On the Road Not Taken: I didn't figure on missing my books. Family, yes (sort of); Book World, yes (sort of); noble hound Seamus, regarded by all privileged to know him as the world's finest yellow Labrador, most definitely. But, strangely, I thought I could get along without the bookcases in the living room, bedroom, study and basement. Without the boxes, piled higgledy-piggledy, marked Plato, Beckett, Le Guin, O'Brian, Yourcenar, Christie and Carr, Classics, Shaw, Modern Firsts, To Read, Music, Fairy Tales, Hammett and Shakespeare. But nearly every day I still find myself rising from my desk chair -- in this well-equipped but airless office, where I now write -- to retrieve, say, Cheri in French or my copy of William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive, only to realize that those titles are hundreds of miles away. Comes as a shock each time.
Who would have thought it? In fact, I arrived in Orlando -- as a one-semester visiting professor at the University of Central Florida -- with a dozen cartons of books, most of them intended for my two classes: a graduate writing seminar in literary journalism and an honors lecture course about publishing and book culture. So on the shelves in my office, Room 417-E in the Humanities and Fine Arts Building, I can look up and see volumes of the artful nonfiction of Joseph Mitchell, M.F.K. Fisher, Janet Flanner, Kenneth Tynan, Rebecca West, James Agee, Anthony Burgess, Virginia Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy . . . Shouldn't these be enough? There are, besides, a dozen guides to book collecting, as well as Douglas McMurtrie's old standby The Book and S.H. Steinberg's Penguin classic, Five Hundred Years of Printing. And then I've also brought along a score of works by and about Nabokov, since I'm using Lolita in my Adventures in the Book Trade class, partly as a starting point for talking about various aspects of modern publishing but secretly because I wanted my students to read at least one really good modern novel. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art . . .
But I didn't transport just texts for work. I knew myself well enough to pack comfort titles too, those books one absolutely needs for spiritual refreshment, in my case the collected poetry of Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and W.H. Auden, supplemented by the irreplaceable Faber Popular Reciter, edited by Kingsley Amis. Where else can you find together Reginald Heber's "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" ("Though every prospect pleases/ And only man is vile") and "Horatius at the Bridge" and "In Flanders Fields," not to mention, though we must, such hymns as "Abide With Me" and "Lead, Kindly Light"? Just now I picked up my sturdy paperback, and it fell open -- really, it did -- to "Young and Old" by the usually religiose Charles Kingsley:
When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.
When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.
The whole anthology pulses with such stirring, mildly cornball stuff. You should hear me at parties when I start to recite Tennyson's "Tithonus" or Kipling's "Recessional." "Lest we forget -- lest we forget!"
Of course, I also made room for some of those Books One Has Always Wanted to Read And Never Quite Gotten Around To, beginning with Byron's Letters and Journals, picked up for $75 in a used bookstore a couple of years back. Editor Leslie Marchand gives each of the 13 volumes its own title, a phrase from Byron, and these are captivating in themselves: In My Hot Youth, Famous In My Time, Alas, The Love of Women! and Wedlock's the Devil. As a grad student eons ago I treated myself to Jacques Barzun's Selected Letters of Byron, and ever since have wanted to lose myself in the Marchand edition for a few weeks. But so far the books remain, impressively, on my shelf here, untouched.
They're in good company. They stand next to the first four installments of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, one of those modern classics that everyone just naturally assumes I'm crazy about, if only because of my passion for the somewhat similar Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, E.F. Benson and Ronald Firbank (not to mention Proust, with whose A la recheche du temps perdu the Dance is frequently compared). But I haven't read any Powell except his memoirs. So I quietly squirm when the classicist Bernard Knox or my colleague Dennis Drabelle launches into paeans to the 12-part series. And, of course, right now it looks as though I may have to keep squirming.
Because I've also resolved to really immerse myself in Faulkner and Eudora Welty. After all, I'm living down heah in the South for the first time in my life, and obviously should read beyond The Sound and the Fury, "No Place for You, My Love" and a few other famous novels and stories. Which also explains why I've carried down my perfect, dawn-bright copy of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Florida classic, Cross Creek.
