When I was very small, first learning to
read, I remember being fascinated with the shapes of the letters, especially
the letter 'g,' with its marvelous curling tail. I loved to look at it
on the page, and I loved to stare at the tiny corrugations the print had
made on the paper itself. I admired the question mark, probably for the
same reasons, and the lovely comma, and the semicolon, too. I still like
to look at them when I read. I didn't care very much what the words said--I
seldom took anything in. But I liked looking at the words on the page,
and I grew to love the physical, tactile feeling of holding a book in
my hands--their various shapes and designs and smells. I think this goes
some to explain why I now have more than eight thousand five hundred volumes
in my home library, and why I have spent my life around words, playing
with them and putting them into combinations to see what comes of them,
how they resonate with each other and what else they call forth.
To this day, when reading, I have a habit of periodically holding the
book at a length to look at it, and then bringing it, open, to my face,
to breathe the fragrance, old or new--and each has its specific satisfactions--that
is always there and rises from each of them like something offered by
a flower to the air, a very special kind of pollination. I have bought
books without the slightest idea what is in them (yes, I said 'is' in
that sentence, for books are always in a beautiful present tense); I bought
them merely and only because I liked the way they looked and smelled.
I have finished reading books that were not very well written because
I liked the print, and the feel of them, and the fragrance (a ponderous
biography of Einstein comes to mind). Indeed, some part of me is always
slightly aloof when reading, standing back to enjoy the physical act of
it, for itself, the textures and the sounds the paper makes, and the weight
of the volume, the heft and solidness of it in my grasp. For me, nothing
can ever replace that. And I treat all my books, paperbacks and otherwise,
as valuable artifacts.
My favorite book is War and Peace (or, as a Russian friend of mine
says it ought to have been translated: War and Everything Else).
The best translation in my opinion is the Rosemary Edmonds, published
by Penguin Books, in paperback. I have one I bought in two volumes in
1964 when I was nineteen. The pages are yellow, but the spine is still
unbroken. I have a one volume copy I bought in 1986, and still another
I bought this past spring, all of them Penguin paperbacks, differently
designed, although the print is the same. I have been hoping to come across
a hardback of the Edmonds translation and when I do, I'll read it again.
When my friend William Maxwell died this summer, he was just finishing
with that translation; he said it made him feel as though he were soaring.
I had the pleasure of saying to him in a letter what Mark Twain so wonderfully
said about it, when it came out: "Tolstoy carelessly neglects to include
a boat race." I so love that.
To me, books are the physical vessels that keep us linked to all the human
times and places, nothing less than the one practical, hands-on thing
that cheats death and the silence. This particular morning, I had a brief
one-way conversation with a gentleman named Homer, who made my heart stir,
describing Hector in his shining helmet, and Hector's young son failing
to recognize him, and crying, until Hector takes the helmet off, showing
himself, laughing. Oh, yes. Tragic, sad, human, doomed Hector. And it
was written more than 2700 years ago.