Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
Briunt Norton

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Modern Library

When I was young I read a lot, all kinds of books. I read those horrible books written for specific age groups and then slowly went beyond to the classics. Sometimes I look back and wonder what it was that so drew me. I know part of it was deep insecurity. I had no sense of purpose or goal . And I felt that if I read and studied the books that centuries of consensus called the best I would become better by learning what mankind valued most highly. And that is how it works. Matthew Arnold called education an introduction, “to the best that has been thought or said.” If done properly it includes developing critical thinking. And also developing a sense for recognizing and appreciating beauty.
One of the things that made the classics superficially attractive was Random House’s Modern Library. They are simple but delectable little books. When I was in school they mainly published the best writers from Homer and Confucius to Joyce and Proust. In those days I spent dozens of hours a week in libraries and these beautiful little jewels of books were sprinkled throughout the stacks. Initially I didn’t read any of them. But I took them down off the shelf and just enjoyed looking at them. They were smaller and had more pleasant proportions than most books. They all had essentially the same binding. It was clean, symmetrical and appealing and each had a little surprise: the title and author’s name in the small dark box. When younger I was always mildly startled by the art deco naked runner with the torch. I grew up with Pinkie and Blue Boy and landscapes on the walls. I didn’t know from art deco. In spite of their modest size they were not inconsequential. Printed on heavy paper they had real heft. And I loved to open them to the back and look over the list of all of the titles offered . Here I slowly made familiar objects of all the names. Turgenev, Pepys, Plutarch, Goethe, Gogol and many others slowly began seeping into my consciousness.
Then I slowly began reading them. One I tried earliest was Gulliver’s Travels. It moves slowly compared to what I was accustomed to. There would be pages and pages of minute descriptions. I couldn’t hack it. I don’t think I made it to page forty. Then I started checking out some of the Caedmon recordings of plays. Some Shakespeare, some O’Neil and lots of Tennessee Williams. I didn’t enjoy any of this but I forced myself because I was sure it was good for me. In those days the average American education didn’t prepare a ninth grader for Shakespeare.
I kept at it. I was a senior in high school when I read Plato’s Republic. And even though most of it went over my head it was the first of the bunch I recall enjoying. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Modern Library edition; it was probably the Viking Portable edition.) From there I went to reading histories of philosophy and many individual thinkers. I ended up with some fondness for Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein. When I entered college I intended to get a string of degrees in philosophy. But I soon realized that my mind does not have the acute gift for logic that serious philosophy requires.
I began to turn more towards literature. I had read Clifton Fadiman’s ‘Lifetime Reading Plan.’ And my interest was peaked by his description of Thomas Mann’s prose. He called it musical and talked about Mann’s use of Wagner’s leit motif technique. So I read ‘The Magic Mountain.’ and I was hooked by Mann’s slow but solid prose. I ended up reading all of his major novels: ‘Buddenbrooks,’ ‘Felix Krull, Confidence Man,’ ‘Doctor Faustus,’ Joseph and His Brothers’ and ‘Lotte in Weimar.’ But ‘The Magic Mountain’ was a great intro to Mann and to the classics of Western civilization. It is the story of a simple young man who accidentally ends up in the company of a couple of very educated European scholars. One of the men is a product of the more spiritual traditions while the other is a materialist. They enter into a fight for the young man’s intellect and soul. But so much else happens since five hundred plus pages can contain much.
As I was growing away from philosophy I developed deeper enjoyment of literature. And I had begun to haunt bookstores. Used bookstores were full of Modern Library editions in those days (the seventies and eighties). And I discovered some other great and attractive books. The Loeb Classical Library filled some of the spaces left by the Modern Library, e. g., Strabo. But the Loebs are higher priced. Penguin books are great. The Oxford Classics are ok but don’t have the grace and charm of the Modern Library. The Viking Portables are pleasant and reasonably priced. I highly recommend the multivolume collection of English verse if only for the marvelous and enlightening introductions to each by W. H. Auden.
The other day I looked up the Modern Library on the net. And they still have a hell of a fine line up of books. Though they seem comparatively more expensive and I didn’t see any frequent flyer type of program. And, no, they didn’t pay me to write this.

1 comment:

  1. Chris,

    Yukio at Critical Narrative sent me to this site, and I have been looking in at spare moments.

    I have been completely captured by your entrancing tribute to the Modern Library, one of my first loves as well! My goal in making my way through whatever classics I could identify was less lofty than yours: I wasn't seeking self-improvement, I was entering a time machine--"the" time machine in which great minds were happy to tell me about their moments in history. Joy of joys! The world suddenly was much more densely populated, and sometimes even with a kindred spirit who shared an image or an idea that I had plucked out of my own reality and imagination.

    So, thanks for this excellent post! Traveling back to the place of wonder with the Modern Library has been a great adventure!