People of the Book: Bookish Ambition

I’m not ambitious in the traditional sense. I don’t want a big house or a big bank account; I don’t give a rat’s about those things. I don’t want to be the boss of anything or manage anyone but myself. But I do take a lot of pleasure in surprising my stuffy old colleagues by publishing something they don’t know. I just love to move the ball forward, even if it’s only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out.

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

I just started this novel but I think it has to be a must read by anyone who loves books. The narrator is a book conservator trying to uncover the secrets of the famous (and endangered) Sarajevo Haggadah in the tense aftermath of the war in Bosnia. It’s a tricky thing reading a novel based on such recent history. I’ll have to read more about the book itself to find out what is truth and what is fiction.

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Snow Falling on Cedars: Leaves

Her life had always been strenuous—field work, internment, more field work on top of housework—but during this period under Mrs. Shigemura’s tutelage she had learned to compose herself in the face of it. It was a matter in part of posture and breathing, but even more so of soul. Mrs. Shigemura taught her to seek union with the Greater Life and to imagine herself as a leaf on a great tree: The prospect of death in autumn, she said, was irrelevant next to its happy recognition of its participation in the life of the tree itself. In America, she said, there was fear of death; here life was separate from Being. A Japanese, on the other hand, must see that life embraces death, and when she feels the truth of this she will gain tranquility.

—David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars

Bookismet

Last week I posted about Cinoc, the word-killer, from Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. I checked the book out on my way to a lecture at the library. The librarian hosting the lecture took a seat next to me, noticed the book, and told me it had been hers and she had donated it to the library. I never did get around to reading the book and had to return it a few days ago. I went to library again today and normally I would walk by the sale cart since there is usually nothing there to interest me, but today I felt a distinct urge to have a look. What should I find there but the very copy of Life: A User’s Manual I had taken out! I guess I was the last person to take it out of the library. Since I do want to read it at some point I figured I’d better grab it in case the library is not going to replace it. The book is rather beat up so I hope they are just making way for a new copy, though the only edition in print now is a paperback (I think libraries prefer hardcovers for literature), and the catalogue says “withdrawn” rather than “on order.” In any case I now have my own copy of this peculiar book and look forward to puzzling it out. Do you have any stories of bookismet, of books that seem meant to come into your possession?

Cinoc the Word-Killer

Here is the lexicographer’s equivalent to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books:

Cinoc, who was then about fifty, pursued a curious profession. As he said himself, he was a “word-killer”: he worked at keeping Larousse dictionaries up to date. But whilst other compilers sought out new words and meaning, his job was to make room for them by eliminating all the words and meanings that had fallen into disuse.

When he retired in nineteen sixty-five, after fifty-three years of scrupulous service, he had disposed of hundreds and thousands of tools, techniques, customs, beliefs, sayings, dishes, games, nicknames, weights and measures; he had wiped dozens of islands, hundreds of cities and rivers, and thousands of townships off the map; he had returned to taxonomic anonymity hundreds of varieties of cattle, species of birds, insects, and snakes, rather special sorts of fish, kinds of crustaceans, slightly dissimilar plants and particular breeds of vegetables and fruit; and cohorts of geographers, missionaries, entomologists, Church Fathers, men of letters, generals, Gods & Demons had be swept by his hand into eternal obscurity.

Who would know ever again what a vigigraphe was, “a type of telegraph consisting of watchtowers communicating with each other”? And who could henceforth imagine there had existed for perhaps many generations a “block of wood on the end of a stick for flattening watercress in flooded ditches” and that the block had been called a schuèle (shü-ell)?…

Cinoc began to dally on the banks of the Seine, rummaging through the open-air bookstalls, leafing through penny dreadfuls, out-of-date essays, obsolete traveller’s guides, old textbooks on physiology, mechanics, or moral instruction, or superseded maps in which Italy still figured as a multicoloured patchwork of little kingdoms. Later on he went to borrow books from the municipal library of the XVIIth arrondissement, in Rue Jacques-Binjen, having them bring down from the attic dusty old folios, ancient users’ manuals, volumes from the Library of Miracles, and old dictionaries: Lachâtre, Vicarius, Bescherelle aîné, Larrive, Fleury, the Dictionary of Conversation compiled by a Society of Men and Letters, Graves and d’Esbigné, Bouillet, Onions, Dezobry, and Bachelet. Finally, when he had exhausted the resources of his local library, he grew bolder and enrolled at Sainte-Geneviève, where he started to read the authors whose names he saw as he went in, carved on the stone façade.

He read Aristotle, Pliny, Aldrovandy, Sir Thomas Browne, Gesner, Ray, Linnaeus, Brisson, Cuvier, Bonneterre, Owen, Scoresby, Bennett, Aronnax, Omstead, Pierre-Joseph Macquart, Sterne, Eugénie Guérin, Gastripheres, Phutatorius, Somnolentius, Triptolemy, Argalastes, Kysarchius, Egnatius, Sigonius, Bossius, Ticinenses, Baysius, Bodoeus, Salmasius, Lipsius, Lazius, Isaac Casaubon, Joseph Scaliger, and even the De re vestiaria veterum by Rubenius (1655, quarto), which gave him a full & satisfactory account of the Toga, or loose gown, the Chlamys, the Ephod, the Tunica or jacket, the Synthesis, the Paenula, the Lacema with its Cucullus, the Paladamentum, and Praetexta, the Sagum or soldier’s jerkin, and the Trabea: of which, according to the Suetonius, there were three kinds.

