“To burn a book is to bring light to the world.” —Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)
“Every book burned enlightens the world.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Circumstances surrounding the occasional rediscovery of the poetry of the 17th-century divine Thomas Traherne are as something out of one of his strange lyrics. Intimations of the allegorical, when in the winter of 1896—more than two centuries after he’d died—and some of his manuscript poetry was discovered in a London book stall among a heap that was “about to be trashed.” William Brooke, the man who rescued these singular first drafts, had originally attributed them to Traherne’s contemporary, the similarly ecstatic Henry Vaughan, ensuring that at least until proper identification was made the actual author could remain as obscure in posterity as he had been in life. How eerily appropriate that among that refuse was Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation, which included his observation that the “world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it.” Not until he chances upon it in a London book stall.
Traherne’s lyrics have reemerged like chemicals in a poetic time-release capsule, with the majority uncovered only after that initial lucky find. As his poetry expresses sacred mysteries, holy experiences revealed, and the subtlety of what his contemporary George Herbert termed “something understood,” how appropriate that Traherne’s work should be revealed as if an unfolding prophecy? Traherne, after all, prophetically declares that he will “open my Mouth in Parables: I will utter Things that have been Kept Secret from the foundations of the World,” a poet of secrets whose poetry had been kept secret, a visionary of paradox whose work celebrates “Things Strange yet common; Incredible, yet Known; Most High, yet plain; Infinitely Profitable, but not Esteemed.”
With prescience concerning his own reputation, Traherne wrote of that “Fellowship of the Mystery, which from the beginning of the World hath been hid in GOD, [and] lies concealed!” Like so many of his contemporaries, from Herbert to Vaughan, Traherne was of Welsh extraction, smuggling into English poetics the mystically inflected Christianity of the Celtic fringe. Unlike them, he has remained largely unknown, with the Anglican priest born in either 1636 or 1637 to a Hertfordshire shoe maker and a mother whose name doesn’t survive. Traherne published only a single book before his death in 1674, an anti-Catholic polemic entitled Roman Forgeries. Such didacticism obscured Traherne’s significance, for in his other work uncovered during the 20th century, Traherne has emerged as a luminous, ecstatic, transcendental advocate for direct unmediated experience of the divine, where he instructs in “many secrets to us show/Which afterwards we come to know.”
Now an Anglican divine, honored by the Church of England on October 10 and Episcopalians on September 27, Traherne is venerated in votive candle and stain glass, exemplifying the High Church perspective he embodied—rituals of incense and bells, of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy of hours. Traherne, it should be said, was a bit of a cracked saint, however. As Leah Marcus notes in her essay “Children of Light,” reprinted in the Norton Anthology Seventeenth-Century British Poetry: 1603-1660, Traherne may have “loved Anglicanism” but “he built a large body of thought quite independent of it.” Following the chaos of nonconformism which marked the years of civil war, Traherne’s theology exceeded even the relative tolerance afforded by the developing policy of “latitudinarianism.” Marcus explains that Traherne contradicted “many of the chief tenets of Anglicanism,” possibly believing in a borderline pantheistic sense of God’s immanence in the natural world. Traherne, Marcus writes, intuited that “Heaven, eternity, paradise… are not places. They are a state of mind.”
Such a strange poetic saint has continued to pay academic dividends for scholars fortunate enough to come upon misplaced work, exemplifying Traherne’s contention that “Some unknown joys there be / Laid up in store for me.” Among several such discoveries of “unknown joys,” there was the Traherne recovery by two scholars in 1996 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., when Julia Smith and Laetitia Yeandle found an epic poem that reworked the narratives of Genesis and Exodus. Only a year later, and Jeremy Maute—working in Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury—discovered Traherne’s The Kingdom of God; unread for more than 300 years and regarded as a masterpiece, fulfilling the marginalia of an anonymous 17th-century annotator writing in that book’s flyleaf, who rhetorically queried, “Why is this soe long detained in a dark manuscript, that if printed would be a Light to the World, & a Universal Blessing?”
