Monday, October 05, 2009

Everything comes from somewhere

There are books in my house, books everywhere, and I've actually read many of them.

Yes, I really am old-fashioned.

There is a display bookcase in my living room, five shelves with glass doors that raise up. One shelf is devoted to books about Chicago. Some of these are inherited, some were gifts, some I purchased myself. I went on a real Chicago reading binge a few years back, reading all sorts of books about scandals and mobsters and corruption -- and I was struck by the frequent citation, in all these various works, to a book by Finis Farr, Chicago: A Personal History of America's Most American City. And then I noticed it, sitting on that living room shelf, a legacy from my father. And then, of course, I read it.

Another shelf is devoted to Church books. There is a multi-volume history of the Chicago Archdiocese, parish by parish, and of the institutions of the Archdiocese that I gave to my father many years ago. And there's a history of the Archdiocese that dates to the 1920s, I believe; I haven't looked at it much lately since I consulted it to help write our own parish's 100th anniversary commemorative booklet. This ancient book was the property of my granduncle, the priest. On that shelf too are my late granduncle's Bible and his (pre-Vatican II) Missal. These last two need new bindings. Someday I will provide these.

There is still another shelf where all the bindings are in excellent shape. These books were saved from my father's collection when so many worthy books were discarded -- some by the ravages of time, or unhappy floods, and some by my father himself, in a consolidating mood. But these books are all of a set: Sturdy maroon bindings with gold letters; elegant green covers; thick, buff or cream-colored pages with densely packed type. These were sold to thousands of newly-educated men of the Greatest Generation as a repository of the essential works of Western Civilization. In digest form, of course.

I don't know why these would have appealed to my father. Perhaps he hoped to plow through these all in his old age and see if he'd missed anything in the course of his own reading. Letters of Cicero are followed by selections from a Frenchman's biography of some other damned Frenchman, neither of which I'd ever heard of, followed by essays penned by some Englishman who got on Cromwell's bad side. And so on.

Maybe my father admired them for their bindings. He worked once for a book-binder.

In many houses, I imagine, these might have been the entire library: And always elegant and stiff from lack of use. These books seem designed to be admired from a distance, not read, and I have, for the most part, done as their makers intended.

But recently, between magazines and library books, and without funds to bring a new armload home from the bookstore, I have delved into these books.

Well, "delved" is too large a word for what I have done. I have sampled. I have nibbled.

And I found, after going through dozens of excerpts and letters and "lives" in one of these neglected volumes a reference to an author of whom I had heard and intended to read, but never had.

Even in my school days, "Dead White Guys" were coming into a bad odor among English teachers: You know, "Dead White Guys" like Milton or Shakespeare.

I agree that we miss a lot when we ignore the entire world in favor of the literary output of two small islands in the North Atlantic -- but I see no reason why British and Irish authors must now be punished with abandonment.

Anyway, I saw an essay or a letter by Oliver Goldsmith in the volume I was sampling and it was noted there that he was the author of The Vicar of Wakefield. Somewhere, dimly, I'd heard of that -- and I remembered one day recently when I was in the library.

I found a volume of Goldsmith's collected works small enough to carry with me on the train -- where some of my best reading is done -- and I read, and enjoyed, the novel.

Now I must digress, but only for a moment.

One of my favorite TV series is a British-Irish import, The Irish R.M., a series based on the books of Somerville and Ross. Though ostensibly about the misadventures of the retired English Major Yeates, called to be a resident magistrate (the lowest order of judge) in a small Irish coastal town, the true hero of the work (at least when he's not the villain) is Yeates' landlord and friend, Flurry Knox. We taped the series when it ran on public television here in the 80s and we watched the episodes at least once a year, sometime around the Feast of St. Patrick.

In a couple of the episodes we meet Flurry's grandmother, the matriarch of the whole area, Mrs. Knox. She disguises her affection for her grandson with expressions of contempt. She often refers to Flurry as "Tony Lumpkin."

We return now to the original narrative thread.

Having finished The Vicar of Wakefield this weekend, I paged through the volume to see if there was anything else that I recognized. She Stoops to Conquer is a play I'd heard about somewhere, and there it was in the book. I read it yesterday.

And who is in the center of all misunderstandings in that plot but Mr. Hardcastle's ignorant, spoiled, mischievous stepson... Tony Lumpkin?

It's a minor point, and those of you who've happened by today hoping for something larger must be now thoroughly disappointed. I'll probably forget the connection myself by lunchtime... dinnertime certainly.

But everything comes from somewhere. All the things in movies or books that we like, that we hold dear, were imagined by someone else and were based on things that they, the authors, liked. And if only we could understand better what influenced and inspired our favorite writers -- or directors -- the better we can appreciate what they've left for us.

And -- if you must insist on finding a larger point -- how do you hope to understand the American Constitution unless you can understand the language in which it is written and the culture of the men who created it?


Jeni said...

And yet another excellent book, if you will, that one does have to have some knowledge and understanding too of the time and culture in which it was written, transcribed, translated, etc., etc., -The Bible! Perhaps a little better understanding of that aspect might possibly give an easier understanding of some of the words it holds.

Shelby said...

That's a mighty fine big point.

landgirl said...

I'm glad to know the origin of Tony Lumpkin. And I am glad to know what you are reading outrside cyberville.