I feel sorry for the books I see for sale on blankets on the street, or on a bookshelf in a display room at Crate and Barrel, or on a night table in a lodge my family and I once stayed at in Minnesota. I feel sorry for them because the golden age of reading has passed (a friend of mine has objected to this extreme characterization, particularly the word “passed,” so let me say that perhaps we are instead currently in a bronze age of reading), and these lowly books are the most inessential examples of collateral damage: ignored, unloved, untouched. In many cases I might well save my pity. I don’t know, for instance, that I need to feel too bad for Rue McClanahan’s autobiography, My First Five Husbands. She’s probably no Willa Cather. (On the other hand, I loved “The Golden Girls,” and they are all now dead but one. They are the ones I should feel sorry for––and I do.) But I know that as time passes, the chances decrease that someone––anyone––will pick up various oddball or unknown books that they come across by chance. The obscure title will stay obscure, because the books just look too old now, and besides, we are all simply overwhelmed and overstimulated, and we can’t take many more things in our midst. Our apartments and houses are sliding with books that have meaning from our pasts. Books that, as the psychoanalysts would say, we have cathected.
I used to read everything I could find; as a young girl, I had been forbidden by the librarian to take out a particular book that seemed too sophisticated for a third-grader. ”No, Margaret,” the librarian said in her pious voice. ”When you’re older.” I burned to read that book; I lay awake at night and built it up in my mind until it seemed to be the best book ever written. And I knew that when I could finally get my hands on it, everything would change in my life. My grandmother would never die. Neither would my dog. Utter happiness would pour down upon me. As it turned out, The House on Hollow Hill possessed no special qualities. It did not change me, and it certainly did not stop death. I seem to remember the plot having something to do with four children circa 1956 getting awfully spooked late one night. I was crushed. How could something so forbidden be so dull?
Books, back then, were often hot objects, containing the promise of deep fantasy and deep feeling. But as technology thrust its way into the world in a loud, difficult birth, we didn’t quite know where to look anymore, and it seemed that the world suddenly became overrun with books, those objects we’d lived comfortably among forever. Now they were like the stray cats that haunt the Colosseum in Rome. Wherever you turned, you could find an ancient, long unread Ngaio Marsh paperback with a picture of a constable on the cover, and the price: 50 cents. Or a self-help book from the 1970s, warped so badly that it seemed to be willfully flexing its own spine. Or, of course, something from the Rue McClanahan ouevre.
I want to save these books from being forgotten, but not because they are particularly good. I’m OK, You’re OK does not need to be revived in a New York Review of Books Lost Classics edition. But I guess I mean that I want to save all books. Or at least I want to save all readers: those increasingly obscure figures who find their attentions stretched to such a degree that remembering the paragraph they have just read is quite the feat. For a long time I blithely said that A Passage to India was my favorite book. This was true. Then I began it again recently and the opening involved a long description of the city of Chandrapore. I had not remembered this, or at least, when I last read it, the length and detail of the opening had not bothered me. Back then, the world was different and books appeared before you with just the right frequency. We were not overwhelmed by them, but felt able to discern among them easily, going from one to another as if they were stepping stones in a river.
Now, in this current world of too many books and devices and interruptions––many self-imposed––I sometimes linger on even the worst of the worst––the books that don’t deserve my time or sympathy, but get both because they are part of something powerful and partly lost. Rue McClanahan, I am about to find out if this book is your My Antonia…