Umberto Eco: On Owning Lots of Books

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Many of us have had the experience of looking dejectedly at the stack of books that we’ve been meaning to read, but simply haven’t had the time to plow through. As a reader of the blog So Many Books, I’ve enjoyed that this phenomenon is not unique, is not necessarily bad, and in fact can be celebrated as part of our bookish experience. For photographic proof, see the post on to-be-read piles at On Books and Bicycles.

In his collection of lectures entitled On Literature, Umberto Eco offers a salve for our bookish hurts. In an essay on Jorge Luis Borges and intertextual influences, he offers possible explanations for how we come to know some of the books in our libraries.

“I have many experiences that are, I think, common to all who possess very many books (I now have around forty thousand volumes, between Milan and my other houses) and to all who consider a library not just a place to keep books one has already read but primarily a deposit for books to be read at some future date, when one feels the need to read them. It often happens that our eyes fall on some book we have not yet read, and we are filled with remorse.

But then the day eventually comes when, in order to learn something about a certain topic, you decide finally to open one of the many unread books, only to realize that you already know it. What has happened? There is the mystical-biological explanation, whereby with the passing of time, and by dint of moving books, dusting them, then putting them back, by contact with our fingertips the essence of the book has gradually penetrated our mind. There is also the casual but continual scanning explanation: as time goes by, and you take up and then reorder various volumes, it is not the case that the book has never been glanced at; even by merely  moving it you glanced at a few pages, one today, another the next month, and so on until you end up by reading most of it, if not in the usual linear way. But the true explanation is that between the moment when the book first came to us and the moment when we opened it, we have read other books in which there was something that was said by that first book, and so, at the end of this long intertextual journey, you realize that even that book you had not read was still part of your mental heritage and perhaps had influenced you profoundly.”

– From Borges and My Anxiety of Influence, by Umberto Eco


Thoreau’s Cape Cod

Cape Cod, 1951 Edition

1951 Edition

Archived from Cape Cod Trip: June 2009

Most of our time on this planet is not lived deliberately as Henry David Thoreau suggested it should be, but passes in a whirl of linked and repeated events of complacent ritual. I thought of this as I sat outside a boutique in Chatham, Massachusetts, shopping bags tucked under a bench, sullen and aggrieved look on my face, awaiting the return of my travel companions.

It was my fourth day on the Cape, I had done the tourist thing, done the beach thing, trekked in and out of Boston, eaten countless fried clams … I was ready to get off the concrete for awhile. For the last few days I’d been quietly reading Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod whenever I had a free moment. The book had set me in a mood to wander through salt marshes and dune trails, get my feet muddied, and to hear bird song.

Cape Cod is one of Thoreau’s lesser known works, and is probably the lightest and funniest complete text that he produced. It’s a collection of the observations, stories, and tall tales that he picked up while visiting the Cape on four occasions during his life. One of the funniest descriptions in the book is that of the Wellfleet oysterman, a cantankerous fellow who offers Thoreau lodging for the night, as well as an unforgettable culinary experience:

She got the breakfast with dispatch, and without noise or bustle; and meanwhile the old man resumed his stories, standing before us, who were sitting, with his back to the chimney, and ejecting his tobacco-juice right and left into the fire behind him, without regard to the various dishes which were there preparing. At breakfast we had eels, buttermilk cake, cold bread, green beans, doughnuts, and tea. The old man talked a steady stream; and when his wife told him he had better eat his breakfast, he said:

“Don’t hurry me; I have lived too long to be hurried.”

I ate of the apple-sauce and the doughnuts, which I thought had sustained the least detriment from the old man’s shots, but my companion refused the apple-sauce, and ate of the hot cake and green beans, which had appeared to him to occupy the safest part of the hearth. But on comparing notes afterward, I told him that the buttermilk cake was particularly exposed, and I saw how it suffered repeatedly, and therefore I avoided it; but he declared that, however that might be, he witnessed that the apple-sauce was seriously injured, and had therefore declined that.

The book begins with the reporting of a shipwreck (an extremely moving passage for me as I recalled the transatlantic passage of my own Irish relations) and then moves on to describe Thoreau’s journeys from Yarmouth to Provincetown, mostly on foot or by carriage. Thoreau notes the practices and traditions of the inhabitants, human and otherwise, and provides detailed descriptions of the landscapes that he encounters. Thoreau’s prose is light and fluid, and his magnificent observations sparkle throughout this often-overlooked text.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

My desire, inspired by my reading, was to experience a bit of Thoreau’s Cape, to strike out off the concrete and do what he would have done. In short, I drove to the nearest trail-head to get into the woods. The path which I took, the nearest to where I was staying, took me around the Nauset Marsh, through woods inhabited by early Pilgrim settlers, and out onto the beach of which Henry Beston wrote about in The Outermost House. (This trail can be accessed from the Cape Cod National Seashore’s Salt Pond Visitor Center.)

While walking, I tried to be as observant as possible – my usual practice is to fall so deeply into thought while walking in the woods that I lose track of where I am. (Not recommended.) This time I tried to notice the many birds, trees, bugs, and small animals that I saw along the way. I walked to the Doane Rock, the largest exposed boulder on Cape Cod, and a reminder of the glacier that formed the Cape’s features. From this rock, I continued out onto the beach to see the surf. A brisk east wind was stirring things up quite a bit – only a few adventurous surfers could be seen in the chop. Standing on the edge of the dunes, looking out over the surf, I could taste salt in the breeze. I walked back through the marsh, pausing many times to take in the beautiful landscape. I paused at the Doane Memorial, and walked back through the woods to my car. In my travels that day on several different trails, I had only encountered a few other people in the woods.

