He ate and drank the precious words, His spirit grew robust; He knew no more that he was poor, Nor that his frame was dust. He danced along the dingy days, And this bequest of wings Was but a book. What liberty A loosened spirit brings!
What is it about our favorite books–not the ones we liked or even loved, but the ones we need almost as viscerally as breath? There are books I revisit from time to time, stories that never grow old but rather new, richer, stories that unfold a little more each time I return to them. These are the “precious words” Dickinson is talking about–the ones that can change everything, that transport us, that have the power to save us from our circumstances and even ourselves.
I don’t know why, but I haven’t felt my usual need to read this year. It feels odd to not be in the midst of a book, to not have a pile of them stacked up and waiting, to not binge-read hundreds of pages in a couple of days. But for some reason, since the beginning of this year, I just haven’t wanted to read.
About a month ago, though, I picked up my well-read and pencil-marked copy of Moby Dick. I am not sure I’ll ever be able to articulate why a 21st century feminist writer/French teacher/wife/mother would need this book the way I do–but I do. I need it. It is, for me, one of those life-giving books. I even like the tedious chapters on whale body-parts. I realize this makes me something of a freak. I could not care less.
I haven’t been blowing through the book the way I usually do. Instead, I’ve been reading it in bits and pieces, slowing down, finding new passages to underline. By the time I’m eighty I will probably have underlined half the words in the book. It’s fascinating the way a very conscious, deliberate re-reading of a familiar book can become a reading of oneself as a reader, too. The things that years-ago me found necessary to underscore are still vital, but now there are more things, new things, words I missed fully appreciating on all my previous read-throughs. This book keeps transforming itself in my hands. Like Janet in the tale of Tam Lin, I keep hold of it, but just barely. Sometimes it threatens to twist out of my grasp.
Wings indeed. A book is perhaps the truest form of freedom, not only because it frees us from this world for a little while, but because the story itself is free to grow, change, eternally become.
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – This Traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of Toll – How frugal is the Chariot That bears the Human Soul –
Lately I’ve felt at the far end of one very long, very tired day. The weird thing is that I haven’t been seeking solace in books, as I usually do. I haven’t read a book in months. This feels deeply out of character–I keep wondering what’s wrong with me. It’s not that I don’t have a few minutes at the end of most days. It’s not necessarily that I’m too tired to read. I just haven’t felt the need to, the compulsion I normally feel, and I can’t figure this out.
Maybe I don’t need to figure it out. This is, after all, just one of many seasons. My kinsmen of the shelf will be there waiting when the time comes round again.
A PRECIOUS, mouldering pleasure ’t is To meet an antique book, In just the dress his century wore; A privilege, I think, His venerable hand to take, And warming in our own, A passage back, or two, to make To times when he was young. His quaint opinions to inspect, His knowledge to unfold On what concerns our mutual mind, The literature of old;
What interested scholars most, What competitions ran When Plato was a certainty, And Sophocles a man;
When Sappho was a living girl, And Beatrice wore The gown that Dante deified. Facts, centuries before,
He traverses familiar, As one should come to town And tell you all your dreams were true: He lived where dreams were born.
His presence is enchantment, You beg him not to go; Old volumes shake their vellum heads And tantalize, just so.
Pam: This poem embodies really every Emily Dickinson poem ever. Old poem! Yes! What does she have to tell us? What am I going to learn from this? Birds? Bees? Pastoral? Yes! This is beautiful! . . . wait. What does the last line mean? This doesn’t make any sense? Why is it over? Why can’t I ask her what it means???
Brenna: Okay, so my first thought is–BOOKS! YAY! This is NOT A POEM ABOUT DEATH!!! And then I start reading, and I remember that, doh, this is Emily Dickinson, and this is totally a poem about death.
Pam: It’s ALWAYS a poem about death.
Brenna: It always is. Death is Emily Dickinson’s BIG MOOD. Okay, so in this particular poem about death…
Pam: I do love that she describes the book as “mouldering.” I feel that usually when we see that word, it’s describing dead bodies. This feels pretty Poe of her.
Brenna: It really does! Poe-riffic!
Pam: Death: of the book! Of the ideas expressed in the book, because the era of the author is long gone!
Brenna: And the juxtaposition of “pleasure” with “mouldering”…very “Fall of the House of Usher.”
Pam: Yes! A “mouldering pleasure.” Gross, and I also get it! The smell of books. Or maybe I’m just thinking of the slightly sweet mildewy smell of old books.
