The Weight of Books

I just moved to a new apartment in a new city.  As many, if not all, of you will know, moving homes involves a lot of planning… and a lot of boxes.  In my case, it also involved that careful academic art of packing so as not to destroy anyone’s back if they lifted a box containing my books.  Books are stupidly heavy.  Moving companies must just cringe when they realize they’re moving a professional academic – it can only end in pain.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think I had that many books.  Movies, yes – I have an acknowledged addiction there – but the book factor was a bit of a surprise.  Which, for a prof, seems terribly naive, but there it is.

I have a lot of books: masculinities texts, histories of Ireland, histories of Britain, histories of Canada, histories of imperialism, biographies, philosophies, literary criticism, children’s lit… and fiction.  Lots of fiction.  And then there’s my shelf entirely devoted to favourite fiction: Guy Gavriel Kay, Charlotte Bronte, Evelyn Waugh, my small portion of the Everyman’s Library,* Laurie R. King, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Goudge, Josephine Tey, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Susanna Kearsley, Martin Walker, Margaret Mitchell, Graham Greene, Timothy Findley, Robertson Davies, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby**… which I still believe cannot ever be made into a decent movie, all love and respect to Robert Redford.

* Elizabeth Taylor once bought the entire Everyman’s set for Richard Burton.  That is true love.

** This is one of my favourite things ever written about Gatsby c/o Roger Ebert.  As you might expect, I was rather appalled by the prospect of the “different” version of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.  And for the record, I do think that the final page might be the best ending in all of literature.

Shifting these boxes around the house, I now have a new appreciation for the literal weight of books: the expected mass of nineteenth century hard-backs; the doubly-expected density of the Harry Potter series; the surprising lightness of a 900-page Arctic escapist paperback by Dan Simmons, only to be compromised in the same box by Lawrence of Arabia: The Selected Letters.  That sucker’s a bloody tome.

My Wine Bible, Noel Coward Diaries, and Cultures of Darkness are all cursedly heavy, almost akin to the ridiculously intense feel of an academic press book.  One of my friends had his book published by Palgrave Macmillan; it’s gorgeously bound, with a cream-and-purple dust jacket and that fabulously smooth rich feel against the fingers.  Ten copies of it in a backpack would cripple me.  And, to be fair, the same can be said for my own ode to Irish masculinities.  It’s as though a few extra kilos make up for the price of anything published by a non-famous PhD.

Packing up, I was able to restrain myself and not muse over each book as I put it away – instead, I’ve been doing that while unpacking.  For the better part of the past week and a half – particularly before my internet connection came through – I indulged in the figurative weight of books: the memories, the connections, and the beauty of procrastination through literature.

Take, for instance, my nearly twenty-five year-old copy of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels.  Originally (as I learned from reading the front page inscription) this book belonged to my mother: a gift from a grateful history student in 1989.  This fictionalized history of Gettysburg earned Shaara the Pulitzer Prize and was later turned into the 1993 film, Gettysburg.  The movie stayed remarkably faithful to Shaara’s text, with many of the script’s best lines drawn directly from its pages.

Now, I am not an historian of the American Civil War by any stretch of the imagination, though I have been to the battlefield several times.  As a wee snippet of a girl, I cheered for the Union Army because their uniforms were blue.  Seriously.  Later, in my early teens, I had a head-on run-in with Scarlett O’Hara and became a romantic champion for the Boys in Grey… in literature, if not in life (states’ rights aside, slavery was stupid and a highly faulty way of setting up any type of durable economy).  My parents both taught American history – or Canadian history in a North American context – for decades, so I was dragged to innumerable civil war battlefields during our March Break vacations in the 1986-99 era.  It got to the point where my brother and I often refused to get out of the car… which, it turns out, meant I missed out on seeing Sir William Johnson’s house from the Seven Years’ War in upstate New York, which would have been mighty handy now that I’m teaching about the Irish Diaspora.  But I digress…

Despite this lack of sound training in the war between the states (and I’d like to note that Microsoft Word wants me to capitalise that phrase according to their little green underlines), Gettysburg is a sick passion of mine.  S-I-C-K.  It is one of the few movies I own that I can watch again immediately upon finishing (though I often like to end a viewing with the accompanying documentary about the making of the film on Side B of the DVD, because I’m a sucker for Shelby Foote’s accent — start the clip at 1:00 to see what I mean).


