Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Presentation at Emma Willard School

Last night we spent an hour at Emma Willard School, with a display of some of the collections highlights.

After a short talk, (below) the students in a question and answer period asked fabulous questions... truly a motivated and intelligent bunch.

"Have you read all the foreign language books?" one young lady asked. "Ha, no, sadly I can't read them. Like who reads Icelandic?"  The whole place erupted in laughter since the joke was on me, the young lady proved to be Icelandic. How utterly ironic.

Thanks to all involved for putting together this evening, it was an exciting and fun time!

Text of the talk:

“I write my name in books”

The Moby Dick Collection

Moby Dick was first published in 1851. There were perhaps 4 printings in the 1800’s. During  the 20th centurary there have been hundreds and hundreds.  I set out to collect them all.

My first copy was my boarding school copy. I was assigned to be read it in junior english lit. I didn’t read it. What are you nuts. It was ridiculously long, there was a lot of other work to be done and I didn’t have time to read the book, plus absolutly everyone said it was boring.

However, after graduating I kept all my books from school. Dragged them all over the place. And IN 1986 at the age of 36 I decided that was the year to read all those books I was supposed to read and didn’t. I read Jude the obscure, catcher in the rye etc.

That summer a business trip took me to Japan so I grabbed Moby Dick on the way out of the door to the cab.  The flight was like 20 hours so I read it on the plane,  found it very funny, amusing, Melville had the driest of sense of humor.  Some of that shows in Bartlby.

In  albany,  there was for many years a neat used book store around the corner. So I would buy my books there.   At some point I bought an illustrated moby. that gave me 2 copies… eventually I bought a sweet old leather bound one. And then one that was heavily underlined and read hard. I bought that.  Soon I had seven or eight different ones.

My son finally noticed my book shelf of MD s and asked me why I had so many and I said because I can….

It was then that I recognized that this was a collection, and I asked myself why don’t I see how many there are and how many can I buy.

Thru the internet I found that there were editions in foreign languages. I bought one, then two then

Many many

My only regret at this point is that I did not buy the Braile copy. Some day I will.

Soon an obsession was born.   I admit its weird … odd … unusual… I am unaware of any one else collecting just the same book in all the different printings, paper back hard cover. Forieghn language.

Often I am asked: isnt it all the same words? 

There are copies from every decade of the 1900’s there are about 200 different copies, there are  copies in Italian, chinese, japanese, icelandic, lituatian, dutch, german, spanish, french, check, and russian.

Some are illustrated some are not.

These are interesting to see how the illustrator chooses to depict Ahab, or Queguee.

The used ones are very interesting when there is underlining and notations. They gernerally are school copies.   You can see exactlay where the reader stopped reading. Sometimes you can find out what school they went to

They signed the inside cover and often put their put a dorm room under their name.  Google searching the dorm always brings up the school, cross referencing the alumni function you can find out what year and some times who the english prof was.  Sometimes the google search brings up the reader himself…. You find out where they are or what they did for a career. . . All because they wrote their name and dorm on the inside cover.

Now I have a collection of books that is unique.   You cant do this with a kindle…
The kindle is an electronic device assembled by machines,  that by its nature of impending obsolesence longs for the land fill, in a single object it can hold hundreds of books, that have a half life of just years, while a book is the product of hundreds of skilled craftspeople in addition to the author, the illustrator, the printer, the binder….  In its being it longs to be held by generations of readers who appreciate the combined efforts of that production team.

Bartleby is a story about free will.  Bartleyby exercises his free will by “perfering not to.” A negative free will.

I prefered not to read Moby Dick when it was assigned, what the conscquenses of that decesioin at the time were, must have been minor, I don’t remember.    But decades later that decision not to read the book turned around and I decided read it then.   And from that came a decision to buy more and more until The New York Times came to me to use some of them for their Sunday book review, and someone here at Emma saw that and asked me to come here and talk to you … and thus, my decision to prefer not to read moby dick in 1967 resulted me in talking to you today. 

 Here is my  copy of Bartleby,:  Great Short Stories of Herman Melville, 1969 

Who ever owned it once underlined and noted Bartleby… used two different pens…. From his phaseing he was not the first owner….  “narrator going wacko”  not the way we would have said that in 1969.

I only wish he had signed his name inside this book…  we will never know him..

By the way :  “Why DO we read?”

I like what Anthony Hopkins said in the movie “Shadowlands”, a movie about the life and love of C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia Chronicles.   He said

We read to know that we arent alone.

We read to know that we arent alone.

Reading is a very very intimate process, between ourselves and the author. when you are reading you are talking with, maybe not a two way conversation but you are in the mind of the author.

I can be siting in my chair book in hand, my friends gone, my children living in boston and brooklyn, utterly and solidly alone, as if its the night before leaving school for christmas holiday, not a sole around I begin to read, and I am no longer alone,

Many many books have shown me ways  of life. When I read I see how someone does something , how someone reacts to loneliness, how they cope with despair  or how they find joy in the simplest things.  With a book you can stop and re read and think and absorb.

Why do we read ? We read so we know we arent alone.

Melvile wrote Bartley at Arrowhead, his farm outside of Pittsfield Mass.  Not 50 miles from here. in 1853, two years after he wrote Moby Dick .  that was 5 or 6 generations, ago

Page 50

The narrator is just getting to know this stange weirdo Bartley.
HE says:

“He lives, then, on ginger nuts, thought I; never eats a dinner properly speaking: he must be a vegetarian, then, but no; he never eats even vegetables he eats nothing but ginger-nuts.”

you’re a vegitarian You read these lines,  you know you are not alone, 150 years ago, people ate vegatarianly.  They have been doing it all along.  So you can go home and say Dad Im a vegitarian skip the turkey, - you become a bit more of a person. Slowly building internal strength. From reading…

Keep your books, write you name in them proudly… and give your kindle to you little sister, she’ll love you for it, till she figures out the brillance of why you gave her the kindle and you kept the books,  and then she’ll idolize you. ..


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