Sunday, September 12, 2021

A Mann for All Seasons: The Magic Mountain

Hans W. Geissendörfer, dir: Der Zauberberg (1982)
[based on the novel by Thomas Mann]

As we move into the fourth week of our fourth COVID-19 lockdown up here in Auckland (still stuck at level 4, though the rest of the country has managed to escape into the relative comfort of level 2), I have to confess that I've been beguiling my enforced leisure rereading Thomas Mann's classic novel of sanatorium life, The Magic Mountain (1924).

Thomas Mann: Der Zauberberg (1924)

This is the third time I've read it. The first time (after a couple of false starts) was when I was still a teenager. I responded immediately to Mann's brilliant evocation of atmosphere in the opening couple of chapters, as his hapless hero Hans Castorp gradually succumbs to the charms of invalid life in the Swiss Alps.

After that, however, it got a bit more difficult. Each chapter was longer than the one before (no doubt by careful design on the part of the author), and the mass of detail about each of the characters and all of the footling ways they find to kill time up there in the rarefied, TB-intolerant air of the mountains, did rather drag at times.

Overall, though, I did feel a sense of achievement when I got to the finish - signalled, appropriately enough, by the outbreak of World War I. Nor was I blind to the allegorical significance of all of this elaborate life-avoidance given some of my other reading around the subject. It's the one thing everyone knows about The Magic Mountain, in fact - its function as a microcosm of the 'sick' society of pre-war Europe.

Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain, trans. Helen T. Lowe-Porter (1927)

Twenty-five or so years later I read it again. The occasion was my finding a second-hand copy which included the author's late postscript to the novel. I was anxious to see just what he thought it was about, but - being a completist by nature - I thought it necessary to plough right through the whole thing again, all 700-odd pages of it.

The result was, I must admit, a little disappointing: even the charm of those early chapters seemed to have evaporated, leaving only a vast talky expanse of fairly obvious symbolism. The crucial chapter 'Snow', where Hans Castorp, caught in a snowstorm, has a vision of the ideal life (or is it? He wakes up abruptly just as it's shifting into nightmare), fell particularly flat for me at that point.

Gore Verbinski, dir.: A Cure for Wellness (2017)
['inspired' by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain]

I'm happy to report that that has not been the case this time round. Maybe it helps to be in the middle of a huge, collective, world-wide feverdream. The old attraction was back, though whether I'll ever feel inspired to take the long road to the Bergdorf again remains to be seen.

In particular, I was struck by Mann's plaintive appeal, in his late Postscript to the novel, that readers should reserve judgement until they've read it through twice. I must be unusually dumb, because it took me three readings - I do now, however, feel as if I have some kind of a fist on just what he had in mind.

Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers (1978)

That's not to say that this was the whole extent of my reading of Thomas Mann. I had quite a taste for what were then regarded as modern German writers in my teens, and read Franz Kafka (first), Herman Hesse (second), and finally Thomas Mann in as much depth as I was able, given the translations available at the time.

In particular I read all four of Mann's great novels - Buddenbrooks (1901), The Magic Mountain (1924), Joseph and His Brothers (1933-43), and Doctor Faustus (1947). I also read the four shorter, 'interstitial' novels which have attracted so much less attention: the rather silly Royal Highness (1909); the more brilliant Lotte in Weimar (1939 - US title: The Beloved Returns); the weird, late Holy Sinner (1951); and finally the unfinished Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, begun as a short story in 1911, and completed and published as the first instalment of a much longer novel in 1954, just before the writer's death.

Thomas Mann: Death in Venice (1912)

Quite likely, though, there's only one thing you associate with the name Thomas Mann: Death in Venice. Or, rather, the wonderfully dreamy 1971 Visconti film about - in the immortal words of Monty Python's "Elizabeth L" sketch - "the elderly poof what dies in Venice."