For sheer miraculousness in the capricious contingency of the Lord, the most striking example of such a discovery is described by Kimberly Johnson in Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry, where she writes that a “manuscript of visionary, rhapsodic work in mixed genre called Commentaries of Heaven… was rescued, half-burning and stinking, from a Lancashire trash heap in 1967.” Singed and still smoking, these singular papers were chanced upon by a man scouring the trash yard for discarded car parts. If said scavenger had been tardy in his scrounging, those verses would have been sent heavenward like the images of luminescence which permeate Traherne’s poetry. Helpful to remember the argument of Fernando Baez in A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq, who explained that when it comes to books, sometimes ironically, “Fire is salvation.” Such power to “conserve life is also a destructive power,” for fire allows us to play “God, master of the fire of life and death.” After all, we often “destroy what we love,” and if there is anything at the center of Traherne’s poetry it is the ecstasies of God’s obscured love, absconded away in lost books hidden at the center of fiery whirlwinds.
A parable worthy of Traherne: hidden scripture as a variety of burnt offering upon the pyre of the Lord, in the form of a smoldering Lancashire garbage heap. Browned paper blackening and curling at the edges, atoms of ink evaporated and stripped to their base elementals, literature reduced to an ash where poetry can no longer be read, but must rather be inhaled. Fortunate that Commentaries of Heaven was found, and yet there is a profundity in disappearing verse; the poem written, but not read; consideration of all which is beautiful that has been lost, penned for the audience of God alone. In that golden, glowing ember of such a profane place as a garbage dump, there is an approach to what literary historian Michael Schmidt references in his Lives of the Poets as Traherne’s “Images of light – starlight, pure light” as belonging to the “fields of heaven and eternity.”
As metaphysical conceit, the manuscript was not simply a burning tangle of paper, but it was as if finding God himself in the trash fire, where the words “Who cannot pleas far more the Worlds! & be/A Bliss to others like the Deitie” were rescued from an oblivion of fire. Baez writes that by “destroying, we ratify this ritual of permanence, purification, and consecration.” After all, it was presumably only the heat and light that drew the scavenger’s attention, a brief moment when the volume could announce its existence before it would be forever burnt up like a Roman candle, lest it rather forever mold and rot. Baez writes that “we bring to the surface” through flammability, there is a restitution of “equilibrium, power or transcendence.” To burn sparks a light; to enflame such poetry is to set a purifying fire, and to find such an engulfed volume is to encounter a glowing divinity on the road from Lancashire. Traherne, the burning poet, who wrote “O fire of heaven! I sacred Light / How fair and bright, / How great am I, / Whom all the world doth magnify!”
Categorized as a “metaphysical poet,” of which Dr. Samuel Johnson in his 1781 Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets described as being “men of learning” only interested “to show their learning.” Dr. Johnson infamously defined the metaphysical poets, 17th-century figures including John Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and (sometimes) Andrew Marvell, as trading in clever metaphorical conceits whereby “the most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together.” In Donne’s verse, for example, two lovers could be described as the arms of a compass, or as Herbert’s devotional poetry took on the shape of objects he describes, as in “The Altar” from his 1633 The Temple. Often dismissed as more concerned with cleverness than depth, wit rather than rectitude, T.S. Elliot would refer to them as a “generation more often named then read.” Defense of the metaphysical poets was a modernist endeavor, begun by criticism like Elliot’s 1921 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, so that eventually the movement came to be regarded as the exemplar of the late English Renaissance.
Traherne’s identification as a metaphysical, especially concerning his erudition and his religious enthusiasms, makes a certain sense. Yet he is less fleshy (and flashy) than Donne, less conventionally pious than Herbert, less political than Marvell, and nearest in tenor to Vaughan. It’s true that they share mystical affinities, even while the enthusiasms of the former are far more optimistic than those of the later. Yet Vaughan, associated with that philosophical circle the Cambridge Platonists, was privy to circulation—to being read and written about—to in short, influence. Traherne, by contrast, scribbled in obscurity. In designating him a member of such a group, we should remember that he had no influence on the rest of that school, for they hadn’t read him. But as Schmidt writes, “Such obliquity doesn’t obscure the material world; it illuminates what exists beyond it.” Traherne may be a poet outside of history and a creature without canon, but his audience is in eternity.
