Monday, May 11, 2009
A REMEMBRANCE OF BOOKSHELVES PAST
A couple of posts ago I traded comments with Yoga for Cynics, whose vigorously entertaining blog I’ve recently discovered and enjoy following. The exchange had to do with an illustration (human skeleton carrying a profusion of red roses) that he'd used in another context, but which has come to be identified in today’s pop culture with the Grateful Dead band. It was originally one of Edmund J. Sullivan’s b/w illustrations accompanying the Edward Fitzgerald translation of The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam. The reason I knew it was created in b/w was because we had a hardcover copy of that particular Rubiyat edition (c. 1930s) on the family bookshelf when I was a kid in the 1950s.
The bookshelf was a small but well-used unit beside the fireplace. The top shelf was eventually given over to a growing set of Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia. Oh yes, that wasn’t just a gag on the old '60s TV show, Laugh-In. My mother got one volume a week as a 99-cent premium with her grocery order. The other two shelves were a mixture of general fiction - like Anatomy of a Murder, written by a family friend and fellow Yooper (from Michigan’s U.P.) John Traver. That book was turned into a tense crime-thriller movie (same title) starring Jimmy Stewart. There were also a few books that were probably were equally thrilling to my dad, such as How to Wind D.C. Armatures. The books I remember best, the ones I read cover to cover, over and over, were The Rubiyat, Modern Art by Thomas Craven, and Bullfinch’s Mythology. All were excellent sources of culture and inspiration, not to mention drawings and paintings of nudes of both genders, as well as rather vague/cryptic references to other adult activities, e.g. Zeus (who just could not seem to keep it in his toga) seducing numerous hapless mortals. Thrilling in its own way to a curious kid barely into double digits. And finally, there was a thick blue hardcover anthology of The Best Loved Poems of the American People, a title which I personally would have hyphenated as “Best-Loved”—but admittedly I tend to over-hyphenate, and three volumes of Charles Dickens.
In retrospect, this simple selection shaped my entire life. I have degrees in art history and fine art, spent my entire working years in the arts, became a writer of poetry and non-fiction, and have been a life-long reader and learner. As an adult, every place I’ve lived that had the available space has had a bedroom converted into a library. The focus has shifted several times over the years, including the addition of a shelf devoted entirely to birding, and one to field guides of all other kinds of fauna and flora, eastern and western. But you can still browse the titles of my books today and find the offspring and the legacy of those first few.