Man can live on books alone, but he needs more bread to do so
By Michael Dirda
Over the past year I’ve enjoyed writing these “Browsings” essays, meditations, and rants. The time has quite sped by. I hope you—whoever you are—have enjoyed reading them. Some of them anyway.
At all events, last week I decided it was time to pass this particular torch to someone else. The SCHOLAR’s editors have not yet announced my successor, but fairly soon you will discover a new name gracing the Friday slot on the magazine’s website. I hope you’ll give that new person a try.
While I’ll probably contribute columns for another week or two, I thought it worthwhile to try and settle in my own mind why I am walking away from work that I enjoy. Time is one reason—I find, to recall a favorite saying of my father, that every 15-minute job now ends up taking an hour. Another is coming up with new topics. I envy those bloggers who can express strong opinions about everything. Me, I just metaphorically saunter along, whistling a happy tune, and hope that my effusions turn out to be mildly entertaining. More and more, though, I worry that my pen has gleaned my teeming brain and that what I produce is weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. (Guess the sources of the two quotations buried in that previous sentence and win a prize!) The furrows of the brain occasionally need to lie fallow.
And still another reason is money. I do live by my pen, or keyboard, and while there’s considerable prestige attached to writing for the SCHOLAR, it doesn’t reward its contributors as handsomely as, say, The New Yorker or Esquire—not that I’ve ever written for either of those magazines. THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR is an intellectual quarterly and what it lacks in lavish compensation, it makes up for in intelligent, appreciative readers.
Still, I have developed some low-grade champagne tastes, especially in my book collecting, which all by itself requires a healthy bank balance. In my youth, I was happy just to unearth a paperback copy of, say, E. F. Benson’s mystery The Blotting Book. I now own both the English and the American first editions. These aren’t terribly pricey items, but one cost $35 and the other $15. If you buy lots of such treasures, it gradually adds up.
For instance, just this past Wednesday I tore myself away from this desk and drove downtown to have lunch with the poet and translator A. M. Juster. Juster is the pen name of a very senior government official who translates Latin poetry, often fairly obscure Latin poetry, as a pastime. Sounds positively Victorian, doesn’t it? And wholly admirable too. Gladstone, England’s most famous 19th-century prime minister, built a personal library of more 32,000 volumes and it was for use, not ostentation. His rival Disraeli, when out of power, brought out excellent and witty novels. At best our leading politicians may occasionally open a book if shown how. Former presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich did crank out some pot-boiling adventure fiction, but that’s not quite the same thing.
After an extremely enjoyable lunch (Juster had onion soup, I had moussaka) with talk of Maximianus’s elegies, acrostic poetry, and the riddles of Aldhelm, I said goodbye and hurried back to my car with three minutes to spare on the parking meter. At that point I should have pointed my wife’s Prius toward Silver Spring and gone home.
Needless to say, I didn’t.
Instead I drove toward Second Story Books in Dupont Circle and spent 15 minutes looking for a place to park. I then scouted the offerings ($3 each) on the bookstore’s sidewalk shelves and turned up a nice first of The Panic Hand, a collection of Jonathan Carroll’s elegant and eerie short stories. Long ago, when I reviewed one of his early novels—Sleeping in Flame—I described it as a cross between Weird Tales and Vanity Fair.
At which point, I certainly should have plunked down my $3, taken my purchase, and gone home.
Needless to say, I didn’t.
Instead I sauntered into the store itself and began, just idly, to look around. Right away I noticed a copy of Baron Corvo’s Hubert’s Arthur for $100, but decided that was too much, especially since I’d recently written about Corvo and his biographer A. J. A. Symons for The Weekly Standard. I wasn’t likely to read any more of this paranoid decadent’s work for a while.
So I poked around some more. I nearly bought a very nice first of M. F. K. Fisher’s Map of Another Town, her account of a long sojourn in Aix-en-Provence. I’m fond of this book because I too once lived in Aix, and, as it happened, roomed for six weeks with the same landlady as Fisher. But I knew Madame Wytenhove 20 years later. I sometimes fantasize that the gorgeous Mary Frances and I had slept in the same bed.
But I already owned Map of Another Town, so I left it on the shelf—even though it was just $6—for some other lucky Francophile.