Dr. Johnson wouldn’t have read him a century later, either. For that matter, Elliot wouldn’t have been able to read the majority of work attributed to Traherne, since the initial rediscoveries of the poet’s work only saw print little more than a decade before “The Metaphysical Poets” was published in TLS. More apt to think of Traherne as being a poetic movement of one, for when reading his cracked verse, with its often-surreal content and its ecstatic declarations, it’s just as easy to see Emily Dickinson as Donne, William Blake as Herbert. If anything, a blind analysis of Traherne’s poetry could lead a reader to think that this was verse by an exuberant Romantic, a mystical transcendentalist, a starry-headed Beat burning in the dynamo of the night.
Consider his startlingly modern lyric “The Person,” where Traherne writes of “The naked things” that “Are most sublime, and brightest.” Inheritor of a Christian tradition of our innate fallenness, Traherne focuses on the divine immanence that permeates creation, as well as that transcendence that nature points towards. Nature is precisely not fallen, as when Traherne writes that “When they alone are seen: / Men’s hands than Angel’s wings / Are truer wealth even here below.” An almost exact contemporary of the Dutch Sephardic Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Traherne evidences that pantheistic fervor which understands creator and creation to be synonymous, arguing for direct experience of the noumenal, for their “worth they then do best reveal, /When we all metaphors remove, /For metaphors conceal.”
Traherne argues for divine language, a semiotics that approaches the thing-in-itself, poetry of experience that recognizes metaphor as idolatry, for the “best are blazon’d when we see / The anatomy, / Survey the skin, cut up the flesh, the veins / Unfold, the glory there remains: / The muscles, fibers, arteries and bones / Are better far than crowns and precious stones.” When Traherne wrote, Puritan typologists investigated scripture and nature alike for evidence of predestined fallenness; when Traherne wrote, Christian apologists charted irreconcilable differences between language and our world after Eden. But Traherne, rather, chose to write in that lost tongue of Paradise. His was an encomium to direct experience, an account of what the very marrow of life thus ingested did taste like. A language which in its immediacy seems both shockingly current and as ancient as gnostic parchment. Encapsulated in his poetry there is something not just of his era, but of all eras, occluded though that eternal message may be.
Demonstration of Stuart Kelly’s description in The Book of Lost Books of “an alternative history of literature, an epitaph and a wake, a hypothetical library and an elegy to what might have been.” Traherne’s poetry was written during years of first Puritan Interregnum and then High Church Restoration, but for either authority the poet’s views would be idiosyncratic. Detecting intimations of consciousness on the moon and in the sea, dreaming of both angels and aliens when he “saw new worlds beneath the water like, / New people; ye another sky.” Marcus writes that Traherne couldn’t “be entirely defended against charges of heresy,” which might have been an issue had anyone read his poetry.
Arguments can be proffered that Traherne was a pantheist who believed that nature was equivalent with God, that he was a Pelagian who denied the existence of original sin, or that he was a universalist who anticipated eternal salvation for all. A poet for whom the human body is to be celebrated, who would opine that “Men are Images of GOD carefully put into a Beautiful Case,” who with urgency would maintain that the souls of man are “Equal to the Angels” and that our bodies could be reserved for the “most Glorious Ends.” With antinomian zeal, Traherne argues that “through many Obstacles full of gross and subterraneous Darkness, which seem to affright and stifle the Soul,” the individual who transgresses will find themselves “at last to a new Light and Glory.” He evokes Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell a century before his fellow visionary would engrave his plates.
In Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake, Leo Damrosch accurately describes Blake’s verse as presenting infinity “here and now in the real world we inhabit, not far away in unimaginable endlessness. Eternity, likewise, is present in each moment of lived experience,” but so too is this a description of Traherne. Evocations of not just Blake, but Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism, for when Traherne describes God as “a Sphere like Thee of Infinite Extent: an Ey without walls; All unlimited & Endless Sight,” do we not hear the 19th-century American philosopher’s wish to “become a transparent eye-ball?” When Emily Dickinson sings of “Wild nights – Wild nights!” do we not hear Traherne chanting with declarative exclamation mark of “O ravishing and only pleasure!”
