Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Literary Life

Today's entry, like Tuesday's, is offered with apologies: this has been one of those very rare weeks when I've been unable to find the usual amount of time to devote to blogging. I expect that all will be back to normal by next week, but for now I'll simply share a passage from The Literary Life: A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene from 1900 to 1950 (1968), edited by Robert Phelps and Peter Deane.

The book addresses the literary events and personages of each year in that span through lists of births, deaths, publications, and major events, supported by quotations and a wonderful selection of author photos. It's a Anglophilic bibliophile's dream, a book nerd's delight, as the following rhapsodic passage from the preface suggests:
And while his pen is in hand, there is something else he can try, another use to which such an Almanac as this can be put. Or perhaps "use" is too serious a word; perhaps "game" is better, a personal game, to be played by one reader at a time, for his own sake, his own self-knowing. What it amounts to is relating the mainstream of Anglo-Americna literature to his own secret history. This is not as frivolous as it may sound. For each of us--in his own rememebring, at least, cannot help coloring all the august public events with his own homely private ones.

Take a milestone from your own annals--your birthday, your graduation from college, your loss of virginity; a broken leg, a trip to Paris, your first cigarette--and see what was going on simultaneously around you that same year, or month, or week. It is an egocentric but also an exhilarating, harmless, and curiously satisfying experience. What it makes--or recovers--is a connection, a modest link, between your own life and literature's , a community, you might say, that has always been waiting there.
Though I wasn't alive during any of the years covered by this almanac, I can see the appeal nonetheless of an imaginary almanac of my own years: twenty-two years old and reading the new Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey at just the right time, when I was myself, like Odysseus but without the drama, trying to figure out where my home would be; twenty-three and employed at a small bookstore, setting down the Beckett I had been flipping through and slicing open the carton from Random House that contained the first English-language edition of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; twenty-six and plucking Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai off the New Arrivals shelf at the library, then mere days later pressing it excitedly into the hands of my new wife; and so many, many more. Surely you have your own, too?

I'll write more about the pleasures of this book in the coming weeks; for now, you can read about Phelps at the Neglected Books Page, where I first learned of him, and in Michael Dirda's appreciation of him in the American Scholar.

No comments:

Post a Comment