The only other movies that come to mind which strike a similar “repeat all” reaction in me are The Big Lebowski, Lawrence (no surprises there), and Immortal Beloved.  While packing up my stuff in Kingston, I had Gettysburg playing in the background… on 1 July, which was the first day of the battle, as well as being Dominion Day.  Tangent-ally, Canadian history also owes a huge debt to the clash between Lee and Meade in July 1863, as I would argue that Canadian Confederation in 1867 occurred largely due to the threat of a testy and victorious Union Army immediately south of the border; if Lee hadn’t had a brain-fart and called for Pickett’s Charge, my country might not have been born when it was.

And all of this came crashing to mind when I put Shaara on the shelf the other day… plus the fact that I can’t watch The Newsroom** these days without picturing Jeff Daniels yelling “BAYONETS!!!!!”


**I know there’s a lot in the Twitter-verse and in bloggery at present about Aaron Sorkin’s possible misogyny within the teleplays of The Newsroom.  I, personally, do not find his writing offensive.  Sorkin always writes about himself and/or different versions of himself (note: Joshua Lyman [or Michael J Fox in The American President] as a mirror image and President Bartlett as a wannabe ideal).  Despite the gloriousness of Alison Janney’s CJ Cregg on The West Wing, the man cannot write women.  Period.  Some men can’t – Hemingway wasn’t exactly great at it either.  The only male American writer, I would argue, who nailed a female fictitious voice was Nathaniel Hawthorne via Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter… but then that scared him so much, he never did it again.  Sorkin will never be able to write a realistic female figure that transcends his favourite clichés.  I think of it as something akin to Michelangelo’s artistic attempts at the female form.

Michelangelo’s “Night”

He sucked at a realistic presentation of women (they all look like muscle-men with breasts), but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have many moments of absolute genius.***  Anyway, I’m not offended by The Newsroom; in fact, I love it and timed my obtainment of an HD television and HBO Canada in my new home in order not to miss a single episode.  I ♥ Jeff Daniels.

Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in “The Newsroom”

*** I realize I might have just raised Sorkin’s writing to a literary equivalent of the Pieta.  If that’s the case, I would like to add a clause that, in my world, that would be a connection between the aforementioned artistic masterpiece in marble and my own partiality to The West Wing episodes “Noel” and “Two Cathedrals.”  But the marble is obviously far superior.

And now back to my originally scheduled bookshelf…

** **

It seems I cannot bring myself to move to any city anywhere (London, South Bend or Montreal) without bringing along the first two instalments of Peter O’Toole’s autobiography, Loitering with Intent (et voila!  I have managed to introduce Irish masculinity into the post).  The first volume, “The Child,” recounted O’Toole’s childhood during the Second World War, followed by “The Apprentice.”  They are the best stream-of-conscious memoirs I’ve ever picked up.  I have both volumes here with me in the new flat… and I’ve been waiting sixteen years for the third instalment!  That beats even the most rabid fan of George R. R. Martin.

Peter O’Toole – Loitering With Intent, Vol. 1

The emotional heft of these memoirs is very personal.  O’Toole went to drama school at RADA – the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – which just so happens to be directly across Malet Street from my alma mater, Birkbeck.  And don’t think I didn’t wish every time I walked down the road that a certain someone would be loitering outside that doorway (although I wasn’t particular: I would have happily espied any number of RADA alum, including Sean Bean or Alan Rickman or Kenneth Branagh or Ralph Fiennes or Timothy Dalton).  My favourite passages in the book, however, involve O’Toole the drama student vying with a certain someone else:

Burton has lifted his pint with an ease and sure-handedness that tells of diligent practice; parched ancestors from the coal pits of Wales live on in his sturdy body as the glass pint pot is applied to his mouth, and no miner could have managed better his deep first sweet suck.  Well played, Richard Burton!  Laugh your easy laugh, light a fag, swig your ale, lean against the bar and look about you.  Here sit six drama students, lately up in the gods, now come down to earth, sitting in a pub and looking at members of the Old Vic Company who this evening have so thoroughly entertained us when performing in a play.  What my friends are thinking, I can’t know.  Me?  The sight and sound of the chatter and the laughter made by you and your companions, and the ease with which you are all spreading yourselves about the pub, and the warmth and vitality engendered, why, it delights me but though I can see and hear all this, I cannot yet touch it, am excluded, for you are professionals and I am not.  Not at all, not even an experienced amateur.  Not, in fact, an actor.  And yet.  Do I sense a tie of kinship?  A tie which I have already sensed with my teachers at the RADA, professionals all?  Perhaps.  We will see.  Meanwhile, though I am in a true sense excluded from it, I shall be happy on the fringe of your company.

… Richard took his gaze away from the women, glanced at Joe, at Bob, and then looked straight at me.  A grin as big as it was friendly and as warm as it was wide spread over his face.  His eyes sent a merry message which said that, on the whole, I could be in much worse company.  He raised his glass to me, to my friends, we raised our glasses to him, and then with the grin still on him he ambled away to sit with Lewis and Philip of France at a table on the other side of the bar.