And when Walt Whitman wrote in his 1855 Leaves of Grass that “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” we are reminded of Traherne’s conviction that “all we see is ours, and every One / Possessor of the While.” Traherne anticipates Whitman’s “conviction that all the world’s loveliness belongs to him,” as Marcus describes it, the two bards united in the faith that “although the world was made for him alone, it was made for every other single human being just as it was for him.” Traherne derived his ethic from Psalm 139, an orthodoxy holding that we must “praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” But from scripture Traherne finds a heterodoxy which plumbs the city that “seemed to stand in Eden, or to be Built in Heaven.” In this New Jerusalem, Traherne would list with a catalogue of Whitmanesque regularity that the “Streets were mine, the Temple was mine, the People were mine; their Clothes and Gold and Silver were mine, as much as their Sparkling Eyes, Fair Skins and ruddy faces.”
Such similarities could lead one to assume that Whitman had a copy of Traherne as he gripped notebook and looked out on the brackish waters of New York Harbor writing of those “Crowds of men and women attired in usual costumes, how curious you are to me!”, or that Emerson considered the poet in his Concord manse—save for the fact that it’s impossible. Such are the vagaries of the lost man, the hidden poet who sings of “room and liberty, breathing place and fresh-air among the Antipodes,” this gospel of “passing on still through those inferior Regions that are under… feet, but over the head.” Traherne wrote in the 17th century, but he seemingly had memory of all those who came after. all those women and men who echo him even though they could never have heard him, who came to “another Skie… and leaving it behind… [sunk] down into the depths of all Immensity.”
Writing poetry from a position of eternity, Traherne presents a fascinating anomaly of what Johnson describes as “poetic inspiration,” for until 1896, or 1967, or 1996, or 1997, Traherne couldn’t have inspired any of those poets who are so similar to him. Blake or Dickinson had never picked up a volume of his verse. Traherne’s very life is oddly yet appropriately allegorical, his liturgy concerned with this “preeminent figure… [of] the Unknowable,” as Johnson describes it. She writes that at the heart of devotional poetry is the “perceptual inaccessibility of the divine,” defined by the “fundamental principle of mystery and unknowability.” How perfect then is Traherne’s verse, lost in libraries or singed in trash fires, hidden from view until revealed like some ecstatic epiphany? In the book of Acts, St. Paul speaks to a group of Athenians about their shrine to the “Unknown God.” Traherne is our “Unknown Poet,” overturning our ideas of influence and inspiration, whose work with a mysterious, thrumming electricity courses through the lines of oblivious Whitman or the stanzas of unaware Dickinson, as powerful as magnetism and as invisible as gravity.
Prisoners of linear time that we are, hard to understand that the vagaries of influence don’t simply flow from past to future. When Traherne celebrates “every Mote in the Air, every Grain of Dust, every Sand, every Spire of Grass” that is “wholly illuminated,” do we not detect Whitman? When he sings of “O heavenly Joy!” do we not hear Dickinson? In Traherne’s “On Leaping Over the Moon,” one of his oddest and most beautiful lyrics, I like to imagine that when he writes “I saw new worlds beneath the water lie, / New people; ye, another sky” and where in “travel see, and saw by night / A much more strange and wondrous sight” that what he espied were Blake and Whitman, Dickinson and Allen Ginsburg, you and me. Traherne is a poet who wrote for an audience that had not yet been born—perhaps still has yet to be born.
From his poem “Shadows in the Water” he writes of how “Thus did I by the water’s bring / Another world beneath me think: / And while the lofty spacious skies / Reversed there, abused mine eyes, / I fancied other feet / Came mine to touch or meet; / And by some puddle I did play / Another world within it lay,” so that I imagine Traherne saw nothing less than that other world which is our own, looking onto the mirror of the water’s surface as if it were a portal to this parallel dimension, these “spacious regions” of “bright and open space,” where he sees people with “Eyes, hands and feet they had like mine; / Another sun did with them shine.” There is hopefully a future yet to come, where “chanced another world to meet… A phantom, ‘tis a world indeed, / Where skies beneath us shine, / And earth by art divine / Another face presents below, / Where people’s feet against ours go,” for in scribbling in secrecy what poet has addressed himself more perfectly to people yet to be imagined?
