Write As If Your Uncles Are Dead
Written April 1, 2016
My uncle Dick died on February 4, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Last week, on Good Friday morning, I rented a U-Haul and headed to his house in Beverly to claim some of his goods.
The windfall of inheritance is odd. At times that day it felt cold and mercenary to sift through a dead man's things--especially someone I loved and admired. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that I was periodically surprised that I was perfectly fine with it. I loved him, he was a great guy, I wish he did not die so suddenly, but hell yes I'll take that dining room set and anything else that is cool.
Among the cool things I snagged were a bunch of books, including a partial set of Everyman classics--and I mean classics-- like Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Erasmus and Montaigne. I also picked up William H. Prescott's "The Conquest of Mexico" and "The Conquest of Peru," which are each giants and here bound in one volume. I landed a hard-bound "Origin of Species." If I ever decide to read my copy of "Finnegan's Wake," (helped a friend move-- he died and went to California), I now have Henry Morton Robinson and Joseph Campbell's "Skeleton Key" to assist me.
I am not sure if these were actually my uncle Dick's books or his brother George's, the eldest and the patriarch of my mom's family. He died when I was 16, and I still have many of his books, which I claimed during a similar dibs mission in the same house in 1991. Among the gems I got back then were Will and Ariel Durant's complete "Story of Civilization" (read one and one half of 11 volumes so far). George was the erudite one, so my guess is that was his Erasmus and Prescott tucked away on a basement shelf. But now, I will never know!
It's apt that part of my haul were Everyman editions. The series specializes in highbrow Western Civ masterpieces, the kind that earn authors busts in museums and statues in parks. I mean, Erasmus was painted by Hans Holbein, so you know that dude was as serious as the heart attack which, I assume, took my uncle. Each edition begins with the following quote from the medieval mystery play "Everyman":
Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide,
In thy most need to go by thy side.
That's Knowledge talking, as in a character personifying that quality. Everyman (i.e., you and me), has just died, and Knowledge accompanies him on his journey to the next world. Before he gets Knowledge's help, he makes a few false starts in his search for a companion-- like here with Goods. In reply to Everyman's invitation, Goods says:
Who calleth me? Everyman? What hast thou hast!
I lie here in corners, trussed and piled so high,
And in chest I am locked so fast,
Also sacked in bags, thou mayst see with thine eye,
I cannot stir; in packs low I lie.
Everyman does not take the hint, perhaps because it is pitched in late Middle English. So he says:
...I pray thee go with me,
For, peradventure, thou mayst before God Almighty
My reckoning help to clean and purify;
For it is said ever among,
That money maketh all right that is wrong.
Goods: Nay, Everyman, I sing another song,
I follow no man in such voyages...
This is the truth, Everyman, and my new Everyman set proves it.
The classics I pinched--about 15 in all--are now sitting in storage. The bookshelves in my living room are already overpacked with favorites and, I am afraid, with scores of other books that I have planned to read for years. So I am not sure what to do with these new ones.
Why did I claim them? What are the odds I will read Erasmus's "In Praise of Folly" in the next few... OK, ever? I scored well over a dozen books from George's estate almost 25 years ago, and have only read a few of them in the ensuing decades. The rest lie in corners, trussed and piled so high.
There is a fine line between aspiration and pretense. To me it's simple: I hope that I will have time to read these classics one day. To others, it's telling: an unread book is a pose.
Here is one of my favorite scenes from "The Great Gatsby." Nick Carraway encounters with the man with owl-eyed glasses in Gatsby's library, which Carraway describes as "high Gothic" and "panelled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas":
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?” He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”
Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”
The dining room set is in good shape. There are some small nicks here and there on the table, yet it's in excellent condition. Most of the books are in much better shape. Mint, probably, despite each being printed before 1975. In fact, the page corners are so sharp and the spines are so strong that I must admit I wonder if they are in too good a condition. That is... Did anyone ever read them? Have these volumes always been aspirational? Is there something in the blood of me and my kindred that drives us to merely own masterpieces of the Western canon?
I will never be able to quiz Dick or George about the conquests of Mexico and Peru, the origins of species, or the nature of things-- but I do know this: if they did read these books, then they sure knew how to take care of them.