Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Confessions of a Bibliophile (Part I)


It's September. A perfect month for talking about books, books and more books. 

I've extolled the virtues of reading many times here, but now I want to turn to books themselves.  Because yes, I am a bibliophile, a bibliophile being: a lover of books, one who loves to read, admire and collect books.

I love books. Reading them, collecting them, being next to them, sniffing them, admiring them. Books are an obsession to me. I must have them. I buy at least one every week. (Truthfully, most weeks it's two or three...)  I simply don't feel right if I don't buy one! Even though my to-read pile is approaching dangerous heights, the week is not complete if I don't add to it. And for every book I purchase, I find ten others that I would like to get! It's an endless but enjoyable quest. 

Buying a book never creates guilt, not like say, buying clothes would. Books are just so easy to buy, unlike the physical exertions of buying new garments. Although I am not averse to stylish wearing and a big believer in au mode - fashion builds you from the outside, but books build you from the inside. If you want to invest in a personality, buy books. If you want to furnish your mind, buy books. If you want to nourish your soul, buy books. Who knows how one will transform your life view, shed light on subjects you never even knew existed and present thoughts and feelings to you in a exhilarating helter-skelter of words, new worlds at the flick of a few pages. Kipling was right - words are the most powerful drugs known to mankind.

I love being in the presence of books.  In a strange space I gravitate towards the bookshelves to regain my familiar equilibrium. Houses, schools, workplaces, dentists, doctors. Books okay the space by adding character, warmth, meaning. Books are clues that lives are being lived. Books are signs that people there are not immune to immersing themselves in a bubbling hot-tub of life through literature's lens. 

And what is a bibliophile's favourite place in the world? Why a bookstore of course. Bookstores are hallowed ground to us. Like an oasis in a desert is a bookstore in a busy city centre. You can hush the world for a while by stepping through its doors to a quiet, contemplative sanctuary. A bookstore is the one shop I always find myself hoping to go to, a welcome destination. You don't have to buy - you can happily browse. You will always find treasure. Many's a hard day of mine was softened by the serendipitous discovery of a poem by random selection in a bookshop. It feels like sustenance to drop into a bookstore amidst all other shops.

I could spend hours in a bookstore. I feel I among friends there, inanimate ones yes, but none the lesser. If you listen carefully, you can hear the whisperings of all the great authors on the shelves. It is instantly reviving. I remember who I am there, I remember lots of things I didn't know I'd forgotten. A bookstore is like a museum of life, a magic vault of information, an oasis of calm and certainty, of rapt attention on the world. Where else would you find such a place tell me? 

My favourite place at university was between the literature bookshelves of the library (the James Joyce library of UCD - right).  It was like a church, its many quiet cloisters and corners home to devoted students. The unique hush of an academic library engenders a sense of mighty awe so heady that every time I walked among these shelves the overwhelming feeling  I had was respect - here I was in the presence of greatness. I would often sit there on a stool, or the floor (students are flexible when it comes to reading positions) and wile away an hour browsing and reading. Not always for a pending assignment or the course reading list, just reading in a space precisely and piously made for that very act. In a church you kneel and pray, in a library, you kneel and read. 

Some of the books were like artifacts - old vellum yellowed velvet-to-the-touch pages and big musty dusty hardbacks that felt like holy relics to be handled with the utmost care. Here was a record I always thought, looking around at the towering shelves, hard copy proof, of the human race's attempt to interpret life for centuries. I often think, if ever extra terrestrials come to earth, surely they will be fascinated most by our hugely astonishing feat of noting down our behaviour, every aspect of it, in every way, from time untold in books? If they want to know about us, they have plenty of resources to plunder in libraries. No need for abductions and poking and prodding procedures. You want to know how humans live, who we are? Visit a library. Every iota of life is documented there. 
A true mark of a bibliophile I fear is ranking suitors in terms of whether they read or not.  I tried to explain this to a non-reading friend once, her mistakenly thinking it was a trite point, akin to the likes of a petty hobby mismatch. No, NO - reading is much much more than that. Unfortunately, my protests were an instant reaction heart's hyperbole, but now I'm much better equipped to define it. Books are props of life, not of pastimes. They are proof that their owner is someone wholly devoted to living life. To understanding it, delving into it, appreciating it. I will never back down from my prognosis that people who don't read are of a different species to those who do - not inferior, but different in soul structure.  

