Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why I Like Books that Live on Bookshelves

There's something about the real presence of books that comforts. A virtual book is fine; reading on line is fine; I've nothing personal against Kindle (though I can't imagine what's being kindled there). I want to hold my book, smell its age and its stories quite beyond the written word, live with it, make its author present. This is reading.

I always try to catch myself when I am inclined to say I've 'read' a book. I don't think one could safely use the past tense of  'to read' to refer to books, certainly not the great books. I am always reading, always in the process of reading. I enjoy living with my books as well. I have a room (none dare call it a library) with many books on bookshelves. That room is their room; they live there, and I visit often. As they sit there, I am reading them. In a sense, they are reading me. Symbiosis.

I have a lot of paperbacks. I am an admitted bibliophile, so most are in pristine condition. They tell me something about myself. For one thing, happily, I enjoy reading. I never judge a book by its cover, but that doesn't stop a book-cover from judging me. In fact, my paperbacks tell me something about my age. I have measured my life with book-covers, especially the prices on them. The Confession of St. Augustine, 95 cents; Sons and Lovers, $2.95; Steppenwolf, $1.25; Deconstruction and Criticism, $8.95 (I remember thinking that a little steep).

This last book is interesting because it was one of those books that comes along from time to time that really hits you between the eyes. After negotiating the essays in that little tome, nothing really was the same again, certainly not when it came to reading, and even writing. There they were, the movers and shakers of the problem of the word. And there was Derrida right smack in the middle of it all. He wrote the book's longest essay, "Living On," and it is as long as any three of the others combined. He dwarfs Bloom, De Man, Miller, Hartman, all affectionately known as the "Yale Critics." Derrida has a good deal to say.

I bought the book hot off the presses in 1980 during my doctoral studies in the English Dept. at Stony Brook University. How nice to have all these thinkers in one little volume, I thought. Before we really knew what it was, my fellow grad students and I were deconstructing menus in Chinese restaurants, the front page of the NY Times, and even some poems.

After a once-through, I was invigorated and even more arrogant than I was before I read Deconstruction and Criticism. It was all  there, the event, theology, grammatology, transgressive reading, Viens, questioning the location of the text. Bad timing or good, I did my first official deconstruction on my written exams. In an essay on Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" I came out guns blazing, a true parasite on the conventional reading of the poem. I read as close as the bleeding in the poem: a bleeding knuckle, a belt buckle scrape, the destruction of the very center of a home: the kitchen. Falling pots and pans, a breath that could light a fire, a child clinging to life for fear of death. I took that death and waltz and read through the lens of any 3/4 movement of Mahler's symphonies.

The doctoral program director hated that essay; another reader on my committee loved it. I must have been doing something right.

There is nothing naive about the essays in the book; they are as fresh today as they were nearly 40 years ago. Reading them yields a place to stand in the world of John D. Caputo and the response to the speculative realists responding to the theological turn. The new theologians Caputo prays for are yet to come, but I wonder if their grandfathers are not in the pages of Deconstruction and Criticism. At $8.95,  the book compels me to say I feel old and young, as time has been friendly and cruel, either in its guise as kairos or chronos.

I am uncertain that Caputo's books have hit between the eyes, but the eyes certainly have it. I am in a place of unrest, perhaps haunted by these ideas haunting me for 40 years. As a Catholic, I am reminded about the centrality of the Tradition; but I read that tradition. I have been asking just how Caputo's work might sit atop this Tradition. Is this a case of possible assimilation, as a sense of the development of doctrine might have it? What would Newman say about this 40 year old set of problems that simply won't go away? Can postmodern strategies invigorate 5000 years of Judeo-Christian theological thinking?

Perhaps I am due for another visit to the books that live on bookshelves in my house.

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