A Nightmare Of BooksWednesday, July 15, 2009
I had a nightmare last night. It was a nightmare of books. When I woke I felt I had not slept. I get these obsessive dreams every once in a while and it seems to me that since I am partially conscious I have not slept well at all.
I believe that this blog is going to be a long and meandering one. It is really based on the idea that if you are near a very good library or you are living in one (Borges would approve from his great infinite library in the sky) you would not know the existence of certain books unless you found them or you knew they were there.
I read a lot but Rosemary absolutely refuses to buy me books for Christmas or my birthday. The only persons who have dared to present me with a book have been my eldest daughter Ale and her godfather Andrew Taylor. I don’t think that they have been entirely successful in their choices. I do believe that picking a book to read is something personal. An exception could be, to know that a friend reads all the novels of P.D. James. You check your friend’s library and you don’t spot the latest James. You can then present the book as a gift. But there is something missing here. The paradox is that while that James book is the right one you are not going to help, push, force, reveal, surprise or even disappoint your friend with a book unknown until opened as the book from nowhere.
My aunt Dorothy Rowstron, who died in her 90s in Toronto a few years ago, was an avid reader. Somewhere along I got the wrong idea as to what she read. For Christmas, for her birthday I would send her the latest Danielle Steel novel by FedEx. She always called me to thank me. It was after her death that I discovered from her son-in-law that Aunt Dorothy had an exquisite and refined taste for books and she would have never read Danielle Steel even if someone had pointed a gun at her. She was too gracious to tell me of my faux pas. Sept the illusion going until she died.
My 85 year-old first cousin (she is also my godmother) Inesita O’Reilly Kuker reads a lot. She lives in Buenos Aires. She reads in English even if her family does not. She has kept her Argentine private school English (Northlands and you have to pronounce the word with your nose up in the air!). She reads lofty stuff like the novels of Susan Howatch (Mystical Paths happens to be in my library so I know why she likes the author). They are somewhat Graham Greenish about religious men who have doubts about the canons of their faith.
For years book in English have been hard to find (particularly the ones Inesita's refined tastes would demand) and expensive. A pocket book fetches $30 US. Every time I have had the opportunity to go to Buenos Aires I take books for her. The last time one of the books was a beautiful illustrated biography of Grace Kelly. Before we flew to Buenos Aires Rosemary had left my suitcase open on the floor as she remembered stuff to put into it that would suddenly come to mind. Toby, her cat decided to mark his territory on the book. The morning before I left for Argentina I sprayed the book to no avail with all kinds of perfumes and disinfectants. I do believe that Inesita did read the book before she chucked it into the garbage. Books in English are that precious in Buenos Aires.
A few months ago Inesita fell outside her summer apartment in Punta del Este, Uruguay. She did not tell her family. When her son Georgito came to pick her up, he was shocked to see the black and blue marks on her face and her bloodshot eyes. He took her to the doctor who explained that Inesita had an eye hemorrhage orme and it would take her months to see well again.
When I found out I tried to get her family to rally and find her spoken books in the US (one of her grandsons travels). This was to no avail. They could not understand what it is to be a serious reader. Our first cousin Elizabeth Blew suggested I purchase a large-print Reader’s Digest subscription. I did not have the nerve to tell Elizabeth that Inesita would never ever read Reader’s Digest in small or large print!
The solution became a simple one. I have purchased some good CD books (all are unabridged) and copied them. I mail these to Inesita and mark the envelopes as picture CDs. All have arrived without being pilfered by the sometimes notorious Argentine postal system. I keep the originals in case the copies get lost. I can copy them again. I am probably breaking some copyright law but I feel that the circumstances give me some justification.
I have been sending Inesita novels by Daphne du Maurier. She is currently enjoying a Romeo and Juliet with Kenneth Branagh as Romeo and a great list of players including Judi Dench, John Gielgud and Derek Jacobi. While she initially found Frank McCourt narrating his own Angela’s Ashes a tad depressing she told me she enjoyed it in the end. What will she think of Neil Jordan's Shade? Will she appreciate John Knowles's A Separate Peace?
Enter Brother Edwin Reggio CSC who is a Catholic Brother of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Back in the late 50s he taught me religion, theology and nudged me (not gently) into learning to play the alto saxophone for the school band at St. Edward’s High School in Austin, Texas. I have been with him of late (back two years ago with Rebecca and Rosemary when we passed by Austin, on our way to Mérida, Yucatán) and in June when I went to an all years school reunion. I took him two books as gifts. One was Toby Green’s Thomas More’s Magician – A Novel Account of Utopia in Mexico and the other book Amir D. Aczel’s The Jesuit and the Skull – Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution and the Search for Peking Man. The former book is about the most interesting Spanish/Mexican bishop, Vasco de Quiroga who traveled to Mexico just a few years after the conquest. Of Chardin I wrote here.
Brother Edwin thanked me for the books and in an e-mail mentioned he was reading it. But there was no comment that he liked it. Brother Edwin is a private man. I know he has two university degrees, one in math and the other in music. He is a photographer, a carpenter, a sculptor, he is the barber for his order, he has a job at St Edward’s University dealing with alumni affairs and all the drink and food machines on campus. He delivers the mail to the brothers, and makes the frames for all the photographs and painting in all the buildings on campus. He also feeds the squirrels. He loves to eat barbecue at that Austin institution, the County Line. He is an Olympic ring expert, he canoes and late in life learned to rappel. Besides the piano he can play any wind instrument. He is an expert trumpet player. I know so little about him.
A request to him to tell me what his reading habits were, resulted in a short mention that he did like mysteries. Does he like English mysteries or American serial killer mysteries? I don’t have a clue. He also did agree with me that it is handy to have the University library about a block away from his sleeping quarters. Brother Edwin suggested that if I wanted to get rid of my book collection that I should donate it to a school.
But is there something perverse in me trying to guess what he likes and to find books from my collection that I have read that I can share with a man that has been so important in my life?
Supposing he has enjoyed the book on Vasco de Quiroga I would surmise that the book is not part of the university library collection. He knows about the book because I knew about the book. It is that connection that fascinates me and kept me awake last night as I thought of all the books that might have some sort of mystical or religious content and yet be entertaining. Here are scans of some of the books that I re-read through the night. I would like to specifically point out Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. A not-to-smart small-town priest entertains a visiting bishop and feeds him a horse steak for lunch. The bishop is so marveled by the delicious offering that he sends Father Quixote a pair of purple socks and makes him a Monsignor. With the retired and most communist former town mayor, Sancho, the pair decides to drive around Spain in a Spanish Fiat a Seat and…
Perhaps as I send books that Brother Edwin likes or dislikes he just may not take my Aunt Dorothy’s tack of not telling me that he did not like a book. I look forward, if that is the case, to finally getting to knoe a man that has been an enigma to me since I first met him in 1958.
I wonder if the nightmare will continue tonight. I could dream about Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael mysteries or Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series. Brother Edwin might enjoy the taciturn Native American protagonists of Tony Hillerman or would he like all the novels I have about the American Civil War? Brother Edwin is from New Orleans - a jazz biography? Has he read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose? There is Brian Moore's Black Robe. Then there is that novel about a pope, Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers. On the other hand why do these books have to have a religious connection? And then...