Cinoc read slowly and copied down rare words; gradually his plan began to take shape, and he decided to compile a great dictionary of forgotten words, not in order to perpetuate the memory of the Akka, a black-skinned pygmy people of Central Africa, or of Jean Gigoux, a historical painter, or of Henri Romagnesi, a composer of romances, 1781–1851, nor to prolong the life of the scolecobrot, a tetramerous coleopter of the longicorn family, Cerambycid branch, but so as to rescue simple words which still appealed to him. In ten years he gathered more than eight thousand of them, which contain, obscurely, the trace of a story it has now become almost impossible to hand on…

—Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual

Salamander: The Infinite Book

She opened the book again, this time at the beginning. Several pages, she could not tell how many, slipped between her thumb and the inside front cover. Try as she might, she could not reach the very first page, if there was one. The first few leaves, impossibly thin, evaded her blunt fingers.

She felt a surge of panic and shut the book. A dizzying fear had come over her that in the few moments she had been reading time had raced on past her in the real world: days, months, years… Footsteps clumping across the planks overhead told her that the others were still aboard, getting ready for the day.

She would join them, but not yet. Not yet.

She opened the book again and riffled through, stopping here and there at random.

A minute description of someone’s right ear, of the surprising contents of an iron chest buried in a sandbank beside the Orinoco River, of rain dripping from flower petals in a forest at night…

She skipped from place to place. Was there any order to all of this?

Reams of baffling hieroglyphics. A description of the contents of another infinite book. A roster of forgotten lovers. A primer on how to read hieroglyphics…

Her question was answered by a voice speaking out of her memory. You could ask the same thing of the universe.

Gently she closed the book on itself, almost certain she could hear, like the scratching of insects, its pages still turning.

—Thomas Wharton, Salamander

There is more (naturally, being an infinite book) but I will let you discover it. If you believe in the magic of books, this one is for you. The acknowledgements reference a book that does not seem to exist, and also thanks Borges, saying, “The novel that he never wrote was also a great inspiration.” I think that gives you an idea of what we are dealing with here. Throw in some mysteries of the East (Near and Far), pirates, romance, technology, folk tales, and a dollop of madness, and you have a thrilling story to go along with the impossible book at the center of Salamander‘s universe. This is one I’ll be reading again.

Salamander: A Voyage

Sometimes you wish to escape to another part of the book.

You stop reading and riffle the pages, catching sight of the story as it races ahead, not above the world but through it, through forests and complications, the chaos of intentions and cities.

As you near the last few pages you are hurtling through the book at increasing speed, until all is a blur of restlessness, and then suddenly your thumb loses its grip and you sail out of the story and back into yourself. The book is once again a fragile vessel of cloth and paper. You have gone everywhere and nowhere.

—Thomas Wharton, Salamander

Salamander: A Forest of Books

The book tells its own story.

Examine it closely and you will see the ragged edges of the type, its cracks and bumps and gaps, the letters that lie crookedly or ride higher or lower than the others, the ink’s variations in depth, consistency, and hue, the motes of dust and droplets of sweat sealed within the warp and woof of the paper, the tiny insect bodies caught as the platen came down, and now immortalized as unnecessary commas and full stops.

In these imperfections lies a human tale of typecutters, squinting compositors, proofreaders and black-faced printer’s devils, labouring against time and heartache and disorder, against life, to create that thing not found in nature, yet still subject to its changes.

The pages stain, fox, dry out. Paper flakes like rusty metal. Threads work loose, headbands and tailbands fray. Front and back boards sag from spines, flyleaves and buckram corner-pieces peel away. Dust mites, cockroaches, and termites dine on paper and binding paste. Rates and mice make snug nests in the middle of thick chapters. And unseen, through the chemical action of time, the words themselves are drained of their living sap. In every library, readers sit in placid quite while all around them a forest decays.

—Thomas Wharton, Salamander

Salamander: A Passion for Stationery

Unlike the handsome Abbé, he had never been pursued by any woman, let alone a continent of them. He was almost thirty, and the one amatory interlude that had embellished his life thus far had been with the woman who came into his shop early one morning and asked him what he sold besides books. As he began to run through the stock —  prints & mariners’ charts; journals & pocketbooks; embroidered letter-pouches; bills of lading & shipping paper — she slipped off one glove and ran a slender white finger along the surface of a ribboned stack of envelopes — best gilt, black-edged, post & plain writing paper; sealing wax & wafers — she unpinned her hat, shook her hair out, and began to tug at the strings of her bodice… ink & ink powder … scissors & penknives … bookmarks & booksnakes…. He never found out the woman’s name or anything about her other than the obvious fact that her passion was aroused less by his charms than by stationery. He looked at his trade with new eyes after that day, aware of just how many solitary women frequented his shop. But after that one frantic encounter, half-clothed atop his desk amid spilling paper, life went on as before.

—Thomas Wharton, Salamander

I do love stationery but, er, more as a friend. 😉

Salamander: A Castle Library

But the crowning achievement of the Count’s great labour was undoubtedly the library. A Scottish inventor, at enormous expense, designed a system of hidden tracks, chains, and pulleys, driven by water and steam, to create a ceaseless migration of bookcases that without warning would sink into the walls or disappear behind sliding wooden panels. Others dropped through trapdoors in the ceiling or rose from concealed wells in the floors. The entire castle in effect became the library, and no private space was inviolable. A guest at the castle might be luxuriating in a perfumed bath, or lecherously pursing a servant when, with a warble of unseen gears, a seemingly solid partition would slide back and a bookcase or a reading desk would trundle past, the Count himself often hobbling in its wake, consulting his watch, oblivious to anything but the timing and accuracy of the furniture’s progress.

—Thomas Wharton, Salamander

I would be making faster progress in Salamander if there wasn’t something bloggable every 5 pages. I had better pace myself since the whole book purports to be about books. 🙂