John Ruane, dir.: Death in Brunswick (1990)

It also inspired an even more inspired spoof about a pitiful mother's boy (played by Sam Neill) in the rather grotty Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, whose series of comic misadventures culminate in an abortive attempt to poison her with a cup of tea as she listens to her favourite record, the slow movement of Mahler's fifth symphony - yes, that leitmotif which keeps going all through Visconti's masterpiece. You can listen to it here.

Helmut Koopman: Thomas Mann (2005)

So who exactly was Thomas Mann? In the picture above, taken in Munich in 1900, you can see him taking a rather subordinate position to his elder brother Heinrich, also a renowned writer. The two would soon change positions, though.

A year later Thomas published his first novel, Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, still regarded by Germanists as his main claim to fame, given its importance as a chronicle of the decline of the great merchant families of Northern Germany. It was probably the decisive factor in earning him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929, and it certainly established him as something of a pundit among commentators on German culture and society.

All through the turbulent years of the First World War, the post-war famine, the Weimar Republic, and the turn to Right-Wing Nationalism in his native land, he continued to struggle with his complex fate: a bourgeois but also an artist, a patriot but also an internationalist.

Brother Heinrich, a thorough Francophile and critic of Prussianism - one of his early novels, Professor Unrat, was filmed as the Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Blue Angel (1930) - faced no such ideological struggles. So far as he was concerned, aggressive German nationalism was a form of mental illness, which needed to be exorcised thoroughly before Germany would be fit to take its place among the other nations of Europe.

In retrospect, it's hard to disagree with him, but the brothers fell out in 1914, and found it difficult to maintain more than an uneasy truce ever after, despite Thomas's eventual espousal of a not dissimilar position.

He wrote novels, short stories, and essays in abundance. Not all of them have been translated into English, but enough is available to give you a pretty good idea of his progress from Protestant Burger to ardent New Dealer. When Hitler came to power, Mann fled to Switzerland and subsequently to the United States, where he was welcomed with open arms as the embodiment of the purer manifestations of German Kultur.

This marble-monument version of Mann does not really do him justice, however. His work is both diverse and perverse - by the standards of the time, at any rate. Visconti did not misinterpret the underlying themes of perhaps his greatest work, the novella Death in Venice. It's only one in a series of works which associate artistic inspiration with illness and deformity - a kind of leprosy of the soul which is nevertheless necessary to achieve such great heights.

Heinrich Breloer, dir.: Buddenbrooks (2008)

Mann was, of course, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, and his ideas on the declining energies of great mercantile families - the first generation pirates and pioneers, the next generations consolidators and businessmen, and the generations after that neurotics and artists - were very much influenced by Freud's ideas on the debilitating tendencies of modern civilisation.

Among his other interests were psychic phenomena (he wrote an interesting essay called "Okkulte Erlebnisse" [An Experience in the Occult] about his own attendance at a séance with celebrated medium brothers Willi and Rudi Schneider). This, too, is one of the many influences which bore fruit in the later chapters of The Magic Mountain.

Is it his masterpiece? I would say so, yes. I greatly enjoyed reading the immensely lengthy Joseph and His Brothers, but it could be accused of a certain avoidance of contemporary phenomena. Amusingly enough, on one of my family visits to the UK, I discovered my 94-year-old Great-Aunt Morag ("It's a great age!") in the process of reading this vast, strange novel, which had been taken out of the library for her by my cousins under instructions to find her some religious books. She said she found it interesting, if a bit long-winded.

Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus (1947)

Nor have I ever been able quite to fathom the exact point of Doctor Faustus, which others tell me should be regarded as his greatest work. I hope to remedy my deficiencies in this respect when I'm finally able, quite soon, to get hold of a copy of his book-length explication of it, The Story of a Novel (1961), however.

One thing's for certain, The Magic Mountain has nothing whatsoever to do with the Gore Verbinski horror film A Cure for Wellness, despite the director and screenwriter's claims to the contrary. Much though I enjoyed this film, I couldn't honestly see any kinship between their respective projects, apart from the fact that both stories take place at sanatoria in the Swiss Alps.

