Friday, February 10, 2017

Are we what we read, or are our books just shelves of "Rosebuds"?

One of life's more melancholy tasks is that of dealing with a dead person's library. It can be burdensome and saddening if the deceased was a book person; the books they leave behind are their true last testament: the embodiment of the life of their mind.

Or so we like to imagine.

My family, a brisk and unsentimental lot, not only stole a march on the task but gave me a good sense of my standing as a still-living relation, several years ago when they simply disposed of mine at a time when I had to entrust the books to them for storage. I have not yet been given an explanation when, or why, given that at the time- as best I can guess it- I lived in the same city.

I approach buying more with trepidation. I hate to think I am making more work for them once I am actually dead.

Certainly, investment-quality books are contraindicated. My relatives threw out even autographed first editions they gave me.

Doris Lessing, the Nobel laureate, died in 2012, at 94. She was born in colonial Rhodesia and led a famously complicated and literarily productive life.

Her books have now been catalogued as part of the settling of her estate. Nick Holdstock, who inventoried her 4,000 books, has written a wistful account of the task, and how he came to know her in the books that overflowed every room of her London house, in The Guardian.

Stories of Lessing's long march to a different drummer abound. One of the best is retold by Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker:
The woman has trouble stepping out of the taxi. She is old, and the taxi sits higher off the ground than she might like. As she stoops to protect her head, the long red scarf that hangs from her neck nearly brushes the pavement. The woman is not only old; she is also short and, it has to be said, somewhat squat—a small woman with gray hair tied back and stiff ankles cased in stockings, putting out a hand to steady herself against the open door of the taxi as the driver jogs over to assist her, his engine still running. She’s too far along to accept his help. She steps down slowly, asks the fare, and only after reaching for her pocketbook does she look straight into the camera, now close on her face, and ask what is being photographed. “We’re photographing you,” says a man’s voice, almost shyly, the long cone of a microphone pushed suddenly into view. “Have you heard the news?” 
A number of obituaries of Doris Lessing, who died on Sunday, at the age of ninety-four, mentioned that when she learned she had won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature her response was, “Oh, Christ.” She said, “Oh, Christ,” and waved her hand at the reporters who had staked out her home in London, shooing them away. Then she turned and paid for her taxi as her son Peter, who lived with her and whom she cared for while he was ill, looked on. A running meter demands attention; after nearly nine decades, the last step to literary glory can be put off for five more minutes.
There is even film of the moment:

Lessing was 88 that day. "That's been going on for thirty years," she tells one of the reporters of the Nobel talk. She went inside, composed her thoughts, then came back out to sit on the front steps and answer questions, clearly bemused and a little irked. She had been about to start a new book and now there was all this folderol to deal with.

Holdstock's article is worth a read, as an exercise in those most human urges to classify, to signify, to assign meaning to life. Few of us leave neat ledgers; Holdstock wanted to balance the accounts.

As he relates, after his long project neared its end, he reached the conclusion that Doris Lessing was not, in fact, the sum of her books:
In many ways the problem was the same as with all the other books: each had played a role in shaping the mind and work of Lessing, and so had to be of some interest. But they weren’t a record of her thoughts. The books were personal and they mattered. But they weren’t pieces of her.
Perhaps their disposition says the most about who Doris Lessing was:
Lessing once wrote: “Every novel is a story, but a life isn’t one, more of a sprawl of incidents.” But while it’s true that most lives (Lessing’s included) are far messier than anything found in fiction, some events are neat enough to seem written. Several months after I’d finished cataloguing, the fate of Lessing’s library was announced. While some books would go to a special collection at the University of East Anglia, the majority were sent to the public library in Harare. Judging by her Nobel speech, Lessing would have approved. She’d have hoped they might do what the classics had done for a young girl called Doris, who just wanted to read.

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