Sunday, June 27, 2010

books & their enemies

My relationship with texts is deeply, inextricably mediated by my relationship with the codices in which they are represented. I suspect it's the same with many of my generation. I've been reading Pound's Cantos for a quarter-century now, & my experience of the poem always on some level involves the rust-jacketed hardcover I got for Christmas in 1986. My relationship with Ulysses is to some degree a relationship with the Random House Gabler edition; and that's not just the result of 15 years of successive palimpsestic marginalia in my father's 1986 hardcover, but involves the very typography, page layout, & pagination.

In short, sadly enough I'm as much a book accumulator – and caressor, & savorer – as I am a scholar. I'm sure I have friends who'd be delighted if they could load their entire libraries onto a Kindle (or Nook), but I have a wholly retrograde, deeply old-fashioned investment in paper pages and cloth (or paper) bindings.

We live in a region of extreme weather – extreme heat, big hurricanes, and (during the rainy season) daily torrential rains. And since there are bookcases in almost every room of the house, book are the coal-mine-canaries for leaks. I first discovered our upstairs bathroom had a problem when I took down a book from the top shelf of the built-ins in my study and found it was practically dripping. Alas, the Library of America, from Sinclair Lewis thru Vladimir Nabokov, had sustained severe damage.

While I was in San Francisco, another upstairs bathroom precipitated a flood into the kitchen. I came home to find the pantry newly cleaned out & reordered, & a great deal of junk on the window seat entirely removed, but it was only yesterday, taking down a cookbook to check the proportions for a dill aioli (which turned out beautifully, by the way – yes, I'm proud), that I discovered the water had gotten into the cookbook shelf. Not drastically, mind you – the only volume that can't be salvaged is a 2006 Miami Zagat's – and cookbooks so far as I'm concerned are meant to get beaten up.

Today, as we sat watching an episode of Slings & Arrows, my eye wandered from the TV screen to the adjacent bookcase, & I noticed an odd wrinkling to the dust jacket spine of John Sutherland's biography of Sir Walter Scott. Taking it down, I realized that at some point the book had been badly mishandled: the spine was split at the top. But I saw no water damage, & I'd been pretty paranoid about that particular case, as we've been struggling against a roof leak right over those books for some time now. But then I started exploring other volumes on the same shelf, & immediately got the sick feeling a book-lover gets when he feels books sticking to one another & to the shelf itself.

Short version: Somehow this shelf – the fourth down – and one other shelf – the bottom– had gotten wet sometime in the recent past. Scottish fiction & criticism, from maybe midway thru the Scott criticism thru Muriel Spark & the beginning of the Stevenson primary texts. I suppose you would say mild to moderate damage: water an inch or two up from the base of the books, some better, some largely entouched. Well-established mildew blights on maybe half-dozen books. Only two books, I think, are unsalvageable: a selection of Stevenson essays (heavily annotated, alas) and a nice illustrated volume that collects The Amateur Emigrant and The Silverado Squatters (the shiny paper tends to glue itself together when it gets wet). The rest have been opened & lysol'd and are ready to spend a little time in the sun tomorrow.

I remember how distraught I was when I came back to Blacksburg my sophomore year after the holidays & discovered the upstairs pipes had burst, ruining my copies of Eliot's The Waste Land and Selected Poems. These days I don't get awfully upset at water-damaged books, perhaps in part because I just plain have so many more books than I did back then. I'm sorry that Alexander Welsh's The Hero of the Waverley Novels is crinkly, but how often have I consulted it lately?

With many possessions, the Thoreauvians out there will say, come many worries. Which is true enough. But if I drop Old Mortality into the swimming pool, I can lay it in the sun & in a few hours it will be a wrinkled, puffy, but wholly readable artifact. I dare you to do that with your Kindle.


Amy Letter said...

Since my relationship to books includes a childhood spent lying in the bathtub reading (it was the only quiet place in the house!), wrinkly (and sometimes outright puffy) books have always seemed pretty normal to me. When you get really into a story, that's when you're most liable to let it slip and dip, after all, so it's the good ones that tend to get ruined. I'm thinking you could still read in the tub with an iPad or Kindle so long as you slipped it into one of those gallon-sized ziplock bags first. :)

mongibeddu said...

This post gave me knots in the stomach!

Ed Baker said...

why not just donate all of your books and papers, letters and notebooks to the library where you teach?

they can set up a Mark Scroggins Reading Room and
1. you can visit your high-and-dry archived/preserved books
2. have an huge tax write off for 2010 tax year

Susan M. Schultz said...

We're in the process of moving rooms in our house (giving the two kids each a room and moving into what was the study). In the process, we've discovered termite damage, silverfish, you name it. And I'm having to give away books by the bushel. An entire shelf of books on adoption is being given away, and that's just one example. We're Thoreaus of necessity . . . in a warm and expensive climate . . .

Mark Scroggins said...

True story, Ed: A retiring colleague of mine, who'd edited a well-regarded fantasy/sf scholarly journal, offered his collection of 30 years' worth of fantasy/sf -- review copies, inscribed gift copies, etc. -- to the library of Our Fair University. They told him they couldn't accept donations unless they had the option to resell whatever they didn't want; and no way would they keep the collection together, much less put it in a special room.

I suspect they have an even lower priority for poetry. I'll just keep tarps handy for the next big rain.

Silverfish, now I know those critters. Termites are a bit scarier.

Ed Baker said...

find out where all of the Zukofsky "stuff" is archived
Kent State? Lilly? U of Delaware?
Columbia? Wesleyan?

and send it there... COD!

that will fix them.

or you can will it all to your children or to your literary executor and let THEM deal with all of the
mish-uh-gosh ...

have fun in The City

Curtis Faville said...

The scourge of the South. I recall book-scouting a decade ago in New Orleans, and finding otherwise pretty nice copies of good books with these weird neat clean tunnels in them. Not silverfish, not termites, but just clean tunnels about at eighth of an inch in diameter. Usually starting in the gutter of the endpaper, then proceeding all the way through the gathers to the other side of the textblock. Yow!

What bug did it?

Water and books don't mix!!!