Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2021, part 25: Mark Rich

Readings and Re-Readings, 2021
by Mark Rich

At an auction where there was hardly a book to be found, a two-dollar bid bought me one that has provided minor but distinct and ongoing pleasure: Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Alfred Holt Colquitt, Jan. 8-Feb. 16, 1895. The dates evidently refer to the dates of the memorial addresses and not of an amazingly brief life. I say "evidently" because I cannot read a word of the text.

In its entirety, back maybe in the 1910s or '20s, someone turned it into a scrapbook.


The scrapbook and the obsessive project must be one and the same, at some point in their spectra. My Colquitt scrapbookist's obsession focused on verse, with occasional allowance for writing by or for children, along with a few illustrations. It also focused on covering-over every word of prose, assiduously. All I know about Colquitt, therefore, comes from the three or four verse fragments quoted by memorialists, which remain carefully unscrapbooked-over. This tells me not a lot, since Bryant's "Thanatopsis" must have come in for a nod at every gathering of eulogists, in those decades. (Though I recognized the lines when I encountered them, I like the fact that the scrapbookist penciled in the poem's title beside the verse.) Remarkably, on pages where the memorial text ended before the bottom of the page, leaving a blank space, the scrapbookist left that blankness there to speak for itself. A need to obliterate prose moved the scrapbookist. An empty space was somehow sacrosanct, and as worthy to preserve as a quoted verse.

For some reason in the autumn — when reading, as an activity, began to seem a possibility for me again — I picked up a volume of Sophocles and read it through with pleasure. I then picked up an old Dell Laurel edition of King Lear on a similar whim, and similarly enjoyed it — partly, I think, because it offered the text without notes. I then read a series of other Shakespeare plays, my choice determined entirely by whatever old, slender paperback editions I had to hand. These were "improved" editions, so that my enjoyment was less: for try as I might I cannot keep my eye from flitting to a facing-page or page-bottom note. Even if I know what old Shake is shaking from his venerable verbal saltcellar, my eye still flits over or down — to check my or the editor's acuity.

This sort of presentation makes it hard to simply read a play without stopping — making these volumes, in common with most editions of Shakespeare, akin to on-line reading with its myriad electrical distractions. It makes me think that reading's degradation from a form of immersive experience festers in seed within these overly explicated and glossed pages. Personally, I love notes and glosses and marginalia and bottom-of-page minuscules. Yet in reading the Dell Laurel edition of Sophocles and then a single Shake play, and in going from there to a later Dell non-Laurel and other paperback-publisher editions, it seemed clear to me that I immersed myself pleasantly in the former, despite whatever erudite observations or even simple word- or phrase-meanings I was missing; and that, in contrast, I went a bit glossy-eyed through those other paperbacks. So: I love glosses. And I hate glosses. I hope these utterly simple statements of mine last ages enough to warrant an intrusive footnote.

I fell into liking Dell Laurel editions, by the way, for a nontextual reason. The poetry entries boast Richard Powers covers; and I think his ink depiction of Poe magnificent. (I have only three authors in this series, having also Dickinson and Donne, but four volumes — since I have two copies of Poe and am keeping both. Richard Wilbur's introduction being so cogent, I have ruined the spine of one copy.)


Memory plays interesting tricks. I mean that not in the usual sense. For instance, I had learned some Shakespeare lines quoted without context in an old poetry volume — one which I watch getting grubbier by the year, residing as it does in the workshop where I raise wood- and rust-dust while cleaning old boxes, pulleys, drawknives, and sadirons. I knew the passage about "the quality of mercy" came from The Merchant of Venice, for instance. Yet in reading that play, this fact slipped far from mind. When unexpectedly, then, I plowed into Portia's soliloquy about the quality of mercy, I felt a sudden glow and warmth. For I discovered that within my being I contain an atom that belongs to one of Shake's most attractive female intelligences.

In one of my passes through my dusted and well-fingered workshop volume, I had settled on Polonius's advice to Laertes, to learn — not really remembering much about my long-ago reading of that play nor my viewings of it, also long ago. So when I came to this Polonius soliloquy in Hamlet it brought me up a bit short. The glow did arrive, as from meeting a friend unexpectedly. Yet also to me, at that point, came lines from T.S. Eliot: "No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor ever meant to be; am an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, etc." (My apologies to Eliot, for probably mangling his words.)

This is to say that I have taken in an atom, too, of a secondary figure of dubious if conscientiously upright character. A priss and a toady, he, to my mortification, dies stabbed by the prince when concealed behind a screen. Talk about death in obscurity! Do I have an atom of that doom in me?

We all do, I suppose.

