Should you keep on buying books if you haven’t read the ones you currently own? Well, of course you should, though I would like to quibble with Kevin Mims’s suggest in his New York Times piece yesterday that a man “who has quit expanding his personal library may have reached the point where he thinks he knows all he needs to and that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. He has no desire to keep growing intellectually. The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.” It’s true that it may mean this, but a man may also stop buying books because he doesn’t have the space or money, or he is tired of stocking and moving them, or he has everything he needs to expand his mind in the old books he already owns. A man’s library is and isn’t a reflection of his mind. When I was younger, I had a hard time understanding why some of my older colleagues at the university would give away most of their books at retirement. I’m nowhere near retirement age, but I understand them better now. Great books are worlds. They contain so much, and better a few great books than innumerable good ones.

Andy Warhol said his family was from “nowhere.” Nowhere was a small village in Slovakia called Mikova: “Slovak cousin of Andy Warhol, the Pop Art icon, knew his American relative was a painter of some sort. He gathered that much from the letters his aunt, Warhol’s mother, sent to Mikova, the hamlet in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains where both the artist’s parents lived before emigrating to the United States.’I thought he painted houses,’ said Jan Zavacky, 73. Nobody in Mikova has made that mistake for a long time.”

A previously unseen letter from T. S. Eliot to his sister about his trip to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature provides a private account of what it is like to claim the award: “‘The Swedes seem to have an insatiable appetite for three things; photographs, autographs and speeches,’ Eliot complains. ‘One had only to hesitate for a moment at a street corner and some man, woman or child would rush up with a notebook and a fountain pen.’” He also writes about a surprise visit from Swedish girls interrupting his morning “toilette” with loud singing to celebrate Saint Lucy’s Day: “While I was shaving, at 6.45, I heard a chorus of young female voices piping a carol in the corridor; it came closer; my door burst open; and six comely young chambermaids, clad in what appeared to be white nightdresses and white stocking feet, with cardboard crowns on their heads with lighted candles in them – looking like walking birthday cakes – marched in singing...I hastily wiped the suds from my face, put on my overcoat over my underclothes, and bowed to them.”

A nightcap isn’t “so much a category as an occasion.” Kara Newman on the history and definition of the term.

The only thing that matters is being nice. Or so novelist Kate Atkinson seems to say when she remarks that she can’t imagine reviewing a book by another novelist. “I would never review another writer unless it was a book I thought was the best book ever written.” Yes, what a terrible thing for people to do—to comment honestly on writing as if words mattered.

Dublin janitor receives the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature from the university she cleans: “Ms. Lally called the honor ‘the happiest shock of my life.’ Each morning she wakes at 4:45 a.m., pulls on her blue janitor’s smock and heads for the college to clean from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Then she returns home to take care of her 14-month-old daughter, Alice. The day she got the call over the summer informing her she had won, Alice was being fussy. ‘I’d been having a rough day - up early for my cleaning job, tearing home to mind the baby, baby wouldn’t nap and was making her feelings known,’ Ms. Lally told Trinity College. Once Ms. Lally realized that she had won the award - and that it came with a 10,000-euro prize (about $11,500) - she described it as ‘just pure magic.’”

Essay of the Day:

In The New Yorker, Susan Orlean writes about going to the library with her parents when she was young and what it means to borrow rather than buy books:

“I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way. My family lived in the suburbs of Cleveland, about a mile from the brick-faced Bertram Woods Branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system. Throughout my childhood, starting when I was very young, my mother drove me there a couple of times a week. We walked in together, but, as soon as we passed through the door, we split up, each heading to our favorite section. The library might have been the first place that I was ever given independence. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to go off on my own. Then, after a while, my mother and I reunited at the checkout counter with our finds. Together, we waited as the librarian pulled out each date card and, with a loud chunk-chunk, stamped a crooked due date on it, below a score of previous crooked due dates that belonged to other people, other times.

“Our visits were never long enough for me—the library was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the shelves, scanning the spines of the books until something happened to catch my eye. Those trips were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. It wasn’t like going to a store with my mom, which guaranteed a tug-of-war between what I desired and what she was willing to buy me; in the library, I could have anything I wanted. On the way home, I loved having the books stacked on my lap, pressing me under their solid, warm weight, their Mylar covers sticking to my thighs. It was such a thrill leaving a place with things you hadn’t paid for; such a thrill anticipating the new books we would read. We talked about the order in which we were going to read them, a solemn conversation in which we planned how we would pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until the books were due. We both thought that all the librarians at the Bertram Woods branch were beautiful. For a few minutes, we discussed their beauty. My mother then always mentioned that, if she could have chosen any profession, she would have chosen to be a librarian, and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been.

“When I was older, I usually walked to the library by myself, lugging as many books as I could carry. Occasionally, I did go with my mother, and the trip remained as enchanted as it had been when I was small. Even when I was in my last year of high school and could drive to the library, my mother and I still went together now and then, and the trip unfolded exactly as it used to, with all the same beats and pauses and comments and reveries, the same pensive rhythm. My mother died two years ago, and since then, when I miss her, I like to picture us in the car together, going for one more magnificent trip to Bertram Woods.

“My family was big on the library. We were very much a reading family, but we were more a borrow-a-book-from-the-library family than a bookshelves-full-of-books family. My parents valued books, but they had grown up in the Depression, aware of the quicksilver nature of money, and they had learned the hard way that you shouldn’t buy what you could borrow. Because of that frugality, or perhaps despite it, they also believed that you should read a book for the experience of reading it. You shouldn’t read it in order to have an object that had to be housed and looked after forever, a memento of the purpose for which it was obtained. The reading of the book was a journey. There was no need for souvenirs.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Dolphin

Poem: Dante, Purgatorio, Canto II” (Translated by W. S. Merwin)

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