Suburban Soliloquy #82



Time and

There are people who buy books by the yard to decorate their walls. For some, a grand library of moroccan leather bindings was the pretense for intellect. I looked about my study at the many books that overcrowd the shelves, more books in piles "growing from the furniture and floor like stalagmites," as I've mentioned in an earlier essay. It is to my shame that I have not read the vast majority of them. They are not there for show. It is rare that I have visitors to my study. I bought every book with the intention of one day reading it. Many of the volumes are fine press books, beautiful to the eye and hand, made with a craftsmanship that signifies love or respect for the literature it enhances. These are books too big to pack into one's pocket, too precious for anything but a long sit in a comfortable chair. It isn't that I don't read, but that the fragments of time available to me have me reading magazine articles or paperbacks while I eat or bathe. For all the books I own, it seems the one in my hand was urgently borrowed from the local library. I don't want to be one of the hypocrites who collect books without reading them.

In June I made the decision to not allow myself the purchase of any new books and to cease to borrow books from the library - except when necessary. I became determined to mine the small treasures that already line my bookshelves. The time had come to take a bite out of my collection, to feed on my stores of fat tomes. I needed to take some of that raw material I'd been gathering in codices and load them it into my neural library.

On the sixteenth of June 2004, because it was Bloomsday, indeed the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday, I put aside the book I had just started reading, Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence, and began James Joyce's Ulysses. After all, this is a book praised by the experts, the authorities, those who make lists of the hundred most important books of the Twentieth Century. I have always suspected that most of the people who have owned this book have not finished it, and many have not even started it. The book has resided on my shelf thirty-five years.

It isn't as if I never opened the book. I have read the last 'two' sentences on more than one occasion. That's not nothing; together they are forty-six pages long - Molly Bloom's soliloquy. But when I had tried to read the book starting at, "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan...," I didn't get far before my eyes glazed over and my mind went off on some distant adventure.

I have a friend who, I am proud to say, owns a copy of Ulysses in the Limited Editions Club version. (I bet you he has never read it.) It is a book worth several thousand dollars, being one of 1,500 numbered copies that the Limited Editions Club produced in 1935 with illustrations by Henri Matisse. Six original soft-ground etchings and twenty color plates of Matisse's drawings. George Macy, the founder of the Limited Editions Club, wrote, "I have never been so greatly impressed with the mental facility of an artist as I was when I suggested to Matisse that he should illustrate Ulysses. He said, over the telephone, that he had never read it. I got Stuart Gilbert to send him a copy of Mr. Gilbert's translation into French. The very next morning, M. Matisse reported that he had read the book, that he understood its eighteen episodes to be parodies of similar episodes in The Odyssey, that he would like to give point to this fact by making his illustrations actually illustrations of the original episodes in Homer! I may have been taken in, of course. If I was not, it can surely be said that Henri Matisse grasped this book quicker than any other man ever did."

As is the practice of the Limited Editions Club, the book was signed by the artist, Matisse, and it was supposed to also be signed by Joyce. Joyce grew tired of the task and only signed 250 of the 1,500 books. My friend does not have a copy signed by Joyce, which would then be worth over $20,000.

My copy is the ubiquitous Random House edition, which comes without illustrations. In fact, I believe it was bought from the Book-of-the-Month Club by my father at my request. That was when I was still in high school.

Here at middle-age, plodding along in a career at AT&T, for which I hold no enthusiasm, there are too few opportunities for me to sit and read for any great length of time. Meanwhile, Ulysses offers few places where the reader can put the book aside. The few chapters are long, meant for someone living in a slower paced era, or someone who doesn't drive themselves every day to work but rides the bus or train, or someone who lives alone or doesn't love their wife.

So I began reading the book, but very slowly, and for the first time I was enjoying it. I enjoyed it for a great while. Alas, I enjoyed it less with time as it constantly demanded an effort. I hardly understood many of the references, but it was enough to be a voyeur, listening to someone's private thoughts. I couldn't be expected to understand the private thoughts I overheard. The references would be personal, the subconscious would be spitting up memories that would be unfamiliar to me. A book of 768 pages; by 160 I was bored with the effort of this voyeurism. This is a book about interiors of the mind and not of places. It was free-floating voices I was hearing without context. I could not see Dublin, neither exteriors nor its rooms. I was awashed in ghostly voices, but I could not place them in the world they occupied. The book requires that you know Dublin first. That I understood any of it, I must be thankful that I saw the movie.

Oh, the unmitigating shame, I was done, for now, at page 160 and could not go further. It is not a book that can be read piecemeal. It required the luxury of discretionary time. I made peace with myself and picked up J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which I finished in short order and thoroughly enjoyed. Today I am once again reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is number 82 in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"