Book Porn, no.3


In the final track of the classic Smiths’ album, The Queen is Dead, Morrissey croons his tardy discovery that “some girls are bigger than others.”  The same is true of paperbacks.  And size, as they say, matters.  There’s a power of attraction in gratuitous endowment.  By force of its own mass, and regardless of subject matter, a large paperback generates a kind of gravitational pull.  Do laws of physics place any ultimate constraints on size?  At what point will glue binding simply fail?  And is that fail-point determined by the total number of pages or the total weight of pages?  Such are the mysteries of love.  But while oversized hardbounds revolve in our eyes like solemn Jupiters of desire, absurdly thick paperbacks draw us in like insatiable black holes, concentrating acquisitional lust in objects deliciously balanced between virginal modesty and button-bursting extravagance.

Note how careful I am not to crease their spines in the act of love.  Clarel, Herman Melville (Northwestern University Press): 893 pages; The Bible with Apocrypha (Oxford World’s Classics): 1824 pages; Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (New York Review of Books): 1382 pages; Tales and Sketches, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Library of America): 1200 pages.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Book Porn, no.3

  1. Wonderful post, & fine prose, as usual.

    And I would add, Ian, that if indeed you have read “Clarel” from start to finish you are in a very exclusive club––more exclusive by far than the club whose membership requires the reading of “The Fairie Queene” from start to finish. I’ve read only those small bits of “Clarel” that appear in the 2-vol Library of America anthology of 19th century American poetry. Should I someday embark on the larger voyage?

    Melville’s “Battle Pieces” I’ve always deemed the best response in poetry to the Civil War (and one of the best single volumes of poetry out of the 19th century as a whole, for that matter, no matter what the theme). Now, there’s a short book with readers & yet nonetheless it is scandalously under-read, in the professoriate at least (they largely content themselves with Whitman’s “Drum Taps” & move on).

    Finally, is “The Executioner’s Song” (1056 pages) somewhere on your shelf of big paperbacks?

    Best,
    Mark

  2. Ian Wolcott

    I admit I haven’t read all of Clarel. I’ve read maybe half of it. There are some really wonderful passages, to be sure, but it’s so uneven and I find the tetrameter distracting. I wish he’d written it in blank verse, or (better) in prose. But I hope to finish Clarel someday.

    I saw a nice little hardbound copy of Battle Pieces at a bookshop in Santa Cruz a couple years ago. I wish I’d bought it. I have only those portions of it included in the Penguin Selected volume.

    My son’s been learning poems in school (some RLS, the blander bits of Dickinson). I’ve been trying to teach him ‘The Maldive Shark.’

    And no, I haven’t read (and don’t own) the Mailer. I do have some very chunky Taschen paperbacks that might have fit well in this post, but I wanted to save them for later.

  3. Having read half of “Clarel,” Ian, still locates you somewhere in the company of, say, a few hundred folk in America? I doff my hat, sir.

    As for “Battle Pieces,” there’s a nice paperback facsimile edition currently in print of the first (1866). And with a good introduction by Lee Rust Brown. By the way, Melville wrote a lovely, haunting prefatory note for that book, which you may not have seen, if you’ve encountered its contents in anthologies:

    “With few exceptions, the Pieces in this volume originated in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond. They were composed without reference to collective arrangement, but being brought together in review, naturally fall into the order assumed.

    “The events and incidents of the conflict—making up a whole, in varied amplitude, corresponding with the geographical area covered by the war—from these but a few themes have been taken, such as for any cause chanced to imprint themselves upon the mind.

    “The aspects which the strife as a memory assumes are as manifold as are the moods of involuntary meditation—moods variable, and at times widely at variance. Yielding instinctively, one after another, to feelings not inspired from any one source exclusively, and unmindful, without purposing to be, of consistency, I seem, in most of these verses, to have but placed a harp in a window, and noted the contrasted airs which wayward wilds have played upon the strings.”

    Yours,
    Mark

  4. Ian Wolcott

    Thanks. “Moods of involuntary meditation” is nice. Bound to the martial theme (plus “strife” and “variance”), however, he kind of puts a diabolical spin on Coleridge’s Eolian Harp. Melville in his Cosmic Pessimist face.

  5. Yes. Melville the great counter-Romantic, counter-Transcendentalist. “The power of blackness” is what he spoke of, when he wasn’t speaking of the “whiteness of the whale,” which, as it happens, amounts to pretty much the same thing for him: it is almost as if humanity were a nightmare from which, someday, we may hope to awaken. Forgive me that Schopenhaurian touch. But as Melville says in “Battle Pieces”:

    Nature’s dark side is heeded now—
    (Ah! optimist-cheer disheartened flown)—
    A child may read the moody brow
    Of yon black mountain lone.
    With shouts the torrents down the gorges go,
    And storms are formed behind the storm we feel:
    The hemlock shakes in the rafter, the oak in the driving keel.

    Yrs.,
    Mark

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