O’Toole and Burton in Becket (1964)

I would give all the tea in China to have been in that bar that night.

** **

One part of my “library” is always set aside for a collection of books that I had to read a few years ago in ENG 109Y (now 150Y) – or, as I called it, Homer to Hemingway.  Professor Thomas Adamowski was the best English literature professor of my life.  It helped that the man looked like Edward G. Robinson and that I was convinced he might be armed beneath the trench coat he wore to class.

And the list of books* we read for his class continue to be within arm’s reach in my bedroom bookcase: The Odyssey, Genesis and the Book of Job from the King James Bible, Euripides’ The Bacchae (which rests one shelf below the others b/c its spine is too long), The Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, King Lear, Paradise Lost, The Marquise of O, Crime and Punishment, The Trial, and numerous short stories by Ernest Hemingway, including “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and “Indian Camp.”

*Now that I look at the list, I think I forgot some back in Ontario!

I can still hear Adamowski gleefully regaling us with the detailed description of the hanging of Penelope’s traitorous maidservants after Odysseus had reconquered Ithaca: “They struggled with their feet for a little, not for very long.”  He (quite rightly) berated us for not being able to discern the difference between “The cat sat on the mat” and Hemingway’s prose-style; he also dramatically pronounced that, because it had a happy Christian ending, Crime and Punishment was a failed novel.  I think I actually squeaked in my chair when he did that because, having started Dostoevsky as a sceptic, I had come to think that C&P was one of the best things I had ever read.  And I can now fully commiserate with his frustrated angst at a class that was quiet at best when he was trying to glean from us what we thought Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” was all about.  I remember that he accepted my musings that the whirlpool down the way from the fishing site could have been a metaphor for the Great War, but I think he was going for something more metaphysical than that.

All of the books from his class are chalk-full of memories from when I was a near-silent first-year undergrad – thankfully, I learned to talk in other classes, but I’m sure I would still clam up if Professor Adamowski were to come into the room today: he was my first encounter with intimidating intellect.

** **

And then there are the books weighing on my conscience, waiting to be read.  At present, the random list looks something like this:

Charlotte Rogan – The Lifeboat
James Joyce – Ulysses
Regina Jeffers – Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion
F. Scott Fitzgerald – This Side of Paradise
Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Prisoner of Heaven
Pat Conroy – South of Broad
Martin Goodman – Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations
Molly Haskell – Frankly, My Dear
Michael Wood – The Story of England
Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger
Terry Eagleton – On Evil
Andrea H. Japp – The Season of the Beast
Karen Maitland – The Company of Liars
Muriel Barbery – The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Susanna Kearsley – The Rose Garden

There are (probably) dozens more, but those were just the ones I could see from where I’m perched atop my quilt.  The list doesn’t even begin to include “work books” which now stretch from my flat across to scarcely-begun-to-be-filled shelves in my new office.

In his introduction to Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves (which I am half-way through at the moment), James Salter notes that, “A private library of good size is an insolent form of riches, and the desire to have more books is difficult to rationalize, especially in view of the fact that you do not or cannot read them all but…still you might.  The bibliophile is, after all, like a sultan or khan who has countless wives already but another two or three are always irresistible.”

Although I’m not a fan of polygamy, it’s a point well taken, and one with which I figuratively agree in a literary context.  Case in point: I just discovered an incredible bookstore in my new neighbourhood: Nicholas Hoare.

Nicholas Hoare Bookstore

And I have made it my personal vow not to go into that store without buying something, because it’s simply too perfect of a place not to support.  And if that means adding more “wives” to my collection… so be it?!?  Right, time to find a better metaphor.

My lesson of the summer: Books, in all their various incarnations and manifestations, weigh a lot.

My intial reaction: Bring it on.

My secondary thought: I wish more of these counted for the Insatiable Booksluts’ End of the World Challenge.  Ah, well…

Insatiable Booksluts 2012 End of the World Reading Challenge

Further Reading

A list of mentioned authors’ websites:
Guy Gavriel Kay – http://www.brightweavings.com
Susanna Kearsley – http://www.susannakearsley.com/
Martin Walker – http://www.brunochiefofpolice.com
Laurie R. King – http://www.laurierking.com
Josephine Tey – josephinetey.net
Evelyn Waugh – evelynwaughsociety.org
Shelby Foote’s obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/29/books/29foote.html?pagewanted=all

and the one that hurts me the most:
Peter O’Toole’s retirement announcement from acting: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/jul/11/peter-otoole-irish-actor-retires
Creative Commons Licence
Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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