Alas, prepping for classes, writing columns and reviews, slipping away for a little booking (landed a near-fine English first of Wodehouse's Ice in the Bedroom), conferring with students, sipping coffee or sharing meals with faculty members, agreeing to judge essay contests, conducting my weekly on-line chat and promising to visit colleagues or old friends in St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale, Gainesville, Jacksonville and Miami seem to be eating up all the time I imagined spending poolside, under a beach umbrella, sipping a cool tall one and catching up on Byron's erotic entanglements and the nefarious doings of the Snopeses.
Not enough time. That sounds like almost everyone's dying words. So maybe I should send off for the collection of the world's 100 greatest books that I saw advertised in an airline magazine recently. Each classic is reduced to a 45-minute audiocassette presentation: "You'll learn about the author's life and the time in which he or she lived; you'll hear a description of the book's themes; an analysis of the characters; a detailed re-creation of the story with descriptive passages from the book; and a concise yet full discussion of the book's relevance." And not only that. "Despite their condensed presentation, the mood and richness of the original works have been preserved to a remarkable degree. And, by reinforcing the audio presentation with printed Knowledge Maps, you can absorb the lessons of great literature in the most efficient manner possible." Yet even that's not all, folks. "If you were to read each of these 100 great books at the rate of 4 per year (an ambitious goal for most of us), it would take 25 years to read the entire collection! But now you can absorb much of their knowledge, wisdom and insight in just a few weeks of enjoyable listening. And, after listening to the entire collection, you will have a depth of knowledge achieved by only a few people who have ever lived."
Well, I don't know. I've been reading books for 45 years now and I still don't feel I have much depth of knowledge. Does anybody ever?
My classes themselves seem to be going reasonably well, especially now that I've stopped being saddened at how little the young have read. The students are uniformly eager, earnest and lively, like young Labrador puppies, but the culture of our time has left them cut off from the literature and art of the past. In my writing seminar I offered, in a fit of insanity, to give an A for the course to any student who could quote a single line by A.E. Housman. With rue my heart is laden, for I didn't have to pay up.
In my honors class, which draws on undergraduates from several majors, I hardly expected anybody to know much about Vladimir Nabokov. One must be realistic, after all. But when I referred to Graham Greene -- who was instrumental in helping Lolita gain respectable literary attention -- nobody knew his name or work either. Ah, thought I shrewdly, searching for a pedagogic device, these kids love movies. I mentioned that Greene had written the script for the classic film "The Third Man." Only one person had seen "The Third Man." Well, I try not to be appalled. I can remember the shock on my own English professors' faces when they realized that their 1960s students didn't recognize Latin tags or lines from Horace. They shook their jowls in disbelief: How could you not know the classics? Well, the world changes. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Today we read Caribbean literature and the poems of Sor Juana and Emilia Lanier -- thought by A.L. Rowse to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets -- and captivity narratives and slave memoirs and all sorts of worthy, hitherto neglected books. For young scholars, especially women and people of color, such works are often exhilarating discoveries. We are exploding the canon. And a large part of me welcomes just such a blow-up. Make it new. But I sometimes feel too old to light out for these little-explored territories, and I frequently long for the safety of the books I already know or want to know.
So, scanning the authors I've brought to Orlando, I occasionally wonder: What has Robertson Davies or Katherine Anne Porter or William Empson to say to these bright-eyed, fit and intelligent children of the new millennium? I am in the land of Disney and NASA -- the twin poles of American civilization -- and at times feel utterly superannuated. Superannuated. Who, these days, will even perceive that word as a feather-light allusion to Charles Lamb and Ivan Turgenev? Doesn't matter. That's just Dirda showing off again.
Oh well. I do try to keep Hawthorne's observation in mind: "It is a good lesson for a man to step outside the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all he achieves, all he aims at." Sound advice. Still, here, amid the palmettos and the sunshine, surrounded by youth and beauty, supported by an amiable English faculty, at least one displaced literary journalist finds himself uncertain and afraid, as the clever hopes expire. No, no, enough of such facile allusion. I am genuinely worried. Who will read the books I cherish? Who will keep alive the writers I revere? For three and a half months I can do my best to instruct and -- who knows? greater miracles have happened -- inspire the young with the delights of world literature. My colleagues here will certainly be doing the same, as they have year after year. But still I worry. And I miss my books.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.