Gore Verbinski, dir.: A Cure for Wellness (2017)

I certainly do recommend Thomas Mann, though. In certain moods - when one has a lot of time on one's hands - his complex, intertwined narrative style is just what the doctor ordered. And his subject matter is anything but predictable and traditional.

'Polymorphous perversity', Freud's term for infantile sexuality, fits most of his heroes better than other, more conventional descriptions. Mann himself, though on the one hand a bourgeois family man, had another side which required a series of passionate male friendships. Doing justice to these two aspects of himself explains a good deal of his oeuvre.

In the late 1930s his actress daughter Erika required an English passport, having run into difficulties as a 'stateless person' due to her left-wing political affiliations. At the recommendation of Mann family friend Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden was asked to marry her in order to secure her a passport. 'Delighted,' he telegraphed in reply, and British nationality for her was duly obtained.

Some years later a photograph of Thomas Mann and his extended family was being taken for a feature article in America, and the journalist enquired just what Mr. Isherwood's connection with the Manns might be? "Family pimp," growled Thomas.

If you do start into his labyrinth, beware!

Carl Mydans: Thomas Mann and family (1939)
l-to-r: Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Erika Mann, Thomas Mann, Katia Mann, Monika Mann, Klaus Mann

Thomas Mann (1937)

Paul Thomas Mann

    Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks (1901)


  1. Buddenbrooks – Verfall einer Familie (1901)
    • Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family. 1902. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1924. London: Secker & Warburg, 1947.
  2. Königliche Hoheit (1909)
    • Royal Highness. 1909. Trans. A. Cecil Curtis. 1926. Rev. Constance McNab. 1962. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
  3. Der Zauberberg (1924)
    • The Magic Mountain. 1924. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1928. London: Secker & Warburg, 1948.
    • The Magic Mountain: With a Postscript by the Author on The Making of the Novel. 1924. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1928. London: Nationwide Book Service, 1979.
  4. Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-1943)
    1. Die Geschichten Jaakobs (1933)
    2. Der junge Joseph (1934)
    3. Joseph in Ägypten (1936)
    4. Joseph, der Ernährer (1943)
    • Joseph and His Brothers. ['The Stories of Jacob' (1933); 'Young Joseph' (1934); 'Joseph in Egypt' (1936); 'Joseph the Provider' (1943)]. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1948. London: Secker & Warburg, 1956.
    • Joseph and His Brothers. ['The Stories of Jacob' (1933); 'Young Joseph' (1934); 'Joseph in Egypt' (1936); 'Joseph the Provider' (1943)]. Trans. Helen T. Lowe-Porter. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  5. Lotte in Weimar (1939)
    • Lotte in Weimar. 1939. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. London: Secker & Warburg, 1940.
  6. Doktor Faustus (1947)
    • Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend. 1947. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1949. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
  7. Der Erwählte (1951)
    • The Holy Sinner. 1951. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1952. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.
  8. Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull. Der Memoiren erster Teil (1911 / 1954)
    • Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: Memoirs Part I. 1954. Trans. Denver Lindley. 1955. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

  9. Thomas Mann: Lotte in Weimar (1939)

    Short Stories:

  10. Vision (1893)
  11. Gefallen (1894)
  12. Der Wille zum Glück [The Will to Happiness] (1896)
  13. Enttäuschung [Disillusionment] (1896)
  14. Der kleine Herr Friedemann [Little Herr Friedemann] (1896)
  15. Der Tod [Death] (1897)
  16. Der Bajazzo [The Dilettante] (1897)
  17. Gerächt [Avenged] (1897)
  18. Luischen [Little Lizzy] (1897 / 1900)
  19. Tobias Mindernickel (1898)
  20. Der Kleiderschrank [The Wardrobe] (1899)
  21. Der Weg zum Friedhof [The Way to the Churchyard] (1900)
  22. Die Hungernden [The Hungry] (1903)
  23. Das Wunderkind [The Child Prodigy] (1903)
  24. Ein Glück [A Gleam] (1904)
  25. Beim Propheten [At the Prophet's] (1904)
  26. Schwere Stunde [A Weary Hour] (1905)
  27. Wӓlsungenblut [The Blood of the Walsungs] (1905)
  28. Das Eisenbahnunglück [The Railway Accident] (1907)
  29. Anekdote [Anecdote] (1908)
  30. Wie Jappe und Do Escobar sich prügelten [The Fight between Jappe and Do Escobar] (1911)
  31. Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull [Felix Krull] (1911 / 1922)

