Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The canonization

At the LRB, John Lanchester on the Library of America:
I am an abject fan of the Library. I own, I find, ten of its volumes: three of Parkman, one each of Henry James, Adams, Baldwin, Frost and Stevens, the new Wilson, and an anthology of writing about baseball. The books are lovely, lovely objects. They are about the nicest books I have. American books are in general printed to much higher standards than British books. (Ask publishers about that, and they always say that it’s to do with economies of scale: five times as big an audience equals higher print runs equals lower costs equals the possibility to make nicer books. So they say.) The Library takes that tendency about as far as it will go: it’s hard not to take the volumes down from the shelves and stroke them, like a Bond villain fondling a cat.

What is really hard, though, is to read them. The books are so gorgeous, so marmoreal, that I find them unreadable. Not unreadable in the Pierre Bourdieu/Edward Bulwer-Lytton sense, and not unreadable in theory – I want to read them, I really do. It’s just that in practice, I don’t. I once got about a quarter of the way through Parkman’s Oregon Trail and have made two or three failed attempts on Adams’s novel Democracy, but never made it more than about five pages in. Apart from that, it’s been a total bust. As for the Pléiade, my record of ownership is fairly strong, but equally unblemished by actual reading. I have six volumes: three of Proust, two of Simenon, and one of Taoist philosophy (don’t ask). If pressed, I would say that the Pléiade volumes are theoretically more readable, or less not-readable, than the Library of America; something to do with the sexily diminutive format. This is pure theory, however. In practice they are both equally easy to not-read.

That makes 16 volumes of beautifully produced and entirely unread great writing. What is it about these amazingly gorgeous books that makes one not want to read them?
I will resist the impulse to paste in the rest of the piece also--it's very apt, though....

1 comment:

  1. I have heard this view expressed by others, and it always weirds me out. Though I do appreciate his making the same complaint about the Pleiades, since I've gotten used to hearing them described as superior to anything us grotty Americans can ever produce but do not happen to own any, since my ignorant ass cannot read French. But the fact is that the volumes in the LOA series are compact, fit easily in the hand, are eye-pleasing, and, in my experience, make for dandy reading. I would suspect that some kind of reverse snobbery is at work if I had not this view expressed by some smart people.

    One thing about the argument that strikes me as not just wrong-headed but out-of-date refers to the supposed greater readability, based on their being cheaper and more democratic, of paperbacks. This is the view of someone who is on enough mailing lists that he hasn't had to buy a paperback in a good long while. For many years now, they have been "affordable" only in comparison to the outrageous prices now routinely stamped on hardcover books. And if you were faced with the choice of buying, say, current paperback editions of four separate novels by Faulkner or Nabokov and one LOA hardcover that collects all four plus supplementary materials, I'd bet that in many cases the LOA would be the better buy.