Personal libraries being mirrors of soul. (Book by Book by John Dirda) (March 2008)

Susan's Thursday morning note March 27, 2008 
Our personal libraries - mirrors of our souls.

Good morning! Can’t tell you the birds are singing…it’s SILENT out.  So silent you hear the nothing.  Does that make sense?  Oh, goodness, it’s 6:07 & Camden just said, “Mooooooooooooooommmmmmmmmmmmy.”  So much for the 30 seconds of silence as I write!  We are hoping for rain in this house…if you get “blue” from a mist or rain in the next few weeks, realize that we need the moisture for our morel mushrooms to come up!  So, for the sake of my husband & son loving to find the mushrooms before me, be glad if you see rain on your window sill!

I have a bookmark with the following statement printed…A personal library is not a collection of odd volumes: It is the outward representation of one’s inner life, a mirror of the soul, the past spread out before your eyes. To pass from book to book to book is to abolish time, to connect the child rapt between the wonders of Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire with the middle-aged man puzzled about the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus. They are one. A line of poetry can lead you through half a library and most of a life. A random note may generate an entire symphony. For a real reader to do without a personal library would be like throwing away a time machine, like waking up an amnesiac, like ceasing to dream. (Michael Dirda)

Do you have a certain line of poetry that captured you? That replayed in your mind over years? I look at my “personal library – a mirror of my soul” and see the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I opened this treasure one day and was immediately absorbed by a poem of the entrance of a loved one into a room where her lover had just died. The poem is very long, but here are some lines that I love…

The room is full of you!… (oh, the memory of entering my mom’s bedroom and kitchen alone after she had died… – her cup and napkin still there… – of entering my dad’s office with his wallet still setting there, and an envelope ready to mail – were those the last words he wrote?)  You are not here. I know that you are gone, and will not ever enter here again. And yet it seems to me, if I should speak, your silent step must wake across the hall; If I should turn my head, that your sweet eyes would kiss me from the door. – So short a time to teach me life its transposition to this difficult and unaccustomed key!…There is your book, just as you laid it down, face to the table, – I cannot believe that you are gone…And here are the last words your fingers wrote…a simple choice; you did not know you would not write again…You would have dropped your pen and come to me and this page would be empty…In this, “I picked the first sweet-pea today.” Today! Was there an opening bud beside it you left until tomorrow?…I had you and I have you now no more. Aren’t those lines beautiful? I can’t find the exact line but she also states, “I see you everywhere, but you’re nowhere.” That was poetry that I picked up randomly and in five minutes imprinted itself in my mind for now seven years. Our books – a mirror of our souls. I love that!

I researched this writer (Michael Dirda of my bookmark), simply out of curiosity for who would write such a beautiful paragraph about the importance of books. I ordered five of his books for all of you! He was a Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism – he critiqued books for Washington Post.  The books I’ve ordered are short summaries of his reviews and his own collections of quotes and thoughts. He wrote a book called Classics for Pleasure, another called Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. He lists books that he imagines to be “the ideal guest room library” (I am going to have a new category at the store with the books he suggests). In Book by Book he discusses books that he recommends about how we live our life from “book to book” – doesn’t that just get your mind thinking of a great epitaph!?!?!? (grin!) He states that to know a human – you don’t need to dialogue, but to look at their books… I highly recommend this book and will order more today. He gives his own collections of quotations, his own lists for children, for classics, for mysteries, love, work, all categories – to help us to begin if we don’t know where to begin. I’ll write out for you one thought he spent time on, hoping his reflections will give you encouragement for whatever your daily lives bring to you…

Every day one should at least hear one little song, read one good poem, see one fine painting and – if at all possible – speak a few sensible words. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

He titles this chapter: “To Work is to Pray” …what matters in proper work is intensity. Generate enough intensity long enough, and you pass “into the zone,” “the sweet spot,” “the flow.” After dogged effort there suddenly descends a pervasive sense of what is almost grace, transcendence, and inner nonchalance. Everything simply falls into place without effort, as though we were – temporarily – a gifted natural athlete or creative genius…(don’t wait for inspiration to start a project – just begin…including a new book!!) An awed interviewer once exclaimed to the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, “You do amazing things on the saxophone, Mr. Parker.” The musician replied, “I don’t know about amazing – I practiced for fifteen hours a day for a few years.” Centuries earlier Michelangelo complained that people wouldn’t be so astonished at his sculpture if they knew how hard he’d had to labor to achieve his mastery. The point is: You generally can’t wait for inspiration, so just get on with the work. Disciplined, regular effort will elicit inspiration, no matter what your field…

…This doesn’t mean you will be happy (at your job) all the time…almost any work can be important. With an admiration bordering on envy, the contemporary poet Philip Levine used to observe a clothes presser in a Detroit tailor’s shop: “I read in his movements not a disregard for this work but, rather, the affirmation that all work was worth doing with elegance and precision and that necessary work granted dignity to the worker. For me he was both a pants presser and the most truly dignified person I’d ever met, one of the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Levine’s words call to mind the classical imperative: “Do what you are doing.” That is, whether you are preparing dinner or playing tennis or tuning a car’s engine or sweeping a room, really focus your whole self on just that. Do it well, and you can invest even the most trivial activities with significance, transforming the mundane into the spiritual. (Whatever you do…do all to the glory of God! – did you hear that often growing up?)

I highly recommend this book, and will also read his suggestions on reading classics with guides by him on where we should all begin. Our time is so short. Our minds are gifts from God for us to develop. To not then be overtaken when life brings us unexpected turns. One last line I’d like to end with he addresses benefits of lifetime learning, Men and women who read and study and learn may go temporarily astray, but they can never be completely lost. Knowledge isn’t only it’s own reward; it gives us maps through the wilderness, instruments to guide our progress, and the confidence that no matter where we are we will always be, fundamentally, at home. Oh, how I am glad I have been encouraged to read, and I give my husband all of the credit – for he has a passion to learn, not just to read. A hunger for knowledge. A love for books. For beautiful editions to used bookstore treasures. Dirda also suggests that each person in a home should have their own bookcase. He gives suggestions for making our homes with our children revolve around the printed word, not electronics. This is a really good SHORT (smile!) little book that I recommend for all of your bookshelves! I just heard a little bird! Smile at those little birds singing for you – they know your story, they keep your confidences, they are God’s gift to us this spring! Go on with your day, making decisions that make yourself proud, taking pride in whatever, even mundane, tasks before you. Thank you for letting me enter your world on Thursdays! Susan

Latin for this week: 
ad meliora vertamur - Let us turn to better things.

Work cited:
Dirda, Michael. Book by Book : Notes on Reading and Life. New York: Owl Books, 2007