One of St. Louis’ most eminent writers reflects on his seven-decade love affair with books and the 20,000-volume library in his University City home
Photographs by Frank Di Piazza
Then, during the Second World War, I actually sailed the ocean blue. The sea was all that had been written of it. It was never blue; it was moody; there was a lot of it; and it was every ship’s bell more beautiful than the bells before. On calm days its surface was the skin of a sleeping creature. I would wash my skivvies by tying them to the end of a rope and letting the ship pull them through the water as though I was fishing for a bigger catch, perhaps a dress suit. There they gathered salt while being thoroughly scoured, so that wearing them was no longer advisable. I decided to go without underwear, something I managed for a brief time, till a tell-all told all to my superiors, of whom there were many. Several years later, packed away in drawers at home, my skivvies still smelled of salt.
I was a passively disobedient officer, often confined to my quarters, where I read whatever readable books were aboard. This lot consisted of a handful of Hemingway and a pinch of Faulkner. Otherwise I played chess with another miscreant who was never confined to quarters but was always there anyhow. Because of my exemplary incompetence I was promoted (such is the Navy way) to Top Secret Officer. I was therefore entrusted with the combination to the ship’s walk-in safe, where books of codes and ciphers, printed on dissolvable paper and weighted with lead, dwelt in silent isolation except for the company they kept with the ship’s medicinal booze. To this secure space, the size of a bedroom at a Red Roof Inn, I regularly repaired, closed its heavy armored door, nipped a bit of brandy and read the same Hemingway and Faulkner I had already repeatedly enjoyed, but with my ease uninterrupted and my attention undistracted—a lot like my dreamy New Zealand—until some tell-all told all to my superiors, of whom there were many. They immediately removed the brandy. I could still lock myself in and read or snooze. My superiors seemed content to miss me.
While in graduate school at Cornell, I spent hours in the university library, as Ph.D. drudges are required to do. I had a carrel—a small nick in the wall of the stacks that held a mean metal chair and a bulb, a sheet of steel to write or rest a book on, a rack in front of my face for volumes taken from the shelves (but on one’s honor not to be removed from the building) and a jar of hard candy whose contents were dangerous when wet. To take notes, “pencils only” was a rule I was willing to observe, since, unlike those of the Navy, it made sense. The building resembled a ship in some ways and bore me off smoothly. Not only were the stacks made of metal, the floor was of steel mesh that let an already worn-out light sink toward a basement as distant as a bilge. Steps naturally rang a little unless you were in sneakers, but there were areas so removed from human interest (“Nutrition,” for instance ... it was a different era) that the only sounds you were likely to hear were those of the watchmen. Nevertheless, sitting there, day after day in dusky light, my conception of Eden began to change. It had no location on a map, but was a destination determined by the Dewey Decimal System.
When I wasn’t reading or falling asleep over a page of Arthur Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being, I roamed. Up and down the metal steps. Up and down the metal aisles. I stalked like a hunter through a dim light deemed beneficial for any volume’s long interment, but barely feasible if you desired to read one, my fingers sometimes slipping along the edges of the books as a kid passing a fence might run a stick, my gaze on spines and their titles, a gaze full of wonderment that there were so many, as dead to me as those rows and rows of skulls in the catacombs were unless I removed one from their ranks, and opened it, and read the way Hamlet examined the skull of Yorick: Jean-Henri Fabre’s Book of Insects or The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Who could resist an author whose name was Apsley Cherry-Garrard? I would check out the Jean-Henri Fabre for a son of my thesis director, Professor Max Black, since I had been asked to find worthwhile but entertaining texts for one of his boys. Unfortunately, the young man loved my selections, and Professor Black prolonged my service. The Apsley Cherry-Garrard, too, was a hit. Therein was one of the most harrowing accounts of Antarctic adventure ever penned, pages of cold and snow, pain and uncertainty, plus a stubborn unintended heroism that I would try to remember when I wrote “The Pedersen Kid,” a novella set in a snowdrift. Since I was a philosophy student, I tried to make into a paradox the fact that The Worst Journey was really the best trip I’d ever taken.
