Thursday, April 26, 2012

the fate of books

I was arrested by Kenny Goldsmith's post early this week on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's blog. He was browsing a flea market near his New York apartment and came upon a stall which was selling what seemed like the bulk of poet Jackson Mac Low's library: "the entire history of New York's underground" in chapbooks, records, and ephemera seemed to be there, Goldsmith notes. The books weren't cheap – the dealer had arrived at his prices by checking the internet. It reminded Kenny G. of the moment, a few years back, when word went out that novelist David Markson's books had been sold to The Strand.*

I know that feeling of happening upon a book that's been owned by someone you know or respect, though in my case it's usually books by obscure academics or poets that have been owned by other obscure academics or poets. I have a few books on Ruskin that were owned by John D. Rosenberg, author of the ground-breaking The Darkening Glass; I have a copy of a colleague's TS Eliot study that was sent by the publisher to Denis Donohue, then promptly disposed of at The Strand (DD left the letter from the Press's editor folded in its pages); I have a number of poetry collections presented by one poet to another.

But what Goldsmith's post really made me think about was the fate of my own books. I've been accumulating books pretty seriously for almost three decades now, to the point where the shelves are full and groaning, and the stacks on the floor just won't go away. Back at my mother's house in Tennessee, there are several hundred of my dad's books – many of which I want to keep, some for sentimental value, some for research – and probably a couple hundred of my own paperbacks from my adolescence, many of which I can't bear parting with. While there are a few feet of shelf space still available in my university office, there are at least a thousand or 1200 books there.

I'm not for the moment concerned about the borderline hoarding behavior this manifests (I've probably worried about that in this space at other times...), but rather, what will become of those books when I'm no longer around to cherish them? I'm no James Joyce or Northrop Frye, that a library would want to take my books as a collection. I'm not even a Jackson Mac Low, whose books a dealer would be anxious to sift thru for whatever treasures might be there. I'm just a lowly minor poet & academic, who's accumulated several thousand volumes – most of them, frankly, worthless – over the past decades. Do I want to stick my daughters with the task of liquidating this stack? The local used bookstore has some 75-odd cartons of books from a deceased academic; they've been gradually working thru them for some 5 years now.

I think the solution is a gradual letting-go, as I've seen others do. One cousin-in-law retired from her film studies job and simply gave away all of her research library; she'd rather paint and study herbalism. A colleague in French moved to Paris; I now have the bulk of her Beckett library. LZ trimmed his library down to a few hundred volumes (mostly Loebs, I sometimes think) in his last years.

I think that's the solution. I'm not ready for it yet. I'm still in the accumulative mode. Come around in a couple decades, if you're still interested in that defunct technology, the book, & I'll be able to set you up with a few hundred.

*Goldsmith was pretty upset, & takes the opportunity to lament research libraries' having passed over Mac Low's personal library; but on a happier note, word has it from the UK Poetry Listserv that Mac Low's actual archive went to UCSD, & that a dealer expert in such matters culled the books of lasting scholarly interest. But still.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

late Ruskin, on the rocks

Reading late Ruskin can be a disspiriting affair. There is a heady charm to the digressiveness of Fors Clavigera, a wonderful sense that one never quite knows what's coming next, and that very surprise is part of the power and – one might venture – innovation of the ongoing text (though Ruskin does indeed at one point in Deucalion refer to it as a "book"). But when it comes to the more straightforward "books" of his later years, the incompletion and digressiveness seem less charming or exciting than simply depressing, as though one were witnessing the slow-motion disintegration of a great mind. The effect is not unlike that produced by the later Cantos, I fear, where Pound's shored fragments no longer hold any luminosity in and of themselves, but simply function as shirt-cuff notes, shorthand indices to intellectual complexes that he can no longer be bothered to spell out or to explore in any detail.

Ruskin is of course always more discursive than Pound at even Pound's most voluble, but that very discursiveness, in the later books, is too often directed towards arcane polemics (as in the arguments with geologists in Deucalion) or, when he's lecturing, in puerile whimsy. The other week I finished the twenty-fifth volume of the Library Edition, that containing Love's Meinie (lectures on birds and bird-lore, mostly delivered at Oxford) and Proserpina (essays on flowers and floral classification, intended for various educative purposes). I'll admit I don't know much, and alas don't really care much, about either ornithology or botany. That may be one of my own failings. But neither did I learn much from either of Ruskin's books, and more than anything else found myself frustrated by their incompletion and air of general thrown-togetherness.

