Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Things That Make Us Happy Make Us Wise

Today I get to be one of those annoying people who have just “discovered” a book that everyone else already knows is great.

Many years ago, in Austin, Texas, a local thrift store hit upon the idea of having an entire store selling donated books, records, etc. for 1-2 dollars apiece. Although it was usually deserted (which makes me think it must have existed then, as now, only in my dreams), it was the kind of place you could visit for an evening, emerging a couple of hours later with a bag full of rare and eclectic works drawn from the crazy mixed up stacks with only minimal and unhelpful organization (I remember seeing Alcott’s Little Men on a shelf labeled “Sexual Issues”).

The staff rotated between a young punker, a frail old woman, and a physically deformed girl with a pretty face and a sweet smile. This was my home away from home and from it I mined several books from the library of the medievalist Augustus C. Krey (who was apparently married to a well-regarded local author), the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (one of my most powerful talismans), and pristine works of English literature which showed up occasionally, bearing the bookplate, in clear careful handwriting, of one Ginger/Virginia Hall (why had she carefully selected such wonderful books, carefully inserted her bookplate, and then apparently never so much as cracked them open – one doesn’t read a 400 page novel without leaving some sort of evidence – I will never know).

One book which I picked up and pondered several times, never to buy, was an advanced reading copy of a book called Aegypt, by John Crowley. Being interested in ancient history and the occult, it would seem a logical choice for me. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a snob about most contemporary literature and, anyway, the name conjured up for me the repugnant image of Alistair Crowley, the great and overrated con man of 20th century occultism. So on the shelf it stayed to my deep regret.

A few years later I discovered an omnibus of John Crowley. By this time, through repeated handlings of Aegypt, the name was firmly established in my consciousness and I figured that if the guy deserved the Quality Paperback Book Club treatment, then maybe he was ok. The book sat on my shelf for a few more years. It included a long novel called Little, Big, which I vaguely thought had something to do with Alice in Wonderland (there was a character called Daily Alice, and we all now about Alice’s difficulty in obtaining the optimal height for whatever task she was up to on the other side of the looking glass). Well, Alice in Wonderland is a great book, but like Harry Potter and the works of Tolkien, it tends to draw a pretty daffy crowd. And my thinking has always been “why read a book about another book when you can just read the original, which must be better anyway?”

Well, a few weeks ago, despite all odds against it, I picked up Little, Big and started reading the first few pages. It has little or nothing to do with Charles Dodgson’s little girl. The more I read, the more I was hooked (or in the vernacular of the novel, the farther in I went, the bigger it got). I was never one for the fantasy fairyland of Yeats and the Little Blue Book of Fairies by what’s-his-name, but Crowley’s writing is so precise, so evocative of the primeval wood and the tobacco-scented soil, so pleasurable, that it is now on my list of favorite books.

There is a permanence in the mythical, architectural oddity of the Drinkwater mansion: in this mansion there are many rooms, and plenty of queer characters to occupy them. The novel evokes the passage of time, the chain of being that binds all who pass their short time on this ancient earth, seen or unseen. It evokes the swirl of life in this decrepit theatre across the stage of which we all pass before a final bow. For me, the end of the book is long in coming, it seems that Crowley is wrapping it up 100 pages before the end, which makes the ending seem both drawn-out and rushed, but no matter, this tale is not told by an idiot. What it signifies, to me anyway, is that “perfection and end” signified by the greatest of the Major Trumps – nothing less than “The World”.

P.S. Almost forgot the link. Buy a new copy - Mr. Crowley deserves the cash.


3 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:54 AM

    I have burbled about this book for years. At one time, I kept a stack of copies in a closet and pressed them on unsuspecting friends and family members. I have "The Things That Make Us Happy Make Us Wise" embroidered on a sampler of, well, the things that make my family happy. It's always nice to hear someone else get captured by this book. It is special. - nodokakouryuu@gmail.com

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  2. Thanks for your comment about a wonderful "obscure" classic. You made my day!

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  3. Anonymous11:51 AM

    My favourite author. My favourite book.

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