28 May 2017

Addison, Steele and Dan

Over the past several years, I have transitioned from living in a house that sat on four acres to an apartment comprised of 1500 square feet. In the house the library I developed approached what might be referred to as organization on bookshelves arrayed about a large finished basement, on bookshelves in the bedrooms of my two daughters, and on the western wall of my cabin office that rested behind the house. I owned many books. But as I moved to the apartment dwelling, I understood that these books would not all find room along the walls of the apartment, and I began the exercise of triage: some books had to go.
     Some I easily recycled, and though Half-Price Books may sell books at half-price, they certainly do not buy them at that rate! But I didn’t mind because I was purging for the creation of space; I sold the books that I had never opened not even once, keeping in mind the wonderful first chapter of Italo Calvino’s if on a winter’s night a traveler in which the narrator describes the adventure of entering a bookstore and passing by tables holding books that would be purchased (for any assortment of reasons) but were never really meant to be read, purchased because they looked good on my library shelf, purchased because they color-and size-coordinated with other books that sat already on the shelf, or had been even purchased for future reading in the days of retirement.  This latter category has not been my direction and so the books I sold to half-price books consisted of books that I once thought I should own given a particular self-image I wished to maintain but which I really didn’t have much intention of reading. And on the shelves were duplicate editions of books one of which had to go, and on those same shelves sat books that I had tried to read but found incomprehensible and that I placed back on the shelf like a container of butter gone bad.
     In the beginning the winnowing process was easy and the stacks decreased, but there were books too many, for in the apartment there was no more wall space for book shelves (and hence books), and I looked about uncertain, wondering how I might proceed. I wondered what should I do with Richardson’s Clarissa which I had purchased for a graduate class but had never read even though Terry Eagleton, my favorite cultural critic, had done extensive work with the novel. What should be done with the Milagro Bean Field trilogy of John Nichols that I had adored and written about in my dissertation but which also I was assured would never read again? I was at a point where every book had to be examined with delicacy and concern for fear of losing something which I could not exactly define but of which I was certain I could not live without. I mean, there were books up there that grounded me in my history: Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool--Aid Acid Test, or Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, the work of a man whose politics I despised but at the time I read the book a work that epitomized a world view that helped define the conflicts of the 20th century. My heavy and heavily annotated college literature anthologies represented the resources of the incipient scholar I wished to become, even as the boxed set of the Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet traced that development.
     And what was I to do with Addison and Steele: Selections from The Tatler and the Spectator. I thought that there was little chance I would need this text again, though as I flipped the pages I noted that Ihad read and marked it up almost fifty years ago in my undergraduate work at Roanoke College. I knew that The Tatler and The Spectator were essential documents for understanding the 18th century in Great Britain, and besides, I had purchased this Rinehart edition new for $2.35: today a pack of gum costs almost that much money. What should I do with Addison and Steele.
     In these moments of literary crisis, I would call Dan to help me effect this final cut. Dan was a professor in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, having earned his Ph.D from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. I don’t remember how it was that we established our relationship, but over the years our friendship deepened. Dan and I could talk about books, about “literature,” about teaching and learning, and about our lives: about children, money, sex, marriage and politics. There developed an intimacy that I shared with few others. Dan insisted that I keep Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book I first read under the stairs in the company of two female cousins. For Dan, Lawrence’s novel represented the transition to modernism and therefore had to remain on the shelf, but he advised that most of Trollope could go. And so as I looked up at the top shelf (A for Addison), I thought I needed Dan’s input on this momentous decision. “Dan, how do you feel about Addison and Steele?” I queried. “A tough one,” he said, “but I’d keep it.” I needed no better recommendation than this, and indeed, I did, I left the book on the top shelf. Remarkably, most recently I find that in some writing I am doing selections from The Tatler and The Spectator have become well, somewhat central. Who would know? Who could know? Only Dan, I think.
     Dan died April 29, 2017, at the age of 73 years. I am sad that we will not engage in those conversations that I so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed with Dan over bottles of good red wine. I don’t now with whom I will now talk with such intimacy about literature and life the way once I sat with Dan. Who but Dan could advise me what books to sell and which I must keep?


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