Arranging the Imaginary Library

I picked out Behind the Urals at the Boston Athenaeum.  The library of the Athenaeum is, broadly speaking, divided into an old and a new collection.  The old books are those acquired while the library used a classification created by its own librarian, Charles Cutter.  Maybe forty years ago, they switched to the Library of Congress system.  As far as I know, reconciling the Cutter with the LOC would be extremely time consuming and not very helpful, since both are digitized.  The separation is interesting in itself.  For one thing, the old books look spectacular.  I’m not supposed to take photos, but it’s worth a search.  One of my favorite sections is what I think of as the travel section.  It’s located on a glass balcony above the main hall.  It’s where I found The Empty Quarter, about early twentieth century exploration in Arabia.  I had noticed Behind the Urals some time before, and I stopped putting it off and grabbed it a couple of weeks ago in keeping with my “see it, do it” resolution. (Just as I was writing this I put it aside and double checked the affiliation rules for Massachusetts primary elections.)

At school, we were enjoined when reading difficult books to assume good faith and interpret charitably.  I’ll admit that I found this easier for Marx than for some of the others, like Aquinas.  In my last post on Behind the Urals, I was trying to convey what was interesting in John Scott’s report, vis a vis idealism, women’s liberation, and educational reform (not to mention whupping Nazis) without supporting Stalinism, to put it bluntly.  Even that’s dubious if there’s reason to think that an author might not be writing in good faith.

So that brings me to the subject of my post: How do we know what we are reading?  I suppose most readers spend almost as much time thinking about the books they have not read as about the ones they have.  Accordingly, most of us carry with us a sort of vast imaginary library, and where a given book fits in that library tells us something distinct from what we get from actually reading it.  (Among others, Pierre Bayard writes about something like this, but I don’t feel like digging it out, and he of all people is not in a position to complain.)  Lately I’ve been troubled by the problem of arranging the imaginary library.  So while I don’t have any answer as to how we can trust what we are reading, hopefully I can illustrate this feeling.

I might never have run across Behind the Urals or The Empty Quarter outside the Athenaeum, and not solely because the collection runs to older books.  It’s also because the Library of Congress Classification appears to weaken the subject of travel writing (Cutter’s class A is listed as “Description and Travel, Eastern Hemisphere”) in favor of history.  On the LOC website, Behind the Urals is listed under DK, history of Russia, the former USSR, and Poland.  I realize that classification is difficult, and the historical themes of revolution and the buildup to WWII were part of the pleasure of Scott’s story.  More surprisingly, The Empty Quarter, which focuses narrowly on desert exploration, is also listed in world history, subclass DS (Asia).  Finally it turned out that a book about the arctic, Shackleton and the Endurance is in fact listed under class G (Geography, Anthropology, and Recreation).  From a certain point of view it is strange that a book like Behind the Urals could be found near, for example, works based on macroeconomic analyses written decades or more after the fact.  What connections have been made or missed based on the arrangement of a library?  William Goldbloom Bloch does well to push his investigation of the mathematics of the Library of Babel to include not only all possible books but all possible arrangements of the books.

I suspect that as well as being dispersed physically, the reputation of Cutter’s section A has suffered.  Such works are likely to be colonialist, Orientalist, or just plain too out of date for some people.  When are such generalizations really helpful?  I don’t really want to complain about this so much as about the fact that I simply don’t have much idea what is there.  There is no Oxford Companion to Travel Writing.  In a largish reference collection, the closest thing I found was A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701 to 1800.  There is the Cambridge Companion to Travel Literature, but my slight experience of of the Cambridge Companions involves long, theoretically motivated essays completely inimical to browsing.  This wing of my mental library remains dark.

