequently. They never get sold and almost never get given away. They're heavily bookmarked, heavily annotated. They're my working books.
Today I had the rare and incredibly sweet pleasure of adding a book to that ring. Today I found Tom McArthur's edition of the Oxford Companion to the English Language, and I knew instantly that I'd found an addition.
This book is wonderful, plain and simple. It's the quintessential browser's paradise, since its brief rather predictably sprawls all over creation. After all, there's nothing in the world that doesn't fall under the rubric of 'The English Language.'
There's no way to fully convey the wonders of this volume. It roams, it digresses, it fulminates, it sneers. The entry on Shakespeare is worthy of independent publication, the entry on Old English could double as an introductory course on the subject. And the quips are just as good. Take this one on the subject of Humor:
As there are stereotypes of national humour with some support in cultural fact, so there are widely accepted if not wholly reliable notions about humour in former ages. England before the Norman Conquest, for example, is nobody's idea of a country full of wags and wisecrackers....
So without further ado, I log in and add a book to the second circle. Of course, this entails removing a second circle book already on duty. In this case it's a volume called High Seas given to me by my young friend Sebastian (his comment at the time? 'You've been a-sea and all, right? I thought you might enjoy this more than I - sounds frightfully WET to me...'). Sebastian is a) too fragile and b) too distractable to roger, so his time in this room is extremely limited - he'll never notice the switch).
I know, I know - this entry leaves unnamed one further circle. The Oxford Companion to the English Laguage succeeds seamlessly into my second circle, but some of you might be asking, what about the first circle?
Well, the first circle, as some of you may know, are my Essential Books. These are the books I not only use but NEED. Several of them are the books I've travelled the world with, during my 'lost years' ... Here, in one bookcase, are my ... well, my indispensables: my King James Bible, my Ovid (in the original and five translations), my Juvenal, my Dryden and Byron and Sheridan and Shaw and Spenser and Tacitus and Ariosto and Jeremy Leven and Graves and Browning and Livy and Huizinga and Syme and Morison and the Venerable Bede .... my Homer and my Tasso, my Horace ... my Horace.
It's very, very rare that I make an addition to this circle, and it's always a cause of intense joy. The last addition was the Oxford World Classic paperback of Boswell's Life of Johnson, the original volume of which I VERY mistakenly leant out to a young well-wisher who a) will never admit that it's out of their depth and b) never sheepishly give it back.
So additions to this particular ring are exceedingly rare. You can be sure you'll hear all about it, if this blog lasts long enough to record it (and judging from the anemic level of reader-comments, that's damn unlikely)
And in the meantime, let's all welcome this addition to the second-most exalted rank of my book-world! Of course I invite all of you loyal readers to comment at length about your own book-circles! I know you have them - I've been in enough of your apartments - and I urge you to make a clean breast of it!