On book collecting, and other ailments

16 Jul

Jeanette Winterson on collecting books:

“book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. it is not a hobby. those who do it must do it. those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.”

Just in case some of you unfortunate readers do not yet know: Jeanette Winterson is God. Whatever she says goes, and is ordained by her deft way of mastering language. Go read Written on the Body or Oranges are not the Only Fruit — both slim, powerful volumes — and you will be converted.

I put this up partly as justification to all those friends of mine who shake their head knowingly when I suggest a trip to the book store. Look here: it is more than just a craze, a little habit gone awry. It’s a way of life that I can’t quite explain. But also, it’s a reminder for me. Even when my not-so-sound bank account is suffering, there are worse things I could do, as Rizzo would say.

In regards to other ailments, read this post by line break:

“As a reader and writer of poems, it’s difficult not to feel like a member of an endangered species– and even more difficult, perhaps, to remember it hasn’t always been this way.  I started Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey while bored in Massachusetts, and laughed out loud on reading this:

“[T]hey were still resolute in meeting, in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up to read novels together.  Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel-writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding; joining with their greatest enemies to bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up with a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.  Alas! if the heroine of one novel not be patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?   I cannot approve of it.  Let us leave to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another: we are an injured body.”

“Poor Austen.  She was double damned– a woman in a male-dominated profession and sad step-cousin to the good old boys of poetry who made the new so-called “novels” look so shoddy.  Sure, Northanger Abbey is a send-up of the crappy Gothic novel, but I can’t help but hear the author grinding her teeth.

How things have changed!  Sometimes, it seems we’re living in a novelists’ world (Novelists: wouldn’t you love to have us think this is true?) and good old Dryden and Pope don’t have the cachet they once had.  Is poetry the new “injured body?”

Don’t answer that.”

Firstly, I love Northanger Abbey. As damn annoying as Catherine Morland can be during just about every scene in the novel, the book sends an important message about novels in general, and the Gothic novel in particular. This passage is one of my favorites in the book. However, I would disagree though with Jennifer Jabaily’s projection that she has drawn from this passage: that poetry is, or has ever been, “an injured body.”

As far as I know, while poetry has fallen from popularity, it has never lost its status as a respectable art. And that’s what Austen is focusing on: not popularity, but the status of reading novels. Even as she was writing this, novels were widely popular; as discussed in Northanger Abbey, while Miss Morland and Henry Tilney feel as though they should be reading histories and the like, they find themselves drawn to novels. What Jane Austen is fighting against, when she calls the novel “an injured body,” is the sentiment that women have that reading novels is a silly hobby, one marked with shame, and therefore they should not embrace their novel-reading. And when they are asked what the book in their hand is, they should reply, “Oh, just a novel.” (I remember her saying something along those lines in the book.)

Poetry is misunderstood and unpopular to the general public, but it still commands respect. There is a certain status connected to one being a poet; I cannot yet admit that this status has disappeared. Poetry has not been afflicted by this ailment just yet.

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