Proper understanding relies on imagination, not just the role played in his composition, but Traherne’s strange status as imagined literature (for whatever manuscripts await to be plucked from burning trash heaps?). Alberto Manguel, writing with Borgesian elegance, argues in The Library at Night that “Every library conjures up its own dark ghost; every ordering sets up, in its wake, a shadow library of absences.” What is most sublime and wondrous about Traherne are not just his literal words on a page, but how we can’t disentangle him from what could have been lost, what perhaps still remains lost, and that which is lost forever. Perhaps in book stalls or trash fires there is more undiscovered Traherne; more rhapsodic, even more visionary than which we’ve been blessed enough to read. Traherne makes the comparison that an “Empty Book is like an Infants Soul, in which any Thing may be Written. It is Capable of all Things” and so is the infinite multitude of not just Traherne’s writings which we shall never read, but the full magnitude of all writings that we shall never see.
Traherne’s magnum opus exists in the gaps, written in the lacunas, on a scroll kept inside the distance between that which is known and that which can never be found. Traherne describes this place as a “Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not man disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God.” Poetry of empty sepulchers and disembodied tombs, of empty rooms and cleared shelves; a liturgy of the Holy of Holies which contains no idol, but only a single, deafening, immaculate absence. At the Temple’s center there is that ever tended, ever burning, ever consuming fire which gives off that sublime heat and light, where Traherne could imagine with prescient clarity that “From God above / Being sent, the Heavens me enflame: / To praise his Name / The stars do move! / The burning sun doth shew His love.” Power of such words written in light, heat, and flame. Such books can burn sacred holes in our soul, a holy immolation in our hearts, giving off that intense light, which diffuse though it may be awaits those eyes that have yet to be born generations hence.
Image: Flickr/Ernest Denim
“If a musician’s insomnia allows him to create beautiful music, then it is a beautiful insomnia.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight
I learned many things when I read Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist. I learned, for instance, that Balzac was addicted to coffee to a point where he would munch on raw coffee grounds, and that the best way to make ice cream is by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. I also learned, in the essay “Night Owl,” that there are two types of people: owls and larks. I am definitely of the latter category: my favorite time of day to work is in the morning, I need over six hours of sleep to be functional (eight to be in a good mood), and I start yawning as soon as it gets dark. Anne Fadiman is one hundred percent owl: when she starts working on a project — say a book, or an essay — she switches her schedule around and begins to write and research at night and she sleeps during the day.
Imagine being awake to see it: the inspiring pools of light, the surrounding darkness, the computer screen shining in the gloom like a beacon, the quiet hum of the sleeping world, beyond the room… I’ve always wanted to be an owl myself. It seems to me that reading and writing are essentially nocturnal activities. To say “I’ve read through the day” or “I just spent the day writing” makes it sound like a mind numbing nine-to-five job. But to say “I’ve read through the night” or, even better, “I spent the night writing” speaks to my romantic side, elevates these activities to something compelling and secret.
Writing requires a plunge into the imagination, so it’s no surprise that many associate literature with the night. We populated it with the monsters of our nightmares: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and everything else that shifts in our closets and whispers under our beds. These creations thrive at night because they embody our fear of the dark and, by extension, our fear of death. It’s the same thing; after all, Dylan Thomas’ famous line reads “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood compares literary inspiration to katabasis: writers go deep down in some dark place, the place where stories are, and emerge with something to tell — just as the epic heroes travel to the land of the dead and negotiate with its spirits to learn their future.
Then why shouldn’t night also be a time for readers? To read is to slip into that dark place, lulled by the voice of a writer, which the act of reading summons from the page. The phenomenon, surely, occurs more powerfully, more completely, in the quiet, nocturnal darkness. The day is too bright and noisy; there’s always something to do; the real world crowds around you and won’t let you take a stroll down the shaded path of imagination. Night offers shelter for the mind. At night, when the world is asleep, when windows are mirrors, when the light you read by is the one you must turn on yourself, you can almost hear books whispering. They call you. They quiver on their shelves, ready to open up and reveal what’s inside them like clams in heat. At night, all books are bright.