  32. Plays:

  33. Fiorenza [Florence] (1905)

  34. Novellas:

  35. Gladius Dei (1902)
  36. Tristan (1903)
  37. Tonio Kröger (1903)
  38. Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice] (1912)
  39. Herr und Hund [A Man and His Dog / Bashan and I] (1918)
  40. Unordnung und frühes Leid [Disorder and Early Sorrow] (1925)
  41. Mario und der Zauberer [Mario and the Magician] (1930)
  42. Die vertauschten Köpfe – Eine indische Legende [The Transposed Heads] (1940)
  43. Das Gesetz [The Tables of the Law] (1944)
  44. Die Betrogene: Erzählung [The Black Swan] (1954)

  45. Collections:

  46. Die Erzählungen, Erster Band. 2 vols. 1975. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1981.
    1. Vision (1893)
    2. Gefallen (1894)
    3. Der Wille zum Glück (1896)
    4. Enttäuschung (1896)
    5. Der Tod (1897)
    6. Der kleine Herr Friedemann (1896)
    7. Der Bajazzo (1897)
    8. Gerächt (1897)
    9. Luischen (1897 / 1900)
    10. Tobias Mindernickel (1898)
    11. Der Kleiderschrank (1899)
    12. Der Weg zum Friedhof (1900)
    13. Gladius Dei (1902)
    14. Tristan (1903)
    15. Die Hungernden (1903)
    16. Tonio Kröger (1903)
    17. Das Wunderkind (1903)
    18. Ein Glück (1904)
    19. Beim Propheten (1904)
    20. Schwere Stunde (1905)
    21. Wӓlsungenblut (1905)
    22. Anekdote (1908)
    23. Das Eisenbahnunglück (1907)
    24. Wie Jappe und Do Escobar sich prügelten (1911)
    25. Der Tod in Venedig (1912)
  47. Die Erzählungen, Zweiter Band. 2 vols. 1975. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1983.
    1. Herr und Hund (1918)
    2. Unordnung und frühes Leid (1925)
    3. Mario und der Zauberer (1930)
    4. Die vertauschten Köpfe – Eine indische Legende (1940)
    5. Das Gesetz (1944)
    6. Die Betrogene: Erzählung (1954)
    7. Fiorenza (1905)
    8. Gesang vom Kindchen: Idylle (1919)
  48. Stories of Three Decades. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. The Modern Library. New York: Random House, Inc., 1936.
    1. Little Herr Friedemann (1897)
    2. Disillusionment (1896)
    3. The Dilettante (1897)
    4. Tobias Mindernickel (1897)
    5. Little Lizzy (1897)
    6. The Wardrobe (1899)
    7. The Way to the Churchyard (1901)
    8. Tonio Kröger (1903)
    9. Tristan (1903)
    10. The Hungry (1903)
    11. The Infant Prodigy (1903)
    12. Gladius Dei (1902)
    13. Fiorenza (1904)
    14. A Gleam (1904)
    15. At the Prophet's (1904)
    16. A Weary Hour (1905)
    17. The Blood of the Walsungs (1905)
    18. Railway Accident (1907)
    19. The Fight between Jappe and Do Escobar (1911)
    20. Felix Krull (1911)
    21. Death in Venice (1912)
    22. A Man and His Dog (1918)
    23. Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925)
    24. Mario and the Magician (1929)
  49. Stories of a Lifetime: The Collected Stories. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1936. Vol. 1 of 2. Mercury Books 8. London: The Heinemann Group of Publishers, 1961.
    1. Little Herr Friedemann (1897)
    2. Disillusionment (1896)
    3. The Dilettante (1897)
    4. Tobias Mindernickel (1897)
    5. Little Lizzy (1897)
    6. The Wardrobe (1899)
    7. The Way to the Churchyard (1901)
    8. The Hungry (1902)
    9. Tristan (1902)
    10. Gladius Dei (1902)
    11. Tonio Kröger (1903)
    12. The Infant Prodigy (1903)
    13. A Gleam (1904)
    14. Fiorenza (1904)
    15. At the Prophet's (1904)
    16. A Weary Hour (1905)
    17. The Blood of the Walsungs (1905)
    18. Railway Accident (1907)
    19. The Fight between Jappe and Do Escobar (1911)
  50. Stories of a Lifetime: The Collected Stories. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1936. Vol. 2 of 2. Mercury Books 9. London: The Heinemann Group of Publishers, 1961.
    1. Death in Venice (1912)
    2. A Man and His Dog (1918)
    3. Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925)
    4. Mario and the Magician (1929)
    5. The Transposed Heads (1940)
    6. The Tables of the Law (1944)
    7. The Black Swan (1953)