We fellow readers click better, albeit able to 'read' the other better. We vibrate on the same wavelength. We uphold the right and might of the imagination to transform reality's deadpan stalemate. We believe in stories. In narrative arcs, in subtexts, plot twists, thinking aloud and following our hearts. We talk the same talk. We walk the same meandering, keenly curious, sensitive walk through life. It's only fitting that a life partner is one you would want to match and communicate perfectly with? (Plus I would dearly like somebody with the ability of reading to me in older age.) Ergo, I don't date non-readers. Or, as Haruki Murakami puts it:

To qualify as a bibliophile you must be in love with the physicality of a book. Check. I love the sight of books, I love the touch of of books, I especially love the smell of books - the old musty ones and the liquorice new shiny textbooks. That's why I don't and won't use Kindles. Maybe this is the difference betwen a reader and a true book-lover. For some avid readers, the book is merely an item on which the words are presented. They fold pages, spill coffee on them, sit on them, bend them, fling them, forget them. A Kindle is a happy reprieve to holiday book packing and everyday lugging. But where is the physical magic in a Kindle? A bland computer screen?! No ruffling pages, soft to the touch, imprinted with your thoughts as you turn them? I love that quote floating about Pinterest about how a book changes its appearance when read - it becomes fatter, the pages swollen somehow from absorbing the reader's self. It is as if the reader has breathed life into it and left a little of it there in the process. 
No Kindles for me. I love holding a real book in my hands, the hills and valleys of the pages read and to come, the suspense of turning the page, the font, the smell, the feel of the book as it moulds itself to my grip. I love stopping every once in a while to look at the cover and the blurbs, run my fingers over it. I love skimming back to favourite passages, underlining them, sticking a bookmark proudly in a page to mark the achievement of the day. A book's personality is present in its physical make-up, to reduce it to a screen is an act of sabotage. In this digital age would it not be wise to retain something of the traditional mores? An object that has been in existence for years and so carefully wrought? Would the Book of Kells have been so meticulously laboured over if it was to be displayed on a Kindle? Would you rather read Shakespeare on a clinical Times New Roman font screen or a hand-printed vellum edition where the ink has bled into the page, accentuating the heartfelt sentiment of his lovelorn sonnets and making every line resonant with longing? A book is for life, for adorning shelves as it does your mind, a beautiful bundle of art; a Kindle is for a plane ride or a pocket, a bland mechanical package. Tough choice.

And finally I know I qualify for bibliophile status because I see books as friends. As my collection grows I rarely part with old books to make room for the new.  It's like giving away a friend the betrayal is so tangible. I love to be surrounded by books, read and unread ones. They're like insulation I suppose. Against a callous, indifferent world, an empty surrounding. Books beg to differ you see. Books say: everything matters. There are narratives everywhere and everyone is a story unfolding. They fill life with a bustling significance. Books in a home are a must. Who needs wallpaper or carpet even for that matter when you can line every bare space with them? A sanctum of knowledge at your fingertips. Portals to other worlds at every step. 

Other characteristics of a bibliophile: I get very excited when conversation turns to books. I get over-excited at the mere mention of books in general. I religiously read book reviews. I'm addicted to Goodreads. I have an ever-expanding Pinterest board on reading, some of the pins I've shared with you here (Books & Reading if you're interested.) I love quoting from books regularly. I love chattering with people who read. I feel a soul connection to people who share the same favourite books as me. I love sharing and swapping books with fellow readers. I love recommending books. I see a new rave-reviewed book release as an event, a visit to the bookstore as an adventure and Amazon as a wish-granting genie. I find people reading in public to be one of the most attractive, rebellious, eloquent sights ever. I dream of owning a bookstore. I dream of owning more books. Of a home library with levels and ladders. Oh and of course, of one day writing a book, or a few, the way I suppose some people dream of getting married. Yeah, that would be a nice happy ever after. 


How about you? Any dear bibliophiles care to share your hysteria? Please do! 

Stay tuned for more book blogs, especially now that we are in the season of reading. 


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

On The Harvest Moon

'The harvest moon has come,
Booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon.
And the earth replies all night, like a deep drum...' 
~ Ted Hughes, 'Harvest Moon'

The harvest moon is lighting up our skies tonight and a beautiful moon it is.  The 'harvest moon' of course the name given to September's full moon, the moon closest to the Autumn equinox and the moon closest to many a moonlover's heart. 

Why? Well because the harvest moon is more often than not the brightest, biggest moon of the year.  Not to mention the most golden in colour. The harvest moon is the moon that will stop you in your step to pronounce an emphatic WOW. 

Its metaphorical connotations also, are too heady to ignore. This is the moon that oversees the seasonal shift from summer to autumn, the golden goodbye to summer, the watching reaper of the harvest, the light of letting go. Neil Young's popular song 'Harvest Moon' captures these aspects all so well - the end of a love affair is acknowledged under a harvest moon's light - the regret, the lingering love, as well as the acceptance. Reap and sow, reap and sow - the eternal rhythm of the seasons is captured in this one moon.

Lots of writers have fallen under the spell of the harvest moon.  Thoreau captures the dual sense of the moon being one of letting go and looking forward here: 

'In a mild night when the harvest or hunter's moon shines unobstructedly, the houses in our village, whatever architect they may have had by day, acknowledge only a master. The village street is then as wild as the forest. New and old things are confounded. I know not whether I am sitting on the ruins of a wall, or on the material which is to compose a new one...' 