At least, that’s the way it goes if you’re an owl. When you’re a lark, you start yawning uncontrollably after 9 o’clock, your mind begins to drone with fatigue, thereby drowning out the sound of the words on the page, and your body equates your bed with sleeping, not reading, which means you can’t hope to read more than 10 pages before falling asleep.
Luckily, when you don’t get to enjoy the inspiring nighttime calm because you’ve succumbed to Morpheus’ spell, you can read about it in books during the day. Leave the long hours of solitary insomnia to others, like Alberto Manguel. His bibliomemoir The Library At Night recounts the construction of his library (which houses 30,000 books) in an old presbytery in France, and riffs on the subject of libraries more broadly. The night he finished shelving all the books in the library he built himself, Manguel slept on the floor, between the bookcases — in the words of his partner, in order to mark his territory, like a dog urinating in the corners. For Manguel, his library takes on all its meaning and all its magic at night, when he is prone to wake up, grab something on the shelves at random, and read through his insomnia. “At night,” he writes, “thoughts grow louder.” For Manguel, during the day the library suggests order, classification, and work; but from dusk to dawn it is joyfully chaotic and random.
At night, it seems, all books are equal. The to-read pile recedes into the shadows and all the other books get their chance to shine — the one’s you haven’t read yet, or the ones you dropped halfway through. It’s not a question of who the author is or which one won a prize. Night lets books speak for themselves, reveals what they’ve really got to offer, and allows readers to jump from one to the other effortlessly.
Manguel, libraries, night: how can I go further without mentioning Jorge Luis Borges? Here’s a man who knew something about living in the dark: he spent over 30 years of his life completely blind, and several more years in progressive stages of blindness. He lived in the night, he roamed the night, and he read the night. His poems on the subject, translated from the Spanish, are collected in an elegant volume by Penguin: Poems of the Night. On the book’s cover, the silhouette of Borges’ face in profile, against a charcoal backdrop, is speckled with golden stars, as if his mind had been drawn out in the night sky like a constellation. The poems reveal the purity of Borges’ wisdom and the beauty of his thinking. Here, again, night is not something to be feared; rather, it is the stuff of inspiration, “good fertile ground / for the sower of verses.” Night is the muse that inspires the poet; he feels “in the crack of night / the verses that are to come” (“The Forging”). Night is also a time for reading: Borges became director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires in 1955, the year he went blind, an irony he appreciated. “God granted me books and blindness at one touch,” reads the English translation, by Alastair Reid, of “Poem of the Gifts.” The Spanish original reads rather “los libros y la noche”: “books and the night.” Thus night and blindness — in the eyes of readers, writers, and translators — are interchangeable.
I’m not certain Borges himself would agree, however, because his depictions of night are manifold. In “History of Night,” Borges conceives night as a human construct: “Down through the generations / men built the night.” Night is a myth, a kind of playground, a drug, even, “which would not exist / but for those tenuous instruments, the eyes.” With no eyes to see it, Borges either exists in constant night, or else he exists outside night — and, therefore, outside time. If night is a place, then it is a place of suspension and solitude, as in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit (Night Flight), which often describes night as an ocean, with its islands and tides. (The connection between both authors is also geographical: Night Flight takes place in South America, notably Buenos Aires, where Borges spent most of his life.)
In Night Flight, night isolates postal plane pilots. Conversely, darkness reveals man to man, bridges the distance between them:
And now, in the core of the night like a watchman, he finds out that night shows Man: these calls, these lights, this worry. This lone star in the shadow: the isolation of a home. One of them is blown out: a house that closes itself in on its own love. (…) Those men think that their lamps shine for the humble table, yet eighty kilometers away one already receives the call of their light, as if, from a deserted island, they were swinging it desperately before the sea.