I kept on browsing. I thought about a somewhat worn copy of Mark Girouard’s The Victorian Country House, but I’ve got a stack of his books on the piano now, including Life in the English Country House and The Return to Camelot. I figured I should wait and see if I read those two before I began buying more Girouard. Sound logic, yes, but I now rather regret leaving the book.
After exploring the fiction, art and architecture, literary criticism, and poetry sections, I lingered over science fiction and fantasy. The store was selling paperbacks of William Morris’s prose romances, in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter, for $4 apiece. The thing is, I own some of the Morris books already—I knew I had The Well at the World’s End because it bears one of the most haunting titles in all of English literature. But did The Sundering Flood and The Wood Beyond the World repose somewhere in a box in the basement? I couldn’t remember, so left them there.
As usual, I then wandered through mythology and folklore—nothing—followed by history. In the Medieval section I pulled out a first edition of Andreas Capellanus’s The Art of Courtly Love, translated by John Jay Parry and published by Columbia in 1941. I’d studied a paperback of this 12th-century rulebook for lovers back in college, and then a revised version in graduate school. But I don’t really like paperbacks—except for 1950s mysteries with sleazy covers featuring blondes in dishabille—and this was a handsome, if jacketless, hardback, and I just wanted it. So, I shelled out $15 and finally prepared to go home.
But I didn’t.
On the way out a bookcase full of elegant sets, some leather-bound, caught my eye. Now I admit to mixed feelings about Oeuvres Completes and long rows of matching books—altogether too official-looking—but I noticed that there were seven or eight Pleiade editions displayed, including the two volumes of Flaubert’s novels. As God is my witness, to quote the immortal Scarlett O’Hara, I opened one of them and my eyes lit on my favorite passage from The Temptation of St. Anthony, the section where the Queen of Sheba appears to the austere saint to tempt him with the delights of her body. Her enticements rise to a climax with the words: “Je ne suis pas une femme, je suis un monde.” And it was just those words I opened to: “I am not a woman, I am a world.”
So, naturally I had to buy the Flauberts, since one doesn’t just casually defy the Sortes Virgilianae: The book gods would withdraw their favor. Still, I like Pleiades and own quite a few. Okay, more than a few. As everyone says, they really are more attractive than the slightly clunky Library of America titles—and these two were bargain priced. In a twinkling, the Dirda bank balance was down another $40.
At which point, I really should have gotten in my car and driven home.
But did I? Need you ask?
Instead I headed down P Street to Georgetown and The Lantern Bookshop, operated for the benefit of Bryn Mawr College. There I wandered in and noticed, on the rare and vintage shelf, a copy of Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, the 1930s travel classic about the Middle East and Central Asia. I already possessed the Oxford paperback of this book and the handsome Folio Society hardback of it, too. But this John Lehmann edition called to me—it had been published in 1950 and it would match my John Lehmann edition of Byron’s The Station (about Mount Athos). It wasn’t the first edition, which appeared in 1937, so I discussed the price with the manager and it was dropped to $25.
That wouldn’t have been so bad, except that I’d also spotted a copy of Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies for the same price—as well as nice $5 editions of Angus Wilson’s first novel, Hemlock and After, and Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, the latter the English first. Plus there was this book called Twenty Years in Paris, by some guy named Robert Sherard I’d never heard of, but that featured photographs of 19th-century literary eminences, including a striking one of Maupassant. At $5 I had to get that too. I later looked Sherard’s book up online and discovered it was, in theory, worth quite a bit more than I’d paid for it. Always gratifying. Often it turns out the other way round.
In the end I dropped $75 at The Lantern.
And at that point finally went home, where I surreptitiously smuggled my new acquisitions into the house.
Now this is bad, very bad. These days I can hardly step away from this desk and not find myself gravitating to a used-book store and pulling out my credit card. I can almost always justify my purchases as sensible, reasonable courses of action. All addicts do this. Still, those book outlays add up quite dramatically when the monthly Visa bill comes due.
So that’s why I’m bringing the “Browsings” column to a close. I’ve got to figure out how to break into Esquire or GQ, where the big bucks are. Either that or take a part-time job at Second Story Books or the Friends of the Library Book Sale Room in Wheaton. Those employee discounts would come in mighty handy.
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.