The twenty-sixth volume, containing Deucalion and various other writings on geology and mineralogy, is even more frustrating. It begins with a couple of articles on mineralogical subjects frankly too arcane for me to even begin to follow. The volume Deucalion itself, issued like so many of Ruskin's later works in serial installments, is a self-admitted ragbag. Ruskin begins the book proper by lamenting how many projects he has worked himself up for, how many books he could write, had he the proper time and his connected wits about him. But in the meantime, he concedes, he will throw together what notes he has accumulated on various subjects into books, and in Deucalion he will collect materials on his first and longest-lasting intellectual passion, geology. (More or less concurrently, Ruskin is also selecting passages – or overseeing the selection of passages – from earlier works such as Modern Painters to be reissued in various "Ruskin on ____" collections, all of which will be given typically arcane Latin titles.)

Despite all the passion as Ruskin invested in mineralogy, what's collected in Deucalion falls far short of gripping reading. There are several chapters on the "denudation" of landscape, which seem to grapple with the implications of Lyell's geological theories – that most aspects of currently observable geology can be explained by the action of forces we can observe every day (erosion by wind or water, most notably), only extrapolated over an enormous period of time. Ruskin is no young-earth creationist (though he takes many ill-directed jabs at Thomas Huxley along the way), but his arguments with the long-span incrementalists seem remarkably naive and obtuse. He wants there to be a shaping hand in the landscape, but he can't quite bring himself to throw out Lyell for Genesis; he just can't see, or can't stretch his time-vistas long enough to comprehend, how a small river can wear out a deep canyon.

Even more depressing are the several chapters devoted to explaining the movement of glaciers. It's not worth going into the details here, as much of this material is devoted to picking fights with one previous geologist, and promoting the work of another. Suffice it to say that Ruskin is convinced that a glacier cannot carve out a valley or a lakebed – any more, he explains, than honey is able to carve out a runnel in his teaspoon. He takes great delight in describing his glacial experiments in the kitchen of his friend Lady Mount-Temple, in which various cooking-pots and folded napkins play the role of mountains, while great quantities of ice cream represent glaciers.

The first volume of Deucalion ends with a discussion of the stratification and folds of mountains, in which Ruskin demonstrates his own counter-experiments to observations of other geologists by careful drawings of dyed and squashed folds of uncooked pie-crust. The second volume begins with of all things a lecture on the movement of snakes. It is frankly one of Ruskin's most embarrassing performances, all the more so because of the deep fascination he had with serpents (played out at great length in his discussion of Apollo and Python in the final volume of Modern Painters). "Living Waves" is a jumble-sale of drawings of snakes, first-hand observation of them at the zoological gardens, snake-lore from England to India, and some mildly interesting discussion of serpentine iconography in medieval art. It's most interesting when Ruskin takes on Huxley's evolutionary discussion of how the snake is related to the lizard; Ruskin prefers a moral, functional conception, in which the snake is midway between the trout and the bird.

It's hard to imagine what a live audience made of this performance. Ruskin notes at the outset of the lecture text that he had been cautioned that the lecture was somewhat discontinuous, so he provides a his reader with a thumbnail outline – which frankly does nothing more than underline its discontinuity. The brief chapter which follows, however, almost makes Deucalion worth the reading. "Revision" is in essence a reassertion of the whole of Ruskin's writings on nature and natural science, and on the representation of nature in art. It recapitulates and reasserts his faith that all observation and representation of natural form has the effect of giving the human observer access to knowledge of the divine hand that has made everything. Natural religion, Ruskin explicitly notes here, has always underlain his own commitment to nature itself.

Following this rather moving reassertion of Ruskin's life-work, there is a brief chapter on stellar shapes in minerals which trails off (abruptly and unconvincingly) into a piece of classical iconography. And then Deucalion, mercifully, is over. Well, almost – for like all of Ruskin's other late books, the text proper is followed by a score of pages of notes, drafts, and fragments for its continuation.