Brenna: I remember reading this years ago, before social media and Kindles and such, and it didn’t hit me in quite the same way it does now. This poem is APT, yo. It could be a poem written yesterday by one of the “e-readers are blasphemy” crowd.
Pam: Oh, bless. As if any method of ingesting books could be bad. At the same time, I really, really love an old book. I’m talking old. The spine has cracked. The glue has disappeared to parts unknown. The pages are dog-eared or torn or falling out. The edges are worn soft. I love that. When you get a book that old, and you let it flip open, and it falls to the same place every time and you can kind of guess that this was an important passage to somebody, so this is where they turned to a lot? I eat that right up.
Brenna: So. To sum up: She likes old books and she cannot lie.
Pam: You other poets can’t deny. We cannot do this entire song. We COULD do this entire song. But we should not do this entire song.
Brenna: When a book walks in with an itty-bitty spine and–okay. We will not do the entire song.
Pam: We will probably end up doing the entire song and posting it as an Easter egg somewhere.
Brenna: Someday people will search for it.
Pam: God bless these people.
Brenna: It will be like READY PLAYER ONE, but for the other kind of nerds.
Pam: The really desperate ones?
Brenna: The book ones. US, Pamela. !!
Pam: THE REALLY DESPERATE ONES
Pam: Girl, you know it’s true.
Brenna: Wait–is that Sir Mixalot??
Pam: Milli Vanilli.
Brenna: RIGHT. PAM. DEAD.
Brenna: I’ma just blame that one on the rain and move on.
Pam: You out-Milli-Vanilli-d me.
Brenna: I WIN. I’m too sexy for this chat, too sexy for this chat…Okay. POEM. FOCUS, Pam and Brenna.
Pam: I feel like this is the rare Emily Dickinson poem that’s just doing what it says on the tin!
Brenna: I really, really want to believe that.
Pam: This is like something a stoner would conceive of. Wow, old books are cool. Isn’t it weird how the people who wrote this are dead? Okay, bye.
Brenna: And yet, I feel like she’s weaving in all these references to mortality, and those have to mean something.
Pam: How much is Emily Dickinson the poet wondering whether people might read her in the future and beg of her in the same way not to go? For somebody who wrote so prolifically and published so incredibly rarely–and asked that her papers be burned, I think–she had to have considered it, right? So maybe she really is wondering a little bit about her own authorial immortality?
Brenna: She invokes Plato, Sappho, Sophocles, Dante–all these classical greats. She is also careful to underscore their mortality.
Pam: And then there’s the whole other issue of the folks who published her works after her death, and who edited them as well–so even though she has attained this kind of immortality, the words that became famous after her death were not printed as she wrote them. It’s nice that she includes Sappho, too. One could probably have a field day researching and following that down the rabbit hole.
Brenna: TL;DR–a few of her poems were published, but it’s unclear whether she okayed this. No one knows if she wanted to be published or not.
Pam: I read something earlier today (not sure where) that she was also a prolific gardener, and used to send “posies” to her friends, along with scraps of poetry. I think Dickinson reported (or at least thought) that her friends were happier with the flowers than the verse.
Brenna: What is up with the ending? It does seem like a fairly straightforward poem, up until the point where she’s begging a book not to go and it is tantalizing her.
Pam: It’s weird, right? She always does this! I really do look at this poem the way that I look at most of her poems. I’m trucking along, and I think I get it, and then there’s a hard left turn.
Brenna: YES. It’s as if every poem is a riddle.
Pam: The reader begs “him,” the book, not to go in the way that we, the readers, are begging her not to end the poem there. So in that sense, if it’s intentional, it’s a great example of what she’s just shown us in the poem. And I can’t believe that it’s unintentional.
Brenna: But how can a book possibly “go”? In what world outside of a Miyazaki film does this make sense?
Pam: It ends!
Brenna: OOOOH. DUH.
Pam: I read it as, “Book, you are so interesting, please don’t end!” But you can’t stop it from ending.
Brenna: Wow I feel dumb.
Pam: You are not dumb!!
Brenna: I think you figured it out. Pam. YOU WIN THE POEM.
Pam: And the volume shaking its head = closing the book? WE’VE DONE IT. WE GOT ONE POEM. 1/365 is not a bad ratio, yes?
Brenna: Only three hundred and something-ty more days to go!!!