How does one live with tens of thousands of books?
I will almost certainly never have the means to ask myself that question, yet I found Monsieur BonneHow does one live with tens of thousands of books?
I will almost certainly never have the means to ask myself that question, yet I found Monsieur Bonnet's little book a charming, funny, moving, and effervescent meditation on that question, and I found myself nodding in agreement with point after point. How does one organize one's books? Even though I have only several hundred, not twenty thousand, I debate and think over that question regularly. What does one collect? Am I a "collector"? I find myself wanting all the books written by minor authors from this particular school or region, or books written by obscure writers connected to my favorite ones---and Bonnet speaks extensively about these chains of reference and strange logic that lovers of reading go through.
But this is not a book about reading, but rather a book about living with books. It is a book about the act of curating knowledge, experience, aspirations, dreams, memories, pleasures, and about the ways in which the things we own help to define, to curate, ourselves. Yes, this is a book about how things we purchase make us who we are, or at least help to explicate who we are. But strangely, these things---books---do not lead to solipsism, or to self-absorption. This is because books are fundamentally about others, about things outside of ourselves, and our attempts to configure our relationship to those things outside of ourselves. Bonnet does a superb job of considering those facts. The ways in which books=self(or selves!) is especially pronounced when he considers the ways in which fictional characters seem more real than the authors who made them.
This is not nostalgia; Bonnet admits, without any real sense of regret, the rise of the internet, and the differences it makes in the way we relate to things outside of ourselves, and the ways in which we find and retrieve information. Bonnet is not making judgments about the digital vs. the physical here, and this is to his credit. In turn, what he does produce is something quite magical and necessary: perhaps in 500 years, if there are those who want to make sense of how a certain class of people lived at the turn of the 20/21st centuries, and how they approached life, this little volume is a strong contender for helping to contextualize and describe that way of life. Bibliomaniacs like Bonnet are a sort of postmodern monk, and seeing his rule of life on display is entertaining and enlightening. And for those like me, I find myself not cloistered, but nevertheless a part of the order; the hermits of bibliomania may be of smaller means and libraries than the cloistered brothers, but we are nevertheless of similar minds. Bonnet's little volume is a rule of life for us. ...more
I could described MacAuley as a poor man's James Salter, and the heavy, cerebral, and often violent stories bear some similarities to those of that otI could described MacAuley as a poor man's James Salter, and the heavy, cerebral, and often violent stories bear some similarities to those of that other great, under-appreciated, minor American master. Yet MacAuley writes less poetically, and more sparsely; Hemingway's shadow seems to loom. Powerful, economical, and somewhat messy--the over-reliance on metaphor and simile leads to some clunky and even laughable lines, and these seem oddly out of place, like something written by some other author, or lines played with by an editor to the point of being unrecognizable.
I say all this, because we have to understand how good MacAuley can be, even despite some flaws that illustrate why these are not classic stories. Flawed as they may be, these are quite good to incredible stories, and evoke things about the "Greatest Generation" that we forget, or never knew. The aftermath of war, even one as noble as World War II, is full of confusion and ennui and a chance to evaluate honestly the experiences of a just-passed event that was necessarily obscured by patriotic myopia, by the short-sightedness necessary for survival, for endurance, for living through what had just passed. And that's what we see on display here with the opening stories--the best ones--that retrospectively explore the experiences of the just-passed war, and the ways even its noble, necessary engagements dehumanize. This is not to say that these are stories of a pacifist, but that they are merely moments from the difficulty of the life of war, told by a man who lived through such things. The title story is a small masterpiece, and the ways in which it commands us to reconsider what we pity, who we pity, why we pity, and what causes us to abandon pity. The other three stories are similarly strong.
The rest of the stories are divided into two groups: domestic studies of a childhood between-the-World-Wars in the small-town Midwest, and academic stories. The academic stories are the weakest; while they work as solid black comedies satirizing the self-importance of academia and academics, they are, at best, merely charming (I say this while admitting that the final story stays with me as a sort of comedic fable of the awful). The domestic stories are strong in their own right, and provide a vivid portrait of the life that produced men like MacAuley. In the end, however, these work best as character studies of the home life and childhood that produced the men who fight, endure, and become "heroes" in the war; they read like prequels to the war stories, and that's perhaps the best way to understand them.
While uneven, even the weakest stories are worth reading. And the war stories are, again, minor American classics. The portrait of a generation here is nuanced, beautiful, and necessary. And as the 1940s and 50s become more and more mythic, The End of Pity is a useful guide to the America that was then, and beautiful unto themselves....more