A scrapbook, in a way, repudiates memory. It simply presses between covers the tidbit, the picture, the verse, making it unnecessary to truly remember any of it. One just goes back to the pressed-flat thing. When I was reading Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, which I naturally enjoyed since I enjoy snails, the scrapbook notion kept coming to mind. The author draws in many a thought or quotation from a Darwin or Humboldt, often seemingly out of the blue; and though it seems clear she actually read and studied at least some of her sources, I could never leave behind the image of the screen-lit visage of the Internet writer, the Barney Google who draws forth from all knowledge the pertinent quotation from antiquity but who actually never learns a thing. With all human knowledge right there at the fingertip, why disturb those happily sleeping neurons? Again, Bailey is no Barney Google type: she shows herself to be truly intent on the observational mini-drama before her, involving a snail. Yet the scrapbook impression kept reappearing, in my reading. Her ruling organization has to do with the memories of an illness in which she had molluscan company — a wonderful circumstance if one can overlook the dread hours of the long debility itself. The Colquitt scrapbookist's ruling organization had to do with covering prose over with verse — making me wonder if Bailey's scrapbooking, too, was covering over something that the reader, as a consequence, never learns about. Since, by the end, the reader remains clueless about the illness, the author's need for the old scissors and paste may well relate to that. The book's silence about her long debility comes across rather loudly.

Colquitt I tend to dip into, reading a few pages at a time. A book similar to it, though, I did plod and sometimes zipped steadily through: Verse and Worse: A Private Collection by Arnold Silcock. With its emphasis on minor verse, you might think it off-putting as a book. Yet when I found it at a flea market I wanted to read it, and soon did. It lacked pretense, in its favor. It was hardly offering itself as the best of the worst verse, or any such thing. It is an assemblage reflecting a taste, much as Colquitt is. I feel grateful when encountering honest slices of life, which is what this seems to be. I especially feel grateful for the section in it that initially sent my dubiety-sense a-wiggling, which contains poems written in Pidgin English. Anyone thinking about cultural appropriation would do well to look at these verses. They preserve a certain vernacular with neither shame nor pride; they make addled sense without too much nonsense. My mind in reading them entered another world and time, where and when some Chinese dockside workers appropriated English-language sounds and notions to their need — which sounds and notions these versifiers then appropriated back, for theirs. I have a respect for the fact of Pidgin's existence that I lacked before.

If some would insist that these versifiers were intrusive opportunists and freeloaders, I might suggest that all cultural work is intrusive. Some of us do it more openly than others, is all. (And some of us hide ourselves behind screens, so as to be less obtrusively intrusive — only to get stabbed by the prince for all our troubles, and for our sensitivity to the situation.)

A scrapbook becomes interesting due to the obsession behind it — the obsession obliterated by yellowing newsprint clippings, while yet revealed by the same. The obsession in Colquitt almost becomes its subject, as in Snail — and as in another book I pick up now and then: Stewart Lee Allen's The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee. However fascinating I find it, I put it aside between chapters — for a week or more at a time. Why I should do this eludes me. Does it suit the episodic nature of the author's search? Putting it aside does underline how poor is my retention of facts when reading on impulse. But do I need to be reminded?


Although the doings of the racist-fascist political element in the U.S. fractured my attention this year, I did have some cohesive reading experiences. Three quite short experiences have proven especially memorable. Julia L. Sauer's Fog Magic I found both delicate and moving. Clyde Robert Bulla's White Bird shows what can be conveyed, even emotionally, by an objective approach to one's words. In contrast to these young-adult novels, Richard Winters, in his novella Sawhorse, compellingly offers glimpses into a damaged soul. Winters writes in a way I cannot quite fathom but wildly admire. He has also released a new version of his novel Ila, now named Hillborn. I stood bedside one day, fully meaning to not begin reading it. Then I stood there reading that lengthy opening section despite myself — just as taken by it, once more, as when I first read it umpteen years ago.

Then I hid the book away for a later time — now, maybe — when I might myself be less the damaged soul that I was, through the summer.

Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America ranks high among the weightier readings of my year. It offers insight into the lives and thoughts of the Holmses, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James, among others. Although I thought Menand unnecessarily condescending regarding Emerson, I wished that I could immediately give it a second reading.

I have been nursing some thoughts about a few oldish popular novels that I have read recently. But I push those aside in favor of ending with the classics — Milton and Virgil, both represented in Colquitt. Milton Murdock, I mean, with his poem "My Mother" — and Virgil Keller, with his "Ode to Ambition." Such little things do contain delight in them — not least my delight that I feel no desire to labor over their memorization.

Just yesterday (as I write these words), Martha and I had our booster shots; and while I sailed through the previous installments, this sequel gave me a rough night and a weary, bleary, achey morning. Virgil hits it on the head, with "Ode to Ambition": "O, I wish I were a little rock,/ A sittin' on the hill."

Today, a century after the scissors and paste, this sounds about right.

Mark Rich  has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky (Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and Small Beer. He is also the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland and, most recently, of Toys in the Age of Wonder: Science Fiction, Society and the Symbolism of Play. With partner-in-life Martha Borchardt and two Scotties-in-life he lives in Cashton, Wisconsin, and gardens, shovels snow, still reads Bach daily, and remains faithfully behind in his book revisions.

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