Krapp’s Choice: The Great Traveling Library Thins Its Ranks

book-burning

Kelvin 506.

The last time I did inventory, the Great Traveling Library contained 135 volumes. It has since bloated — after the rescue of some forsaken essentials in New York storage, a few thoughtful gifts from friends, and many compulsive purchases at the bookshops surrounding my school — to 167.

This would be acceptable if my rate of consumption could match my rate of acquisition. However, as you can tell from the progress list at the side of your screen, I only manage to finish a book every 2.5 weeks or so. (This does not account for the several books I’ve started and not yet managed to finish — Milton! — or the books that contain articles and sections that I read for school; if only, when assigned a certain Democritus sentence, I had the discipline to read the complete Pre-Socratic fragments!) It would also be acceptable if Paris were my permanent home.

I plan to stay in Paris for a while yet, and in Europe even longer, but I will eventually return stateside. So, to avoid accumulating an unwieldy (both physically and mentally) collection of crap over here, and because I like to fancy myself as a relatively free agent (readily mobile), and because I leave in a few hours for Oklahoma — home to the vast Krapp archives — I am taking drastic measures…

…I have tried to come up with criteria by which to judge whether or not a book is worthy to stay, but I keep running into exceptions. I simply need certain books. I constantly reference my big French grammar book, and I’ll be starting formal German studies soon enough (plus informal Latin studies when I have the time), so that’s already nine books exempt from the purge: 158 are at risk. Then, because I’m a philosophy of art student, there are certain books to which I need unmediated access: Kant’s Critique of Judgment (in French and English), Goodman’s Languages of Art, Diderot’s Salons, and Beardsley’s Aesthetics, among others. That leaves me with 153. And all serious students need a sober edition of the Bible: 152, and so on…

So, instead of (as I had planned) announcing a cold, unrevisable number and paring away, like some fascist Michelangelo, methodical but unforgiving, the superfluous parts of the collection to reveal a pure monument to potential knowledge, I will just spend a few scrupulous hours sorting through my books very, very discerningly and report back with my findings. I will decree that the number must be under 100. (I’m also getting rid of a bunch of clothes, but this isn’t some kind of fashion blog, is it!) You’ll hear from me presently.

* * *

Well, that didn’t turn out as reductive as planned. Or did it? I managed to pack 37 books, leaving The Great Traveling Library with… 130 volumes. That still sounds like a lot, but I think I did some good. Besides, I only had one small suitcase for the books and a some extra space in my backpack.

What I should have realized before is that the number of books is far less important than their size. The spine width (and weight) of nine French Folio paperbacks pales in comparison to the four imposing (and so, so beautiful) volumes of Beckett’s complete works which will, after all, stay in Paris, along with Knowlson’s biography, Damned to Fame — that would have surely been some kind of heresy. So even though the library remains numerous, it is now considerably more compact.

Music was the most devastated section. I hardly qualify as even an amateur student of musicology, so I couldn’t justify the presence of four Beethoven books when I haven’t even finished Maynard Solomon’s standard biography (which will stay). The only other music books that survived were: Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style, and, barely, Theodor Adorno’s Essays on Music. The scores to Chopin’s piano preludes and Beethoven’s string quartets are the only that remain. Even Wagner is gone, including Bryan Magee’s outstanding The Tristan Chord.

In fact, all of the books I’ve managed to read were packed up — excluding ones in French and some key aesthetics texts like Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace — but including, to my chagrin, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — which every English-speaking persn should read immediately — Melville’s short novels, the sterling Arden edition of Julius Caesar, Louis Menand’s already canonical The Metaphysical Club, and Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein biography. I actually felt a little wave of nausea as I crammed in that last one.

I thought all my Henry Miller was doomed, but there’s something about living in Paris and having a keen perverted streak that made it impossible. Cheever, Bellow, Pynchon, Hemingway, Dos Passos and Flannery O’Connor are still here. So is the rest of Melville, although one of the two biographies and his Cambridge Companion are coming home. Tennyson is gone. Shakespeare, Shelley and Robert Lowell are not.

All philosophy was spared, although.. looking at a few of them now, if I had a little more room, I’d retire the lesser epistemology and phenomenology books, or at least replace them with some philosophy of language, which I’m starting to believe is the only branch of philosophy worth studying.

All in all, though, I think this was a triumph, albeit a Pyrrhic one, as any diminution of fine books from one’s life must be. The lesson, as always, is that I must simply read more. I guess the internet is my biggest distraction, although I find that unless a read is particularly engaging, I can almost always find something more stimulating to do, especially when you think, as I do, that watching movies, listening to music, and even — as of recently — playing video games are all worthwhile, intellectually stimulating activities. (There are also spiritually and physically stimulating activities, just as essential to the autodidact diet. Since I first read it in high school, I’ve tried to allocate my free time according to Plato’s division of The Republic, but, well, some days you just end up sitting in bed, smoking weed and eating cookie dough or whatever; the Republic is only an ideal, after all.)

Other distractions: I just got a steady (and pretty cool!) job as a translator, which officially occupies 20 hours of my week but, unofficially, a few more. I’m also about to start intense research on my thesis, which is going to require a lot of reading (I’ve already got ten books waiting to come to Paris), but obligation has a way of spoiling interest. We’ll see…

For now, the Great Traveling Library lives to encumber another day. Oh, happy albatross!

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~ by ohkrapp on December 22, 2008.

3 Responses to “Krapp’s Choice: The Great Traveling Library Thins Its Ranks”

  1. I read this post as a metaphor for the erosion of culture; its last partisans retreating further and further into the walled cities of the Continent, taking only what we can carry, burning the rest for warmth (“Tennyson is gone”). The last bastion will not be Europe but Argentina, sipping mojitos outside in a bizzaro-world winter like a gaggle of greying Brownshirts. Only with (apparently) no Wagner.

    How long will you be in the States? I am in Mass till the 7th. Will U b in NY?

  2. Come, all of you.

  3. To New York? It’s too late! I think I’m coming back to the States in May though. Or if you mean to Argentina, I’ll certainly be there soon.

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