'New and old things are confounded.' The new and the old mix and mingle in a sense of magic of possibility and melancholy of past. The harvest moon is the one that rises at the exact same time as when the sun sets. This is what gives it its orange golden, even sometimes red colour. It embodies both an ending and a beginning. 

Longfellow also alludes to this sense of loss and gain in his poem 'Harvest Moon': 

Harvest Moon - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It is the Harvest Moon!  On gilded vanes
  And roofs of villages, on woodland crests
  And their aerial neighborhoods of nests
  Deserted, on the curtained window-panes
Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes
  And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests!
  Gone are the birds that were our summer guests,
  With the last sheaves return the laboring wains!
All things are symbols: the external shows
  Of Nature have their image in the mind,
  As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves;
The song-birds leave us at the summer's close,
  Only the empty nests are left behind,
  And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.

Longfellow clearly acknowledges here that 'all things are symbols: the external shows/of Nature have their image in the mind.'  There is a sense of lament at things being 'gone' - the summer and the birds - but also, of things to come, 'the pipings of the quail.'  The tone of loss in the poem is offset by this last line, this curious buoyant sense of new things on the horizon. The harvest moon straddling two seasons, is a symbol, a motif, of the dichotomy of feelings this time of the year arises in us. It is the perfect moon to hang our hopes and regrets on, and as such, especially more meaningful in our consciousness. 

Ted Hughes captures the magnitude of the harvest moon brilliantly in his poem 'The Harvest Moon':

The Harvest Moon - Ted Hughes

The flame-red moon, the harvest moon,
Rolls along the hills, gently bouncing,
A vast balloon,
Till it takes off, and sinks upward
To lie on the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon.
The harvest moon has come,
Booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon.
And the earth replies all night, like a deep drum.

So people can't sleep,
So they go out where elms and oak trees keep
A kneeling vigil, in a religious hush.
The harvest moon has come!

And all the moonlit cows and all the sheep
Stare up at her petrified, while she swells
Filling heaven, as if red hot, and sailing
Closer and closer like the end of the world.

Till the gold fields of stiff wheat
Cry `We are ripe, reap us!' and the rivers
Sweat from the melting hills.

Descriptions of the harvest moon as a 'vast balloon' and 'a gold doubloon' are simple but absolutely precise. I'll never forget the first time I saw a harvest moon rising over the hills. It was as if another planet had sailed by. You know in Star Trek and the sci-fi like where you see many huge otherworldly moons in the sky? Well it was like that. Huge and gold and pulsing, or rather 'booming' would be the more appropriate word as Hughes has it here. I just love that line, all regal and declarative: 'The harvest moon has come, /booming softly through the heavens, like a bassoon. /And the earth replies all night like a deep drum.'  It just sums it up doesn't it? Our response to it is automatic, subconscious, ongoing and answering. 

The poem ends with a refrain of the wheat (this is a children's poem by Hughes, but no less for it) - 'We are ripe, reap us!' reminiscent of the whole idea of timing, of things happening in their own time, the natural cycle not just of the seasons but of our emotions too. 

The last poem I'll mention is Carl Sandburg's take on the harvest moon. It encapsulates the mystery and magic of the harvest moon like no other. It too has a sense of the seasonal change - in the midst of the summer roses the approaching red of autumn leaves is 'flagrant' and 'lurks in the dusk'. There is even a mention of death in the poem, 'the gray mocker' but it whispers, under the moonlight as a 'beautiful friend.' And the lovely last line is perhaps a definition of what specific kind of magic this moon has to offer:

'Under the Harvest Moon' -

Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.
Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you

Beautiful, unanswerable questions.

'Love, with little hands, comes and touches you with a thousand memories, and asks you beautiful unanswerable questions...' Is that what the harvest moon means? Is that what the harvest moon does? Is it a catalyst for love, a motif of love? A medallion of memory? Are these questions beautiful because they are unanswerable? Or are they unanswerable because they are beautiful? And what exactly are these questions the moon arises in us?  

That depends I suppose. Each to their own. But I find myself agreeing with this sentiment. In my experience of the harvest moon, its ability to inspire contemplation on  life, love, time, our place in the universe, yes I think this is true. It's a reflective time of the year, and to reflect is to look back with love, is it not? By the benevolent light of the harvest moon, everything glows warm and gold. 

Well that's what I make of this poem, but to be honest, its mystery remains just that little bit impenetrable. But that's what I like about it. In fact, that's what I love about it. Its magic is resistant to interpretation, to analysis - just like the moon itself really. 

Moon Goddess ~ Josephine Wall 

This year's harvest moon is also extra special in that it is a Supermoon, the last of the year's three supermoon. A supermoon is a larger-than-normal-size moon, when the moon appears closer to the earth because of a number of reasons. (You can read about it here: What is a Supermoon?) And here are some amazing photographs of this year's harvest moon from around the globe: The Last Supermoon - The Guardian and Shine on Harvest Moon.

Happy harvest moon musing,

~ Siobhán