Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Shelf elves and printer's devils





Arthur Koestler spoke of the Library Angel - that bookish spirit that makes texts appear at just the right time. I wish to speak now of a lesser, but highly active, spirit of stacks that we may call the Shelf Elf. His number is larger than the Dewey system. He not only makes books turn up in unexpected ways; he can hide them or even make them disappear. He may have been at work in the strange behavior of files and papers described in my previous post ("Rule of Three").
-   He is often at play in my preferred bookshops, which tend to be quirky independents and havens of twice-sold tales. One of these shelf-elf-haunted establishments is just down the street from my home, which is a mixed blessing because in the course of a year a significant portion of this bookshop's stock migrates up the street into my house.
-  It was in this bookshop that I found the meaning of a funny dream word (chantepleure) in a book placed at eye level from my point of vision at the door, so I could not fail to see it, and was thereby drawn into trans-temporal intrigues involving a poet-prince of Orleans in whose name Joan of Arc went to war.
-  It was here, over the holidays, that I repaired with the feeling that there was something of Jorge Luis Borges that I urgently needed to read that day, Newly arrived, casually dropped on top of a short stack in the literature section, was an English translation of The Book of Sand which I naturally purchased. I opened this collection of Borges' later stories and was immediately engrossed in a tale ("The Other".) in which Borges meets a much younger self on a bench. Borges tells his younger self what life will bring him over the forty years that divide them. The young Borges, who believes he is dreaming, will forget the information he has received from his older self, letting it fade like a dream. Thjs tale weaves together two of my favorite themes, the many varieties of the double and the relativity of time, and I was grateful to the shelf elf that put it in front of me.
-   The shelf elf has allies. One of them is the printer's devil, a term that I am using here in a different sense from what it meant for the young Sam Clemens, laboring over trays of type in print shops in Hannibal, Missouri or Keokuk, Iowa, before he became Mark Twain.
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Last weekend, I detected fresh collusion between the shelf elf and the printer's devil. I had decided to return to my studies of the history and mythology of the Baltic, in preparation for new adventures in dream archeology in Lithuania in March. Settled in my favorite reading chair, I opened the Penguin edition of a book called The Northern Crusades, by Eric Christiansen. I had been reliably informed that this is the only accessible book in English on the last crusades authorized by the Vatican, which were directed not against Muslims, but against European pagans, in Lithuania and neighboring areas.
-   When I opened the cover, I found myself looking at one of those standard Penguin author bios that are printed at the front, not the back, of their editions. The odd thing was that this micro-biography was not of Christiansen but of Charlotte Bronte.
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Mystified, I turned quickly to the title page, and read:
-Charlotte Bronte
THE PROFESSOR

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I kept turning pages. Next came a scholarly essay on Charlotte Bronte's least-known (and by the admission of the scholar, least memorable) novel, followed by the author's own preface and the first pages of The Professor itself. The text of The Professor stops in midsentence at the bottom of page 48, but is continued quite grammatically by the text at the top of page 23 of The Northern Crusades so we read "My brother was/between kinship groups". From here until the end of the book, we are off into the narrative of unholy wars fought under the sign of the cross.
-   This is not the first time the the production department of a publishing house has screwed up. Just a coincidence, you say? Certainly coincidence, but the kind that feels both meaningful and personal. The title of Charlotte Bronte's novel spoke to me. My middle daughter, now a professor, was with us for Christmas. I myself am now a professor again - a visiting professor for the School of Consciousness Studies at John F. Kennedy University in California, where I'll teach a class on "Synchronicity: When the Universe Gets Personal".
-    As I read the excellent introduction to the Bronte by Heather Glen (now that sounds like a fine Scots name) my interest quickened. I learned that even after her novel Jane Eyre became a bestseller, Charlotte Bronte could not get The Professor published; it came out posthumously. So there's a story about a famous author's struggle to bring something to the public she believes in but the publishers don't "get". That speaks to metoo
-- Heather Glen discusses The Professor as a fictional cousin of the self-help books coming into vogue in England in the mid-19th century. The big bestseller in this emerging genre, that gave the genre its name, was Self-Help (1859) whose author had the wondrous name of Samuel Smiles and had been encouraged by previous publications in a series titled with equal felicity the Library of Entertaining Knowledge. This again piqued my interest; one of the new books I have in the works will probably be published under the "self-help" rubric, which I had previously believed to be an American invention.
-   Due diligence. I went back to the magic bookshop and asked if they had a copy of The Professor. They did. I carried home the old 1900 Harper & Row edition, its pages still uncut, and sat in my reading chair, knife in hand, slicing my way through. The first hundred pages gripped me in their account of tight-laced, caste-bound English society, and a young man setting off to make his own way as an English language teacher in Brussels. After that, the novel becomes dull and motionless, offensive in the chauvinist opinions of its narrator on the superiority of the English. Charlotte's male alter ego, whose preposterous name ("Crimsworth") is rendered even more so in the accents of Brussels ("Creemsvort") is notably prejudiced against the Flemish, and in this, no doubt, we may read something of Ms. Bronte's own disappointments as a teacher at a pensionnat in Brussels.
-    If there's a message here, it's not in the full text of The Professor but rather, I suspect, in the theme of two books bound in one set of covers. When we leave The Professor in the two-headed Penguin, we are in the mind of a young Englisman on a mill-owner's estate in the early 19th century. Then we are flung at once - in the second half of a sentence - into the situation of a king of Sweden in the high Middle Ages, facing jeers and stones from a violent and unruly assembly. Catapulted from one life into another by a printer's devil. Borges, knowing the magic and the deviltry of words on a page, as well as the inconstancy of time, would have enjoyed this.