I have suffered for my Ruskin-obsession. Someday, if I ever get around to writing and publishing this book, you'll have the same opportunity.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

illustrated living

A couple of years ago in this space I reported on "brief lives" of Ruskin, offering capsule reviews of capsule biographies by Quentin Bell, George Landow, Robert Hewison, and Francis O'Gorman. I won't take back anything I said there – the recommendations still stand – but I've got to admit that, so far as the possibly mythical "general reader" goes, Kevin Jackson's The Worlds of John Ruskin (Pallas Athene & the Ruskin Foundation, 2010) is the brand-new, shiny and beautiful state-of-the-art vade mecum.

Last time I mentioned the role which biographical series played in the production of those earlier books: Bell's Ruskin was written for the Hogarth Press's "Writers and Critics" series; Landow's for Oxford UP's "Past Masters"; Hewison's for the grandparent of all English capsule biography series, the Dictionary of National Biography (then republished in OUP's "Very Interesting People" series). One series I didn't mention, and one book I didn't note, was Frederic Harrison's John Ruskin (Macmillan, 1902), published in the "English Men of Letters" series, edited by John Morley. That series, which Morley took on in 1877, seems to have attained almost Cliff's Note status for British students. As John Gross notes in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters,
No comparable series has ever come so close to attaining the rank of a traditional British institution. In [Harold Nicolson's] Some People, the unlovable J. D. Marstock keeps a complete set on his mantelpiece while cramming for the Foreign Office examination, a long row of thin yellow Men of Letters and square red ones: '"My tutor," Marstock would say, "told me that the examiners expect one to have read the E.M. of L.S."'
Be that as it may, Harrison's is a really delightful little book. Harrison was an erstwhile disciple of Ruskin's who found his true spiritual home with the religion of Positivism, but who retained his deep love and respect for Ruskin's thought. He writes very well indeed; his remarks on Ruskin's celebrated "purple" style are matched only by Chesterton's.

But flashing forward a century, were I asked to put a single book on Ruskin in the hands of a neophyte, right now it would be Jackson's Worlds of John Ruskin. Jackson isn't so much a critic or scholar of Ruskin (as are Hewison, O'Gorman, and Landow) as he is a deeply invested advocate. Jackson is a literary journalist who writes on all manner of subjects for the Independent; he's scripted two comic book adaptations of Ruskin's thought, How To See and How to Be Rich; he apparently has a big illustrated history of high modernism in the works. He writes very well, in the manner of intelligent British journalists. And he's immersed himself in Ruskin to an impressive degree to produce The Worlds of John Ruskin.

This large-format book is not at all in the category of the handy pocket Men of Letters or Past Masters series; it reminds me more of Thames & Hudson's illustrated "Literary Lives" series (Peter Ackroyd on Pound, Chester Anderson on Joyce, etc.). But it's larger & longer than the T&H books, and the typeface is more compact. In the course of his 140 pages, Jackson presents a judicious life of Ruskin – he doesn't pass over any of the weird bits (the messed-up marriage to Effie Gray, the obsession with Rose La Touche, the icky fascination with young girls) – and a thumbnail overview of the works, highlighting what's ground-breaking and not passing over what's problematic (JR's inability in his later years to stick to a point for more than 5 pages, for instance).

So far so good, but Jackson's text is still outclassed at least by Bell, Hewison, and Landow. What's really the selling point in The Worlds of John Ruskin, however, is the illustrations, 165 of them, all beautifully reproduced (if occasionally too small) and lovingly captioned in detail. It's always nice to know what the subject of a biography looks like, & the picture inserts in most big biographies enable us to put faces to the subject & (with luck) many of the other major players. Here we've got plenty of pictures of JR, along with Effie, Millais, Rossetti, William Morris, Rose La Touche, and so forth. But we've also got 111 of Ruskin's own drawings and watercolors, ranging from architectural details, to self-portraits (cf. the cover), to fully-realized landscapes.

Ruskin's writings are peppered with bilious little complaints: while he's got to explain something in prose, he's got to write this lecture or book, he's got somehow to save the world through this piece of writing – but he'd rather be looking at flowers or stones, he'd much rather be drawing. The book manages, as no other biography of Ruskin I've encountered, to keep us in touch with Ruskin's eye, the sense that is at the center of all of his aesthetic and cultural thought.

[John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock at Glenfinlas, 1853]