My life as a bibliophile

As I await my next hip revision, I decided to put an old favourite on my blog this week. Please forgive me for plagiarising myself! It’s a blog about books, and as another one of my old favourites, Walt Whitman, once said: “Camerado, this is no book/Who touches this touches a man.”

I love books, always have. I discovered literary treasures on the shelves of the local public library in West Philadelphia; in the reading rooms of the splendid Logan Square library in the city’s centre, in the magazine section of the well-stacked Villanova University library on the affluent Main Line, 16 kilometres from the City of Brotherly Love, and in the historic Mitchell Library Reading Room in the State Library in Sydney.

Like the Eugene Gant character in Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, I devoured books. It was a fertile feast that eventually took me from a modest row house in Philadelphia to a comfortable home on Sydney’s leafy North Shore.

A number of years ago, my friend Edwina Mason asked me to write a piece about my five best books for a Sydney Morning Herald website, Adore Property. I whittled it down to seven. The Adore Property site can be found buried in the depths of the Fairfax Domain section (not that I could find it – Edwina could!). Fortunately, Edwina is alive and well and the editor of a thriving rural newspaper, The Young Witness, in the southwestern NSW town of Young, also known as the Cherry Capital of Australia. Since I can’t find the original on the SMH website, here is my list, as I first wrote it, with a few additions.

Number one was easy. I remember reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time on the way to the Logan Square library at the age of 26. I started with J.R.R. Tolkien’s introductory novel, The Hobbit (now a major film, as they say), and fell in love with Bilbo Baggins. Who could help but adore a small furry-footed fellow who likes a beer? And finds the One Ring to rule them all, leading to his heir, Frodo Baggins’ journey to Mordor with his mate, Sam Gamgee, to destroy the evil weapon of potential mass destruction. The trilogy tells an epic tale, with delicious characters and fantasy galore, written by Tolkien during those dark global years from 1936 to 1949.

When Frodo finally conquers the Ring, you don’t really want the story to end. The Lord of the Rings is an anti-depressant, and the first dose makes you believe in Tolkien’s world where good eventually wins. Great books demand a second reading, and I have been to Middle-Earth several times, mostly in the Spring, both northern and southern.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye also warrants re-reading, even though it’s more than 60 years old now. America was a different place in the 1950s, but the timeless desperation of adolescence is captured vividly in Holden Caulfield, who doesn’t want to go into “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” on page one. The Catcher in the Rye recreates the genuine voice of a 16-year-old, and I am always amazed when local schools and districts in the U.S. ban the book for profanity and obscenity.

WHERE DO THE DUCKS GO IN WINTER?

Holden Caulfield is a classic teenager, and his musings are still quoted. The most famous, perhaps, was his brilliant line about the lagoon in New York’s Central Park. “I was wondering,” he says, “if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go?” Where do the ducks go in winter? A good question. But my favourite is Holden’s take on good books: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” I wish J.D. Salinger was still alive so I could call him and talk about The Catcher in the Rye. But he was such a recluse he wouldn’t have taken my call anyway.

Neither would I have had any luck in trying to call James Joyce, who’s been in the Posthumous Hall of Literary fame for a long time. I read and admired A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Richard Ellmann’s wonderful biography, James Joyce, and with the help of God and six policemen, an old Irish expression, I hope to get through Finnegans Wake before I die. But my favourite work of Joyce, and ripe for re-reading, is his book of short stories, Dubliners. There’s Ivy Day in the Committee Room, where a group of Irish politicians recall their late Nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, who made the mistake of marrying Kitty O’Shea, with whom he fathered three children, after she divorced her husband in Catholic Ireland. The reading of a poem paying tribute to the “Uncrowned King” culminates in a wonderfully understated last line. The Dead is one of those short stories that stick with you. A husband learns of a romance in his wife’s past after she hears a song that her star-crossed lover used to sing. The story ends with snow falling all over Ireland prompting the husband to think of death in a poetic last sentence: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Beautiful.

For my next choice, you might expect a Hemingway, a Fitzgerald, a Patrick White, a Norman Mailer, a Christina Stead, maybe even a John Irving. But no, I give a best guernsey to a novel that gave a new phrase to the English language: Catch-22. Joseph Heller’s wildly funny book about a squadron of bombing pilots on the fictitious island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean south of Elba is a savage satire on war and its effect on the combatants. For example, Yossarian asks his friend Doc Daneeka to ground him. But he can’t because Yossarian’s not crazy – he wants to be grounded. Daneeka can ground another pilot, Orr, because he’s crazy. “He had to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to,” says Doc Daneeka. So then you can ground him, asks Yossarian. “No. Then I can’t ground him.” Yossarian asks: “You mean there’s a catch?” “Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.” Thus the phrase was born. My 1961 paperback copy of Catch-22, which cost 75 cents, is falling apart, but I’m going to tape it together so I can read it again.

Number five is a poetic trifecta (okay, I am cheating a bit here!). First, one of America’s major 20th Century poets, e.e. cummings, who wrote mostly in the lower case. But in 100 Selected Poems, his lyrical genius is on a higher plain: “my father moved through dooms of love/through sames of am through haves of give …” And one of his playful (and sardonic) poems is my favourite: “a politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man.” Second, The Waste Land and other Poems by the most influential English poet of the same century, T.S. Eliot. His The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (“I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”) and The Waste Land (“April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”) defined the doom and gloom of Europe after World War One, as well as providing a generation of writers with useful quotations.

And last, but not least, pure poetry and plays for the ages: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The Bard’s 37 plays should be in one volume for constant consultation. I like an old edition, the one by G.B. Harrison, with an excellent introduction and footnotes (used and new copies still available at Amazon.com). This is the one book that I would choose for the proverbial desert island, where I would say as Romeo does: “O! here/Will I set up my everlasting rest/And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars/From this world-wearied flesh.” Or if I got really hungry on this island, and wanted to stay alive, I might take the advice of Francis Bacon, who writes: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

What a way to go … dying to read Shakespeare.

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