  51. Thomas Mann: Six Early Stories (1997)

  52. Six Early Stories. Trans. Peter Constantine (1997)
    1. A Vision (1893)
    2. "Prose Sketch"
    3. Fallen (1894)
    4. The Will to Happiness (1896)
    5. Death (1897)
    6. Avenged (1897)
    7. "Study for a Novella"
    8. Anecdote (1908)

  53. Thomas Mann: Three Essays (1929)


  54. Three Essays. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1929)
    1. Friedrich und die große Koalition [Frederick and the Great Coalition] (1915)
    2. Goethe und Tolstoi [Goethe and Tolstoy] (1922)
    3. Okkulte Erlebnisse [An Experience in the Occult] (1924)
  55. Past Masters and Other Papers. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1933)
  56. An Exchange of Letters. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1937)
  57. Freud, Goethe, Wagner. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter & Rita Matthias-Rail (1937)
  58. The Coming Victory of Democracy. Trans. Agnes E. Meyer. 1938. London: Secker & Warburg, 1938.
  59. This Peace. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1938)
  60. This War. Trans. Eric Sutton (1940)
  61. Order of the Day: Political Essays and Speeches of Two Decades. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter, Agnes E. Meyer & Eric Sutton (1942)
  62. Listen, Germany! Twenty-Five Radio Messages to the German People over the BBC (1943)
  63. Essays of Three Decades. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. London: Secker & Warburg, 1947.
    1. Goethe's Faust (1938)
    2. Goethe's Career As a Man of Letters (1932)
    3. Goethe as Representative of the Bourgeois Age (1932)
    4. Goethe and Tolstoy (1922)
    5. Anna Karenina (1939)
    6. Lessing (1929)
    7. Kleist's Amphitryon (1926)
    8. Chamisso (1911)
    9. Platen (1930)
    10. Theodor Storm (1930)
    11. The Old Fontane (1910)
    12. Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner (1933)
    13. Richard Wagner and the Ring (1937)
    14. Schopenhauer (1938)
    15. Freud and the Future (1936)
    16. Voyage with Don Quixote (1934)
  64. Last Essays. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston and Tania & James Stern. 1958. London: Secker & Warburg, 1959.
    1. On Schiller
    2. Fantasy on Goethe
    3. Nietzsche's Philosophy in the Light of Recent History
    4. Chekhov
    5. Appendix: 'A Weary Hour'. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1905)
  65. A Sketch of My Life. ['Lebensabriß', 1930]. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (1960)
  66. The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston (1961)
  67. Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man / Thoughts in Wartime / On the German Republic. ['Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen', 1918; 'Gedanken im Kriege' (1914); 'Von deutscher Republik', 1922]. Trans. Walter D. Morris, Mark Lilla and Cosima Mattner, Lawrence Rainey. Introduction by Mark Lilla. New York: New York Review Books, 2021.

