Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More on the merits of actual books

In the parental basement a while back I found an old copy of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria. The flyleaf told me it had belonged to my Uncle Claude while he was at Lawrenceville in the fifties, and reading through his annotated copy was heart-rending. First I should tell you that my beloved uncle’s first language was French; he was born in Alexandria, Egypt, went to school in Egypt, then in Saigon, then in California during the war & then again in Cairo (where as a scrappy young boy he got into fist fights with Edward Said – see p 89 of his acclaimed memoir, Out of Place). When his older sister (my mother) left the fragrant gardens of Maadi, with their nights sleeping on the roof to catch desert breezes and their afternoon pastries at Groppi, and went off to Smith, their Belgian parents thought it would be a great idea to send young Claude to Lawrenceville. It was not. He would have preferred building things with his American friends in Cairo, or scuba diving in the Red Sea, or camping in the desert. He would have preferred anything but sitting in hallowed classrooms filled with sophisticated New Yorkers.
Instead, he struggled through Lytton Strachey – every single page bears witness to those struggles as he deciphered the precious locutions, and looked up vocabulary. His penciled definitions adorn the margins of every page: annuity, odious, nonentity, asperity, imbroglio, gyrations, piquancies, exegesis and on and on to reticence and platitude of her phraseology. Not one page is absent evidence of the assiduous study required to read this short book.
Though he now reads the engineering tomes he loves, and journals of undersea exploration, my uncle’s handwriting is still small and precise, and he still uses a mechanical pencil.

Also in the parental basement, on a shelf otherwise filled with 25¢ luridly covered paperback mysteries, and the signature all-white covered French novels, I extracted my college copy of Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, with an introduction by Philip Rieff (best known to me as Susan Sontag’s one-time husband). I cannot even begin to imagine how that particular book came to rest that particular shelf in the parental basement. Inside this classic analysis of the real Ida Bauer’s aphonia (I insert that word esp. for Uncle Claude), her dreams and her sexual feelings for her father as well as Herr and Frau K, I found a scrap of lined paper with my handwriting. On it were written directions to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Carpentaria, California where I got my very first contraceptives.
Because this is Freud, for whom a cigar is never just a cigar, I cannot see the inclusion of this scrap in this book about a ‘hysterical’ young woman as random. What with the word ‘hysteria’ coming from the Greek “hustera” for womb or uterus, that very organ I was striving to keep from becoming impregnated. We won’t even go into the whole sordid history of the attributing female ‘hysteria’ to malfunctions of the womb. I prefer to recall this long-ago extraordinary college class on Freud and Reich (yes, orgone Reich), and the daunting excitement of taking responsibility for my own sexuality. Another good reason to read books, write in books, stick scraps of paper in books, and save the books.

In apicultural news, this morning I watched the queen in our observation hive laying eggs. She walks across the comb checking out likely cells and when she finds one she likes, she backs up and sticks her tail down. I counted and by my very unscientific timing (1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi etc), she spends about 8 seconds laying an egg.

1 comment:

Rebecca Rice said...

I love all these posts on books and their annotations...amazing how an entire universe can be evoked by that cramped, dogged handwriting...