Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Origins of Wednesday xcvii: Books to let go of

Winston Churchill, invoked already in
the casual preposition in this title,
argued equally wisely once for a cas-
ual relationship with one's books, ad-
vising to pick them up occasionally,
turn to a page or two, and place it a-
gain where it may be found. This reli-
ance, apart from taking place more and
more these days through the wits of a
search engine, among pages not even in
physical reach, touchingly neglects de-
accessioning books now and then, as is
not unheard of between academic years.
Physical contexts are evidently beneath
discussion, except in American politics,
where there is little else that counts.


Can we agree to think of a book to let
go of? Then we must agree to think of a
book, unless they are all alike. In fair-
ness to readers in languages other than
English, let us agree on a book in wide
translation, which originated in English.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will
serve, I think, with its exorbitant ad-
vantage, further, of discussing American
politics without omitting the physical.

Can one imagine a preparedness to dis-
pense with the book as if it never did
exist? We live with the Parthenon, and
yet have allowed its vestiges not to be
brought to London; could we not live
without its having existed? But that's
the difference. We accept the Parthenon
as a matter of form, without assimilat-
ing its purposes and implementation, as
we are browbeaten to respect the book.
But the book can be with us physically.

And the Parthenon? Stepping by my copy
of Vincent Scully's notes on the build-
ing, on my way to collect a mug of cof-
fee just now, I plucked it to hand and
saw, A critic wrote at the time that 
Guernica [Picasso, 1937] looked like
a Greek pediment that had been hit by
a locomotive, and that is, of course,
exactly how the west pediment of the
Temple of Zeus looks in its recon-
structed fragments. What search engine
will give me spontaneous revelation,
and lift coffee from humdrum habit?

This is Churchill all over again. Hold-
ing the physical decanter of the thing,
is a stage of readiness and indebted-
ness we can't approach, even in Athens.
Think, the book, and know where it is:
a precarious impression at best, but a
deeply embedded one. Possibly this is
why Churchill's great contemporary,
Harry Truman, counseled getting a dog.
We know Huckleberry Finn so casually.

Vincent Scully
Architecture: The
  Natural and the
St. Martin's Press©

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