  68. Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus / The Story of a Novel (1947 / 1961)


  69. Diaries 1918-1939: 1918-1921; 1933-1939. Ed. Hermann Kesten. 1977-80. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1982. London: Robin Clark, 1984.
  70. Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955. Ed. & Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 2 vols. 1970. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
  71. Carlsson, Anni & Volker Michels, ed. The Hesse-Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, 1910-1955. 1968. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Foreword by Theodore Ziolkowski. 1975. London: Peter Owen, 1976.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Taking Early Retirement

Philip van Doren Stern, ed.: The Annotated Walden (1970)

Lately I've been renewing my acquaintance with one of my favourite books, The Annotated Walden. Why? Because I can. Because I'm taking early retirement from Academia, that's why. In fact, I gave in my required three months notice of departure today, so I thought I'd better start getting in training for the new life!

Don't get me wrong. I have other editions of Thoreau's masterwork, as well as owning a copy of the beautiful fourteen-volumes-in-two Dover reprint of the 1906 edition of his complete journal:

Henry David Thoreau: The Journal, 1837-1861 (2 vols: 1962)

It isn't just Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) which enchants me, though, it's Philip Van Doren Stern's superb, lovingly illuminated annotated version of the book.

Philip van Doren Stern, ed.: The Annotated Walden (1970)

Stern, perhaps better known for his Christmas story The Greatest Gift - which inspired the Frank Capra movie It's a Wonderful Life (1946) - was an editor and Civil War historian who clearly sympathised greatly with Thoreau's unfettered idealism.

His annotated Walden includes photos of the site of the famous cabin "now" (i.e. in the 1960s), and there's an enchanting sense of double-focus in this book published fifty years ago which invites us to contrast further his "then" with our "now." Thoreau's retreat to the woods seems so much more distant in time, yet its relevance to contemporary thinking has, if anything, grown.

Henry David Thoreau: Walden Pond (1854)

Henry David Thoreau: Walden (1854)

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
It's one of the most famous quotes in American literature. But what does it mean? Stern is very helpful here, as he quotes in the margin from the original version of the passage, where Thoreau gave a long account of an Irish workman moving from job to job without being able to settle in any of them - due mainly to his ever increasing air of desperation, and his gradually disintegrating attire.

This poignant true story was reduced and cut down as Thoreau shaped his book, until it ended up with the sentence as we see it above. The workman, though a signal example of the trend towards self-defeating and ever-growing anxiety ("free-floating anxiety," as we tend to say now), was not the whole story. What Thoreau wanted to say was that apparent increases in prosperity were not really significant when set alongside our ever-growing desire for complete security, and our consequent mounting dread of disaster and destitution.

Which is why he went to the woods - or, rather, a couple of miles down the road from the village of Concord, Massachusetts - to see if it was actually feasible to live self-sufficiently without being either a wage-slave or a pensioner.

The results, it must be said, were mixed. He made his basic point, but it's hard to know if he could have survived without the support of friends such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who actually owned the land the cabin was built on.

David Mikics, ed.: The Annotated Emerson (2012)
The Annotated Emerson. Ed. David Mikics. Foreword by Phillip Lopate. The Belknap Press. Cambridge, Mass & London: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Emerson sympathised with, but never saw entirely eye to eye with Thoreau. The latter was too grimly consistent in his thinking: too fanatical in his desire to have no truck with slavery or any of the other 'worldly' realities which others were able to accommodate themselves to somehow.

He was, admittedly, only one of the eccentrics (or, as they would have put it, Transcendentalists) who surrounded the sage of Concord, and whom he supported in one way or another for much of his life: another was Louisa May Alcott's father Amos Branson Alcott. The tale is told very entertainingly in Hemingway-biographer Carlos Baker's last book, Emerson among the Eccentrics.

Carlos Baker: Emerson among the Eccentrics (1996)
Carlos Baker. Emerson among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait. Ed. