Wednesday, February 22, 2012

20,000 Books Under His Roof

You hear about privileged 6 year-olds with educated parents entering school with a 20,000 word vocabulary. But it’s not a given that 81 years later, that privileged adult will possess a home library of 20,000 books. Professor and writer William H. Gass is one such revered bibliophile, even more esteemed for his love of not just books, but grammar and sentences themselves. He spoke at The New School about his love of libraries, sentence structure and Plato’s philosophical writings.

He read aloud from 'Shelf Life,' an essay published in St. Louis Magazine in December 2007, and here I have pasted some bits he did not share in person. To him, “a good library is miserly, as proud of its relics as a church, permitting even a cheap novel to be useful to the study of the culture it came from, an institution, consequently, that won’t allow ephemera to ephemerate and is not ashamed of having the finest collection of bodice-rippers in existence; a library that has sat safely in the same place and watched like a sage its contents age, consequently a library whose dust is the rust of time; a library that never closes on cold days and will allow the homeless to rest in its reading room; a library that will permit me to poke about in its innards as long and as often as I like.”

A Ph.D student working day after day in Cornell’s library, whose steel infrastructure and dim lighting evoked his days in the Navy, Gass grew accustomed to sharing air with a paginated population rather than a two-legged one. The endless rows of books quickly became his world: “sitting there, day after day in dusky light, my conception of Eden began to change. It had no location on a map, but was a destination determined by the Dewey Decimal System.”

What were the rules of this world, if there could be any in such a diverse and profound environment? He told us a few:
  • A sentence “must not forget its way and wander in the wilderness.”
  • Sentences are like fences, to be “left open...or prudently closed.”
  • A powerful sentence does not require a reader to reflect its intensity: “not even a bored eye can rob a Rembrandt of its greatness.”
There was a reason, Gass pointed out, that in the olden days, elementary and middle school were simply called Grammar School. It sparked Gass' attitude to later declare, I love words and arrangements. I want the reader stopped short at the language.” in a letter to Charles Shattuck, editor of the University of Illinois journal Accent (read it here).

From his 2000 essay collection, The World Within The Word, he expounded further: “Sentences like this create a world in which you very well may turn a corner in a marble hall and find yourself in a shack; in which every custom is a cover for novelty, and novelty is normal; where you may learn to proceed with caution because a wave of meaning may flow back over you and alter everything; that its you and not your husband who is leading a double life.

When asked about his philosophy background -- from his Cornell Ph.D to his teaching experience at the University of St. Louis -- he quipped, “most philosophy is fiction, I think.” He explained that each sentence in a philosophical treatise, or novel, is a microcosm of the work and its argument. For example Faulkner, he said, would produce six chapters riffing off a single sentence, given his style of prose. His favorite philosophers? Hobbes is “magnificent despite T.S.Eliot’s dislike”, and Plato is “unmatched,” he said conclusively.

What about other famous authors? Proust? Gass admitted to only having read Proust in translation, so “I guess I don’t know much of him at all.” Gass shared his deep respect for Henry James, and remembered his fiery writing in The Wings of the Dove, written, as he put it, at “the edge of the First World War.”

Gass ended his speech differently but this part of his 'Shelf Life' essay stuck a chord: 
Collectors who do not care for books but only for their rarity prefer them in an unopened, pure and virginal condition, but such volumes have had no life, and now even that one chance has been taken from them, so that, imprisoned by stifling plastic, priced to flatter the vanity of the parvenu who has made its purchase, such a book sits out of the light in a glass-enclosed humidor like wine too old to open, too expensive to enjoy.”

Not Gass, though. And his extensive, exhausting writing proves it.

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