Night, in this short, beautifully crafted novel, is at once limitless — “it contained Buenos Aires, but also, like a vast hall, all of America (…) under the same, deep vault” — and finite, holding in its belly dangers that may end a plane’s flight, kill the men aboard, and destroy the precious cargo of words.
Saint-Exupéry treats night as the frontier to a vast land full of dangers and wonder. Man must traverse this frontier, explore the unknown beyond the darkness, familiarize himself with it. That, then, is how I should approach night and its literature: I must undertake to discover it tentatively and slowly, minute by minute. I need to shed my lark habits and learn to peer into the folds of darkness like an owl.
One of the best books on the subject remains Night: Night Life, Night Language, Sleep, and Dreams, by British man of letters Al Alvarez. Anne Fadiman talks about it in her essay on night owls. Alvarez offers a very complete exploration of night through literary criticism, psychoanalysis, historical inquiry, and even autobiographical writing. He melds all these different strands to form a cogent, fascinating whole.
His premise, essentially, is that most people have lost contact with night in the last hundred years because, instead of learning to inhabit its darkness, artificial light has allowed us to turn night into another day. For Alvarez, our attitude toward the darkness of the night is linked to a primordial fear of what lies beyond the ring of firelight. I remember, as a child, when my parents asked me to turn off the lights downstairs before going to bed (Alvarez tells a similar story in his book): I would hit the switch and race up the stairs as fast as I could, imagining the smoky shadows at my heels, enveloping the staircase and threatening to swallow me up.
For years, Alvarez lost contact with the night and forgot about its existence, until a stay in Italy made him fall in love with dusk, and the hours that follow: the dipping of the sun into the horizon, the light bleeding slowly out of the sky like watercolors, the comfortable coolness that brings people out of their homes, the night sky like a vast cathedral ceiling, speckled — in the absence of man-made light — with innumerable scintillations. Alvarez’s book is a testament to the richness and beauty of nighttime. Night cannot be merely ignored or illuminated away; it must be dealt with, dwelt in.
I wish I could say that this essay was the product of quiet, nocturnal activity, but, alas, I wrote most of it in the glare of warm spring mornings. Still, I like to think that I’m writing this under the influence of night. I’m getting used to living more nocturnally: I work long hours in a restaurant this summer and I often come back home past midnight. Split between exhaustion and excitement, I need to unwind before I head for bed: I eat a bit, I read a few pages, I write a couple of lines. I inhabit the dark, solitary space as best I can. I peer into the extremities of night and ponder its meaning. But restaurant work has not made an owl of me yet; I’m still waiting for my beautiful insomnia, the one that will drag me away from my bed for hours on end and send me out into the night to discover what lies beyond the reading lamp’s light.
Charles Dickens had his beautiful insomnia, although it wasn’t as directly productive as you’d expect. In “Night Walks,” he describes all the things and people he encountered during “a temporary inability to sleep” that led him to walk around London in the middle of the night: the drunks, the tramps, the night workers, the whores. Night, again, is an ocean: Dickens feels, as he coolly observes these nocturnal specimens, “much as a diver might, at the bottom of the sea.” There is beauty in Dickens’ night, but it is more twisted and macabre than in Alvarez or Saint Exupéry:
[T]he river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the spectres of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.
No friendly clams opening in the heat, then, and no quiet hours under studious lamplight, reading or writing — only the ghosts of the damned and a bleakness that is oppressing. But also, inspiring. This passage recalls what Atwood discovers about literature in Negotiating with the Dead: Dickens used night and its odd characters to populate his stories. Gritty, scary nocturnal London was his land of the dead; walking was his way of negotiating with the spirits and feeding his imagination.
Perhaps that’s the trick: night can also be retroactively productive. You’ve got to learn to revert your vision. Dickens understood his city when most of its inhabitants were asleep. Borges read and wrote at his best when he was blind. Saint Exupéry grasped the meaning of solitude when darkness enveloped his plane. So the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 sees his lover best in dreams, when his eyes “darkly bright are bright in dark directed” and “through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay.” “All days are nights […] / And nights bright days” for Shakespeare. If literature is my mistress, then nights are made brighter by her books and days are darker in their absence.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]