The heavy-footed guys guarding the darkness didn’t like readers to stay the night. You could nod over John Locke all afternoon, they wouldn’t mind, but come 10 o’clock they’d begin to sweep us out. First they came scouting to see who was in their carrels. They would mark you by your light. Since our little nooks were as open as a supermarket, if they didn’t see you sitting there, they would turn off your lamp. Hiding at the right time by making yourself thin at the end of an aisle or fleeing to another level like an amused draft, we would wait to return only after closing.
Dodging the Gestapo’s heavy tread became a game, but our abilities (and I was certainly not alone in this practice) were put to serious use each year when the library had its book sale. I knew succession, secession, recession, possession, concession, depression, and now I was to enjoy de-accession. A room on one of the lower levels would be set aside and furnished with several large library tables. Upon them rows of books, spines up, would be packed. The humanities filled more tabletops than the sciences did, which was not a surprise because the scientists didn’t read, they tested. And reported their results in magazines that cost more than books. Rumors accused persons unknown of hiding overnight in the stacks in order to be first in line when the sale began the next morning. But that was not the worst these sneaks would sink to. They would actually take the books they wanted from one table (literature, philosophy, history) and hide them among economics or statistics, and one person I know was accused of taking volumes entirely away to another part of the building for the night, only bringing them back as if freshly chosen the following morning. Some tell-all told all once again.
The competition was fierce, and friendship had no standing. Every book belonged to each of us, and often there were juicy prizes to be taken, since our teachers sometimes had the decency to die, and their heirs, in ignorance or indifference, to dump the bulky part of the inheritance in the bins of the library. But these books would never reach the shelves. They’d be denied admittance (“We already have this edition of The Maid of Orleans”). A writer once said about editors that out of refusal comes redemption, in this case because the sale books would not have been disfigured by the library’s boastful black footprint (PROPERTY OF THE CORNELL UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES), or pricked by the university’s embossed seal, or pasted with a withdrawal and return record, or embarrassed by a tattoo inked on their spines. We busy buyers said we were rescuing the books that we were eagerly pulling out of the pack from who knew what calamitous destiny. Not death. That was nothing. The bleakest fate was to be always available but never molested.
I have been to many library sales since and can vouch for the fact that these duplicates are rarely examined, or their source respected, for out of them have fallen, as out of book fair books, treasures that sometimes surpass even their pages: not just the debris readers normally leave behind to keep their place—paper clips, kitchen matches, rubber bands, foil, curls of hair, bookmarks, bills, sucker sticks, lists, letters of love, postcards, postage stamps, gum wrappers—but photographs and threatening notices, greenbacks, checks and a draft of a telegram to be sent to the Allied High Commissioner asking him to expedite the transport of Werner Heisenberg out of Germany, which fluttered to my floor when I riffled one of Arthur Holly Compton’s books after purchasing it for 50 cents at a Washington University purge.
Collectors who do not care for books but only for their rarity prefer them in an unopened, pure and virginal condition, but such volumes have had no life, and now even that one chance has been taken from them, so that, imprisoned by stifling plastic, priced to flatter the vanity of the parvenu who has made its purchase, such a book sits out of the light in a glass-enclosed humidor like wine too old to open, too expensive to enjoy.
Whereas Mister Tatters, who has his economic failure marked on his flyleaf as a character in Dickens might by virtue of the quality, wear and soilage of his hat, cane and coat, has been enriched by a history: sold new in 1932 for $3.95, as used from the Gotham Book Mart in 1947 for 2 bucks, and marked down successively in pencil and then in crayon from 75 to 50, from 35 cents to a quarter during the decades since—owned by two who signed their names, one who added an address in Joliet—until it completed its journey to St. Louis, where it is picked from a barrow or a box at a garage sale or out of a bin in a Goodwill the way I found my copy of George Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty in 1982. It survived its adventures as admirably as Odysseus. I am rather free with my books and will let anyone who wants to kiss The Sense of Beauty’s cover in hopes of a bit of good luck in life.
This is how I learned to live in the library, what routes to take to the bathrooms, what provisions to smuggle in by briefcase, how to cushion a hard seat, to size up swiftly what is on the reshelver’s trolley or to find where it is easiest to read, where it is safe to sleep.
It would be a decade before I would encounter my first great library. By “great library” I mean a library whose holdings are so huge that no one quite knows what is in its basements; a library in which Vivaldi scores may lie hidden for a hundred years; a library of density as well as scope; a library that will turn no book away—trash or treasure—for a good library is miserly, as proud of its relics as a church, permitting even a cheap novel to be useful to the study of the culture it came from, an institution, consequently, that won’t allow ephemera to ephemerate and is not ashamed of having the finest collection of bodice-rippers in existence; a library that has sat safely in the same place and watched like a sage its contents age, consequently a library whose dust is the rust of time; a library that never closes on cold days and will allow the homeless to rest in its reading room; a library that will permit me to poke about in its innards as long and as often as I like.
I realize now that I began my life in the library as an enemy of the institution, having troublesome run-ins with the shushing hair-knotted sour-faced spinster at the checkout desk ... (Stereotypes are accurate more often than not, and profiling essential to the art of the novel, or where would Trollope and Thackeray and Dickens be without their caricatures, and how would Roger Tory Peterson sell his bird guides, because spotting a cowbird in my garden is like finding an Irishman in a pub; and none of the jokes about a priest, a rabbi and an imam trying to explain the bitters in their pints to a Scot called David Hume would be funny—and who would want to give up that?) ... Now back, a little breathless, at the front desk ... When I tried, as a high school kid, to take out James Joyce’s Ulysses, I was told a) that I was too young, and b) it was anyhow a dirty book, and c) if I persisted in trying to obtain nasty books of this kind, she would inform all my superiors, of whom there were many.
While I was still in college, though now also a conscript for the Navy, I was asked by my literature professor to write on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and received a note from him asking that I be permitted to withdraw said work from Special Requests (a holding cell, I supposed, for seditious books), but the whey-faced lady who guarded the guilty lot refused, contending that the work in question contained descriptions of unnatural acts. This response provoked an eagerness for the project that I had not previously had, but it was no go. Acting on a hunch, I hunted up the library’s copies of The Canterbury Tales only to find (actually to my delight) that some of the wife of Bath’s story had been razored out. I found similar damage had been done to copies of Boccaccio, Catullus, Petronius and Aristophanes. There was no Henry Miller, but had there been, his then-scandalous texts would surely be doing jail time. I told all to her superiors, of whom there were many. The whey-faced razor lady declared that it was her duty to protect the students from smut. I thought their own ignorance a sufficient safeguard. The Navy moved me on to Midshipman’s School, and I don’t know what happened to this particular guardian of public morals. They always look ill but live forever.
Now in my own home I am surrounded by nearly 20,000 books, few of them rare, many unread, none of them neglected. They are there, as libraries always are, to help when needed, and who knows what writer I shall have to write on next, what subject will become suddenly essential, or what request will arrive that requires the immediate assistance of books on—well—libraries, or the language of animals or the pronunciation of Melanesian pidgin, since my essays tend to be assigned, not simply solicited, and because I am easily seduced by new themes. I can actually say a few things in Melanesian pidgin, none of them polite.
So they are there to keep my curiosity awake and working, to wonder who the notable American writers were considered to be in 1894 when Henry C. Vedder published his book on that subject (I have just this moment pulled it at random from my shelves), and consequently to make the acquaintance of Charles Egbert Craddock and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, but also to learn that Henry James is “too clever by half” and his theory of fiction disgraceful because he dares to suppose that “a novel is good when it is well written” and “bad if it is ill written,” an opinion that suggests a deplorable indifference to the novel’s moral dimension. Oh how badly I should fare at Mr. Vedder’s hands! Of course, Henry James did not, for a moment, ignore the novel’s moral dimension. I try to suppress a smile at these confusions, and my indignation at this judgment, in order to enjoy John Quincy Adams’ definition of a luncheon (quoted by Mr. Vedder) as “a reflection on breakfast and an insult to dinner.”
Before Mr. Vedder went back into the obscurities he came from, and so justly deserves, I managed to find out that the notable Egbert Craddock was a pseudonym for M.N. Murfree and that the post box from which his first story was mailed to The Atlantic Monthly was in St. Louis. Reading on in the chapter devoted to him, I was informed that our mystery author is Mary Noailles Murfree, that she comes from “the best American stock” and is, when first seen by the Atlantic editors, a young slip of a thing. What her ultimate fate, and that best American stock, was, you shan’t know, because I own the book and you don’t.
But book dipping is great fun, and not a day passes that I don’t blindly pick a prize and then read a page of it to be mystified, informed, surprised, delighted and affronted.
My books are there to comfort me about the world, for only the wicked can be pleased by our present state of things, while the virtuous disagree about the reasons for our plight and threaten to fall to fighting over which of us is responsible for the misery of so many millions and in that way steadily increasing the number of hypocrites, jackals and rogues.
Among them, writers of books. No occupation can guarantee virtue the way hard labor makes muscle, and only sainthood requires it as a part of its practice. So the writers write, perhaps improving their texts from time to time, but only rarely themselves.
But the books—the books disagree quietly, as the minds of the many readers in the library may, without the least disturbance; and in that peace we can observe how beautiful, how clever, how characteristic, how significant, how comically absurd the ideas are; for here in the colorful rows that make bookcases seem to dance, the world exists as the human mind has received and conceived it, but transformed into a higher realm of Being, where virtue is knowledge as the Greeks claimed, where even knowledge of the worst must be valued as highly as any other and where events as particular as any love affair, election or battlefield are superseded by their descriptions—by accounts like Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s cold white journey across the cold white page—for these volumes are banks of knowledge and are examples, carefully constructed, of our human kinds of consciousness, of awareness that is otherwise momentary, fragile and often confused. Among the shelves, where the philosophers tent their troops, there is a war of words—a war of the one supportable kind—a war of thoughtfully chosen positions, perhaps with no problems solved, but no blood spilt; shelves where human triumph and its suffering are portrayed by writers who cared at least enough about their lives and this world to take a pen to paper. Thucydides knew it when he said, concerning the conflict that occurred on the Peloponnesus, this war is mine. History happens once. Histories happen repeatedly in reader after reader.
Every one of these books is a friend who will always say the same thing, but who will always seem to mean something new, or something old, or something borrowed, something blue.
A remark that reminds me that I must go and see Queen Victoria. I’ve promised her a visit. She’s in the stacks that stand in my basement now. In Lytton Strachey’s biography. Still plump, a bit dowdy. Still Queen.
Where'd I Put That Walker Percy?
For the author and his wife, acquiring this many books is a serious obsession. And living among them takes serious organization. Here’s how they manage in their three-story home in the Parkview neighborhood of U. City:
Basement: Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics, Music, Movies, Local Writers, Nazi History (central to the author’s 1995 novel, The Tunnel)
Living Room: Art and Artists
Dining Room: Photography and Bibliophilia
Sun Room: New Purchases (about 30 a month), French and Parisian History
Study: Literature in English (about 4,000)
Office: Literature in English continued, Literary Criticism, Reference
Master Bedroom: German Literature
Guest Bedroom 1: German Literature continued, the author’s books in English and in translation
Guest Bedroom 2: French Literature
Studio: Regional Matters, Crafts, Gardening, Travel and Architecture
Guest Bedroom 3: Literature From Countries Not Yet Named (China, Japan, Israel, Russia, Poland, Italy and South Africa, to name a few)