I had spent a few hours nearly alone in the woods, had taken in some excellent views, and had gotten a bit of oxygen into my brain. More importantly, I had done what my reading of Thoreau had led me to do: to actively participate in nature simply by recording its impressions; to walk quietly and reverently through the woods.

Brief Book Review: In the Footsteps of Thoreau, by Adam Gamble

footsteps of thoreau coverI picked this book up after my hike in the woods, and rather late in the week. If I had read it earlier, it would have helped me shape my Thoreau experience more effectively. The book is part trail guide, part field guide, and part literary commentary.

This is a great book for anyone who’d like to turn a trip to Cape Cod into an easily-accessible literary travel adventure. It details many of the hiking trails on the Cape and explains in detail the routes that Thoreau took, what he saw, and what he had to say about the area. The book offers insights into how the terrain would have looked to Thoreau and how it has changed since his time. The book also highlights common flora and fauna from the area (from baybery and sand pipers to pilot whales and deer ticks) and includes Thoreau’s observations from his travels.

Donne’s “Twicknam Garden”

John Donne

John Donne

Since my trip to London in April, I’ve been revisiting John Donne’s poetry for the first time since college. I wish that I had picked him up earlier. Many of the places that I quickly passed by on my trip were haunts of Donne: Lincoln’s Inn, Bread Street, St. Paul’s, Hertford College, etc. It would have been nice to have had him at my fingertips, as it were.

This morning I decided to give Twicknam Garden a good, close reading. The poem’s title reminded me of staying at a friend’s house in Twickenham over ten years ago. I remember getting up early in the mornings to walk down by the Thames to hear the early morning sounds of the river. My memories of natural beauty and tranquility were disturbed by Donne’s first stanza, beginning with, “Blasted by sighs, and surrounded with teares…”

Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with teares,    
Hither I come to seeke the spring,    
And at mine eyes, and at mine eares,    
Receive such balmes, as else cure every thing;    
But O, selfe traytor, I do bring             
The spider love, which transubstantiates all,    
And can convert Manna to gall,    
And that this place may thoroughly be thought    
True Paradise, I have the serpent brought.
1633 printing of the poem

1633 printing of the poem

Donne, in the spirit of his age, saw the garden as the setting for the balance of art and nature. When he arrives in the garden, the “paradise” of his patroness the Countess of Bedford, he says that he is a “selfe traytor,” and that he has brought the serpent with him. This serpent, the unrequited love that has transformed him by its denial, has also transformed nature.

Donne goes on to complain bitterly of his suffering at the hands of love, and offers the reader a series of religious conceits to stumble upon. He offers his own suffering as the only “truth” and urges the reader to test his tears with the tears of their false lovers at home. In the end, the pain inflicted upon him is the only truth available in the realm of love and false lovers.

The question I suppose is how much emphasis do we put upon the poet’s playing of a traditional role, that of the unrequited lover? There may be some flattery going on here for his patroness, but does this explain his own self-abuse and self-grandissment? He begins the next stanza stating that “Twere wholsomer for mee, that winter did / Benight the glory of this place,” which seems to cancel his reason for going to the garden in the first place, to find a balme for his pain.

In the end, I can’t help but repeat to myself the line, “Make me a mandrake, so I may groane here.” (Insert groaning noise, if you please.)

A Pint at the Cheese

Archived from trip to London: April 2009

My wife must love me an awful lot, because she was willing to indulge my wish to have a pint at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub after an overnight flight, several hours of trooping ’round London, and absolutely no sleep. This pub, the site of a tavern since the 12th century according to our bartender, was a frequent haunt of Dr. Johnson and Charles Dickens. It is also the likely site of Charles Darnay’s fictional dinner with Sydney Carton after his acquittal in A Tale of Two Cities.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

We approached the pub from the alleys leading from Gough Square, home of Dr. Johnson. It was late afternoon and we would soon be heading back to our hotel. The pub faces Fleet Street but is entered through an alley. The obvious description of small, dark, and old is apt, but what I’ll try to impart is the acrid smell of a coal fire burning in the front room. It’s a smell that I’d not encountered before – and I suppose it’s a smell that I subconsciously assumed was what the 19th century smelled like. The walls were dark, the ceiling dark, and cobwebs clung to every bit of flat surface. I loved it.

My wife and I sat in the front room, near what was rumored to be Dickens’ favorite table, and took in the atmosphere. This mostly entailed sitting quietly. I had a pint and tried to memorize every inch of space before me as my wife fought off an urge to doze.

We didn’t stay long – just long enough to say we were there. We caught a cab on Fleet Street rather than risking falling asleep on the Tube and riding the Circle Line forever. As I left, I tried to understand just exactly what my fascination with the place meant – it’s a fascination that I have for all places of literary interest, both real and fictional. I could imagine Dr. Johnson reading Oliver Goldsmith’s first draft of Vicar in that pub just as easily as I could imagine Charles and Sydney’s “good plain dinner.” One of those events certainly did not happen in this plane of existence; the other may have – I suppose that the point of my writing this entry is that I could care less what the difference is between these events; I cherish them both.