Talk about a privileged life.
Truth is, since adolescence, I’ve wanted to experience the best that humankind has imagined, thought, dreamed and made. These days, just admitting such a desire can seem slightly suspect, though it points to working-class origins and Depression-era parents. In any event, I’ve sometimes imagined that this house, with me in it, could be launched into space — as in the concluding picture of Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” — and its contents, along with its suboptimal human specimen, could serve to represent Earth culture to superior but curious aliens.
After all, who doesn’t periodically yearn to flee the nightmarish world we now live in? A persistent feeling of helplessness, frustration, anger and mild despair has emerged as the “New Normal” — which is one reason my recent reviews and essays tend to emphasize escapism, often into books from the past. A similar impulse lies behind the pruning of my basement hoard. Going through my many boxes, I am no longer the plaything of forces beyond my control. I have, to use a vogue term, agency. I alone decide which books to keep, which to let go.
However, making these decisions has turned out to be harder than I expected.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I’m fond of a slightly overwritten travel book called “A Time of Gifts” by English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. It recounts in striking detail a walk across half of Europe undertaken by the young Leigh Fermor in 1933. Somehow, I possess four copies of this minor classic: a Penguin paperback that I read and marked up, an elegant Folio Society edition bought at the Friends of the Montgomery County Library bookstore, a later issue of the original John Murray hardback, and a first American edition in a very good dust jacket acquired for a bargain price at the Second Story Books warehouse. Given the space-saving principle of eliminating duplicates, I should keep just one copy. Which one?
The answer depends on how you weigh affection, aesthetics and worth. The scribbled-in Penguin records my first reactions to the book. The Folio Society hardback is particularly handsome, well printed and illustrated. The dust jacket on the John Murray printing complements those on Leigh Fermor’s two sequels. The American first is by far the most valuable. Which three would you let go?
Admit it: You can hardly imagine a more First World problem than this.
Here are some slightly easier quandaries. Normal practice in collecting modern fiction is to “follow the flag,” that is to acquire British firsts of British authors and American firsts of American authors. As it happens, I have “Back” by Henry Green — one of the Brideshead generation’s most stylistically distinctive novelists — without a dust jacket in its original Hogarth Press printing and with a jacket in its first American edition. Which do I save? In this instance, I’ll probably hang on to the bare-bones Hogarth copy because all my other Green novels are in complementary English editions. Dust jackets, though, are a constant bother. Those in fine condition require Mylar protectors, while those that are stained or significantly beat up offend my delicate, hothouse sensibilities. Yet because a dust jacket adds value and conveys important information, I feel guilty about throwing even a crummy one away.
There’s almost no end to these bibliophilic niceties. As a reviewer, I usually read and scribble notes in the uncorrected page proofs of forthcoming titles. Often I then receive a pristine copy of the finished book. Should I then discard the ugly generic proof and lose my brilliant insights? Similarly, I read a lot of Greek classics in translation. Anne Carson and Guy Davenport are two of my favorite writers, and both have translated Sappho: Whose version belongs on my shelves? This time, it seems judicious to ignore the no-duplicates rule and save both.
As I’ve been going through my various boxes, I’ve found that many are stuffed with letters, drafts of essays, newspaper clippings and all the detritus of my editing and writing life at Book World. Somewhere, in one of them, is a note from Amiri Baraka agreeing to review a history of jazz and another from Roald Dahl mentioning that Ed McBain — author of the 87th Precinct mysteries — was his favorite American writer and still another from Elie Wiesel complimenting me on my translation of an essay he had composed in rather florid French. There’s even an invitation from Sir Harold Acton, suggesting I visit him at Villa La Pietra, just outside Florence, and a folder of letters from Angela Carter, with whom I used to carry on long telephone conversations about reading, fairy tales and children. Happy days.
But I’ve put those boxes aside. It’s not time to go through my papers and files until I finish with the books. Despite my shiny new steel shelves in the basement, I still need to face many more hard decisions. Can I really find room for the complete New York edition of Henry James, plus the 12-volume Lippincott set of the Master’s short stories, plus early hardbacks of his nonfiction and Leon Edel’s five-volume biography? Sigh. Space is always the final frontier yet, somehow, I really must finish reorganizing my books so that this house and I are ready for the countdown to ignition and liftoff.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.