Jan/Feb 2014 Reviews & Interviews

Settling the Books

Edward De Vere was Shake-speare: at long last, the proof
Gilbert Wesley Purdy.
GWP Editions. 2013. 157 pp.
ASIN B00H0L2758.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! I am arranging the books on the shelves yet again. Usually I begin within a couple of days of moving into a new place, but this time I was in the middle of writing a book and the practical necessity of making a bit of a living had to take precedence. Months of long days have gone by, with the books I might immediately need being settled on the shelves a bit at a time. The rest had to wait still packed in their boxes or clumped on shelves without order.

Now the book is up on Amazon Kindle and the time is at hand. The lingering sense of being at loose ends can be addressed inasmuch as it is possible. Settling the books has long been a ritual, tedious, and oddly rewarding. It is like disassembling the parts of myself, inspecting them for wear, and reassembling them. Dates that have begun to slip away must be recovered. Did Henry Vaughan come before Sir Thomas Browne? Just barely, it seems. Swinburne read the novels of Zola as they came out, so the novelist and he were roughly contemporary. Did Middleton Murray publish before the turn of the century (the 19th to the 20th century, of course)? Was Nicholás Guillén a member of the "Generation of '28"? No, that was Jorge Guillén, and it was the "Generation of "27." A good excuse to read a poem or two, anyway. I'll be remaking the weakened synapses of my brain for a couple of weeks, at least.

Early on I gathered together the titles I could find from Rilke, Hesse, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence. Also Mallarmé, Merwin and Neruda. Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia came serendipitously to hand. It would be necessary to take some time away occasionally from the writing in order to avoid getting bogged down. This time would be filled with bicycling around the new neighborhoods and dipping into old favorites.

This occasion is a little different, though. While I took the opportunity, as I generally do, to buy some new heavy duty plastic shelves, they have been loaded into an apartment in Virginia. The tropics are a thing of the past, a travel destination if matters work out well enough. Having decided to write for my living, it seemed an opportunity to be closer to family. I can set up my office wherever there is Internet service in these incredible times. Why not enjoy holidays with the family?

I'd missed autumn foliage and even the starkness of winter. I first discovered the world of books in a landscape that had still more daunting winters. The seasons have always been part of the experience. Hesse's essays were often written in winter, snuggled on a picturesque Swiss mountainside, and they are best read late on a winter's night, the cold hovering outside some warm little corner. It is part of their charm. "It was late in the evening when K. arrived," writes Kafka, in his novel The Castle. "The village was deep in snow." Could it have begun any other way?

Last night I read about Leonard and Virginia Woolfs' visit to the castle of the great essayist Michel Montaigne in the spring of 1931. As luck would have it, I had picked up my copy of Virginia's Diary from on top of my copy of Montaigne's travel journal. The latter makes a cameo appearance in the biography of De Vere I had just loaded up onto the Amazon Kindle platform, Michel having traveled through the same Italian landscape, only five years after the Earl, recording details of its cities and towns between obsessive comments upon his kidney stones and other bodily functions.

Earlier in the day I had been surprised to find a piece on Erich Auerbach's Mimesis in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine. I looked up from the page to spy my copy in the literary detritus nearby, patiently waiting its turn to have its proper place. It was only published in the early 1940s, but, in the world dominated by the Internet, it is already ancient history—or perhaps not quite ancient, yet, with the help of one of the finer representatives of the waning magazine industry. The book is a jewel.

Returning to the many happier results of the Internet, several hundred of my books arrived in perfect order and ready for use. Not only that, but most were published well before the 1940s and are available to me only because Google Books is digitizing millions of books, most beyond copyright, therefore available for free. My brother and brother-in-law were surely happy not to have still more heavy boxes to help me move. As it is, moving the library is a back-breaking effort. Few prove to be available to help a second time.

These books did not seem to add noticeably to the weight of my computer. Nearly one hundred of them were texts I've long known about but been unable to read in full. They are volumes published between 1500 and 1900, frequently cited in the text and notes of the Shake-speare authorship books I've read over the years. They were precisely in place the moment I turned on the computer. Facsimiles and original texts from the 16th century: what a wonder! Also, the finest Shake-speare scholarship from 1800-1920! For this reason, I could leave shelving the real-world library until my own book was complete. I had hitherto unimaginable resources available to me without having to have regular access to one or more major university libraries.

It is mind-blowing to have the four volumes of The Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Rutland Letters and Papers, published by His Majesty's Stationers Office, on the shelves. How empowering it is to have Frederick Chamberlin's The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth, with its exquisitely well researched medical record of her life. Putting aside Shake-speare for the moment, what a pleasure to have Clement Shorter's two-volume The Brontes; Life and Letters to read, and the first volume of The Writings of John Burroughs, which the set soon to be settled on its shelf is missing, and hundreds more.

With this remarkable technology and good old fashioned determination, I have opportunities available to me such as I could hardly have imagined when I first ran my hand over an edition of The Vicar of Wakefield, my copy of Henry and Ribsy tossed carelessly aside in favor of greater challenges. Now I've gone yet another phase, clicking through the pages of Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, John Strype, following all the clues that had tantalized me for so many years, the texts being beyond my reach.

On my bookshelves, I begin to arrange the books, many purchased for a dollar or fifty cents apiece, from so many library book sales. Those books are ancient history now, their rituals passing away. Libraries are having to do their best to go on without them. Our technological acceleration leaves most of us too busy to set aside time for such things. It turns out that my confidence that there was proof somewhere, if I could only get to the texts somehow, that Edward De Vere was Shake-speare, was justified. The detective story is detailed in an electronic book for which I can now find inexpensive, top-flight advertising and distribution. More books will surely follow. For now, though, there is the pleasure of settling the books.


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