8 comments:

Rebecca said...

Professor,
I could not imagine a better candidate to teach such a course. The number three is one of my constant companions. There is always that tug of certainty before one encounters the Shelf Elf; I think the key is to immediately and intuitively act on that instinct. I wondered initially if Bronte's, "The Professor" was the one you were referring to in a previous dialogue. I should have trusted my initial tug! The eternal wordplay...you are right, Borges would have enjoyed this. Puppetmaster of the printer's devil? I wonder...

Robert Moss said...

Ah Rebecca, we should always go with that initial tug. My instinct, actually, was not to trouble with the full text of "The Professor" but to play just with what was in the bizarrely misprinted Penguin volume. And this would have been quite sufficient to follow the plan of the printer's devil.

However, I've been interested in how the Bronte siblings grew their literary imaginations, and especially by how Charlotte and Branwell grew little worlds by deplying Branwell's toy soldiers and letting them become something more than was said on their boxes. This closely matches my own boyhood fancies and one of my long-running modes of dreaming. So I gave myself the assignment of reading "The Professor". I would not recommend this novel to all but dedicated Bronte scholars; the narrative voice squeaks and croaks towards the last end, when the male narrator refers to a child's "statuesque LIPS". I doubt that making me read "The Professor" was part of the print devil's plan, unless he is truly a devil.

I am now inspired by a friend who wrote a college paper on Charlotte Bronte and recently portrayed her in improv theatre to seek out her "Tales of Angria". Angria is the name of the magic kingdom Charlotte and Branwell created, and I'll hope that there are no "statuesque lips" or "broad and stupid Flemish" in these stories, which are not being delivered by the shelf elp but by the gnomes of internet commerce.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Today the shelf elf plopped down in front of me "The City of Dreaming Books" by Walter Moers. I've never heard of the author but I'm going to give it a shot. What is interesting about it was the timing...it came across my "field" around the time I pulled up this blog. Working at a library my reading list grows way too fast, and at times it's overwhelming. So one of my intentions this year as far as what I read is concerned is to stick with the tug. Robert, you mentioned in an earlier post (or maybe one of your books) about how almost all of your reading/research has been directed by dreams (& 3 Only Things). This is a "rule" I want to follow myself, as it seems like it will assist me in growing the Bigger story.
On January 3rd I had a dream I was swallowing silver coins. Yesterday someone returned to the library of babel Borges' collected fiction. I opened it up to a place where someone had left a bookmark and found the tale "The Zahir" a story about a coin. Of course I read it.

Robert Moss said...

Almost any Borges story is good coin to swallow, Justin. "The Zahir", in its origins in the writer's life, is a splendid example of how the creative mind can feed on the primal energy of great pain - in this case, his grief at the loss of Norah Lange in 1929, the date on the coin that is the Zahir whose image you cannot forget - and bring through something of haunting power and beauty.

I'm glad to be reminded of "The City of Dreaming Books". I glanced at it on the New Arrivals shelf of the public library in Groton CT, passing time before giving an evening talk a couple of years back; you prompt me to add it to my outrageously vast and eclectic reading list.

Yes, dream logic - through the play of synchronicity and the shelf elf at least as much as through night dreams and conscious visions - drives nearly all my research and reading. If you find yourself drawn to this way, take comfort from the knowledge that we are in good company. Listen to Jung: "All day long I have exciting ideas and thoughts. But I take up in my work only those to which my dreams direct me." I made this an epigraph to my own "Dreamgates", and I work in exactly this way.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I do feel drawn to working this way. Thanks again for the quote from Jung. I think this is a good tactic in this age of information that can so easily distract and overwhelm. Following the leads of night dreams and waking synchronicity I feel that "what I swallow" will be tend to be more nourishing to my soul.

Robert Moss said...

Swallowing something unlikely but valuable that feels good has long been regarded as an auspicious dream theme in many traditions. Swallowing a book or scroll and so ingesting divine wisdom is a familiar motif among religious Jews across the centuries, for eaxmple. I've had some dreams of swallowing scrolls or tablets containing ancient knowledge, and sometimes even less likely things, to good effect in terms of my subsequent energy and felt connection with the traditions they came from. A very interesting theme to investigate, cross-culturally and among contemporary dreamers.

Susan said...

Remind me please to visit the Library of Entertainment. :)

I had been saying to myself recently that I wanted to re read The Bhagavad Gita. I needed to get a copy, and there it was today waiting patiently for me on a shelf in a shared office space!

Yesterday in the library while looking for something else, my eyes land on Aliens in Exeter. Apparently alot of people saw ships back in the 60's in Exeter, NH. The town of my new office. What really struck me was how could they write aqan entire book on this. Today, I walk past a basement bookstore that has a poster...non other than that Aliens in Exeter book. I go down a bunch of stairs winding here and there ( I actually thought of you Robert at that point and how you would have loved it) to ask the bookseller what is up with that book. He said he had only one copy and it was not what he normally sells. He specializes in old war books from around the world. Well~~ I guess I will go and get that book, since it is popping in front of me. Aliens in Exeter??!

Robert Moss said...

Hey Susan, Thanks for the fun shelf elf sightings from New Hampshire. If I had moved to this town I might see that poster as a mirror. Maybe I am one of the "aliens" that has landed in Exeter :-)