Nibbling at Shakesp. Cont.

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THIS year the first day of summer, drifting through the treetops from the hills beyond the lake, again caught me by surprise. I always vow to have finished spring's tasks before it arrives -- to have swished the cobwebs from the rafters, washed the rainstreaks from the windows, swept up the seed-husks left beneath the wood stove by the wintering mice. But the solstice always finds me half unbuttoned. There are, of course, so many fine excuses. This year it was the rain and its delicious indoor afternoo ns, cozy with books, rocking themselves away before the fire. On such days one can forgive any number of cobwebs. So it wasn't until a sunny morning well past midsummer's eve that I cast a critical eye on the small two-window shed that serves as my warm-weather study. I had been reading a particularly fine essay on the relationship of architecture to serious book reading -- complete with asides about the invention of bookshelves, and the need for domestic silence and solitude, and Montaigne's library in his round tower -- when the spring-cleanerly spirit descended upon me. Rag in hand, I attacked the broad plywoo d desktop, flailed the dust from the window screens, and whisked the floor. And at last I turned to the bookshelves.

I had built them some years before out of plain pine and common nails, and each summer had stocked them with the raw materials for whatever research project was under way. But for several years, as our family had moved about, they had stood empty. Looking at them, I remembered the boxes of books still in storage up in the barn. Now, I thought, it's time.

``O, Dad!'' my daughters chorused in near-unison, ``doweYHAVta?'' But they had both come of readerly age, and a little logic convinced them that there might be something in those boxes to whet their appetites. Pretty soon they showed up at the door of my study, puffing under the weight of well-taped movers' boxes labeled ``Novel: James to Hem.'' and ``lit. crit.'' and ``16th C.''

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Then they left, and the morning wore on, and I labored in silent chaos. For no book-lover, I suspect, can simply open one box of books at a time. No, they must all be sampled, all emptied and stacked precariously on chairs and tables and floor, all handled and pondered and reordered and relived on their way to the shelf. Midway through my toil, resting on a box labeled ``antiques, etc'' -- which would shortly yield up a leather-bound copy of Whittier's ``Snow-bound'' and Volume V of the lavishly illustrated Botanical Magazine; or, Flower-Garden Difplayed (London, 1792) -- I fell into a chapter-long conversation with Jane Austen's Emma, still ``handsome, clever, and rich . . . with very little to distress or vex her.'' Leaning idly against the window jamb, I lost myself in Newland Archer's biting remarks on 19th-century New York society in Edith Wharton's ``The Age of Innocence.'' Finally, knife in hand, I slit the tape on the box labeled ``Shakesp.''

I thought as I opened it that something was amiss. The books were there, all right: small blue-bound copies of the Yale Shakespeare, paperback critical studies, a couple of biographies. But the ones on top had an odd patina of dust. Here and there, as I delved deeper, tiny flakes of paper fluttered about. At last, in a corner under G. Wilson Knight's ``The Crown of Life,'' I found the conclusive evidence: a heap of paper scraps littered with acorn shells, the work, no doubt, of a family of red squirrels.

Why they had chosen to nest with the Bard, I don't know. Their taste, however, was elegant: Ignoring lesser plays and modern commentaries, they had confined themselves to the sonnets and to ``King Lear.'' In deference, no doubt, to my scholarly impecuniosity, they had settled for paperbacks. Yet how disappointing must have been their efforts! Limiting themselves to the upper margins of Lear, they had barely nibbled Edmund's soliloquy on ``the excellent foppery of the world'' -- and never even touch ed Lear's tempestuous battles with the winter storms. They plunged deeper into the sonnets, yet seemed to have fared the worse. There, in the sourest tradition of the pedant, they munched dutifully through the introduction. Then they devoured the footnotes of the first six sonnets -- and never once tasted the poetry itself. With an irony worthy of Petrarch, they had played out their hibernation in a rabble of undigested scholarship -- while, inches away, the courtly pentameter of Sonnet 6 began:

Then let not winter's ragged hand deface

In thee thy summer ere thou be distilled.

Musing on all that, I finished putting my books in order -- even the two gnawed ones. Their spines were intact, so I shelved them along with the others. Now and then, as I glance at them, I think about this thing called reading -- how delicate an art it really is, how it must be nurtured and nested, and how we acquire our taste for it in the long winter nights of the heart. And now and then, as I walk about the woods among a scurry of squirrels, I wonder what they make of Shakespeare. Do they, like stud ents sadly mistaught, think of him as nothing but a hard slog through stifling verbiage? Would they have gone farther if they had ignored the footnotes and plunged unaided into the glorious text itself? What if they'd taken their first serious bites among Fitzgerald, or Hardy, or Sinclair Lewis -- would that have lured them backward into the classics, or dulled their budding tastes?

They chatter at me from behind the paper birches, but I can't make out what they're saying.

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