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

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

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 which is a specialized form of critical thinking.
One of the things that made the classics 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 these books. 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 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.
As I was growing away from philosophy I developed deeper enjoyment of literature. Many of the greats were to be found in the Modern Library. 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.

I originally posted this on MONDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2008 on my other site. I will not even name that site here because it is very partisan and one of my main goals on this site is to maintain a totally apolitical atmosphere.

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