The more I think about it, the more I am sure that Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, published last spring, is a major event in science fiction.  Together with The Martian it represents a turn to hard science fiction engaged with contemporary issues.  At any rate, I’ve been returning to it again and again, and I usually find something interesting.  Right now I want to know why Rufus MacQuarie, faced with the end of the world, obtained an out of date version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for his underground fastness.  Sonar Taxlaw may be all the justification that exists for this decision, and she is probably sufficient, but it’s provoking nonetheless.  The library for the end of the world is an important sub department of the imaginary library, and you wouldn’t want to go into it with sub par reference works.  The ninth Britannica was famous for its scholarly articles, the eleventh for Americanizing and popularizing the same.  Who knows but that there might be shades of difference regarding the usefulness and accessibility of the technical articles even in the latest editions?  I hope someone out there knows.

Upcoming: my reading of the latest from Umberto Eco, Numero Zero. Lately I’ve picked up Bill Bryson’s favorite travel book and a book about botanizing in Tibet.

My Literary Companions

I’ve long taken these friends for granted, but as big reference books of all kinds are superseded by Wikipedia and Google and begin to crowd the shelves of used bookstores, maybe an appreciation is called for.  The Oxford Companions always took pride of place on my parents’ best bookshelves, low down over the back of the couch, an easy reach for a kneeling kid.  I used to look at the smoky whaling scene on the cover of the Companion to American Literature, and I wondered why the girl on the spine of the Companion to English Literature looked so sad.

The Companions (we also had the Companion to Classical Literature and the Companion to the English Language; Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations always struck me as an honorary member of the company) are not-quite-encyclopedic miscellanies of the titular subjects, including primarily authors and works, but also characters, periodicals, places, mythological figures, and so on.  The original, the Companion to English Literature first published in 1932, contains quite a bit on the Greek and Latin classics, major French and American figures, anything that made an impression on English letters at all, really.

The books are okay for actual reference, but of course they can hardly compete with the internet.  Once a week, maybe, I’ll turn to them before I turn to Wikipedia.  They are wonderful for aimless browsing, of course, but the same can be said again for Wikipedia.  What they really have going, besides mere authority, is their stubborn upholding of the archaic and forgotten.  I can look up Jane Austen, of course, and then I discover she’s flanked by the minor Roman poet Ausonius, and by Alfred Austin (1835 – 1913), barrister and one time poet laureate of England.  These figures were once really important, probably to some of the people who are still important to us, and that is why they deserve to be remembered.  You might find them on Wikipedia, but they don’t form any large part of the typical Wiki binge.  They’re also good for the occasional blunt editorial judgement: Austin “published twenty volumes of verse, of little merit”.

I’m always meaning to investigate more recent editions of the Companion to English Literature; the latest came out in 2009.  They’re always a little hard to track down, librarians somehow being reluctant just to stick them all in one place.  Certainly significant efforts have been made to update, include, contextualize… I doubt that the latest versions can compete with mine of 1967, in terms of price if nothing else.  There are also many, many new Companions on subjects that to me seem like rather a stretch, like Mark Twain and beer.  They’re probably fun, but these are not small investments in shelf space or money!

Since my parents of course were not parting with theirs, I’ve had to build up my own collection.  The English companion I inherited from a grandparent; I found my used Bartlett’s for a now exhorbitant seeming $15; the American I found at a library sale for an incredible $2.  The Oxford Guide to Philosophy appears to be an unsuccessful rebranding of the series for the American market; I found it remaindered at Borders for a well spent $10.  Finally, Princeton jumped ahead of Oxford with its daring Companion to Mathematics.  Perhaps it was an impossible venture, it’s hard for me to judge.

The very well done Oxford Companion to French Literature was probably my first companion purchase, but it now resides with my parents’ collection.  I may raise my eyebrows at the Companion to Australian Gardens or the Companion to American Food and Drink, but I have to appreciate their thoroughness and I may still invest in a Companion to Spanish Literature, a Companion to German Literature  For years I was certain that there existed an Oxford Companion to Russian Literature.  It seemed indispensable.  Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that there is no such book!  Does anyone know of a suitable replacement?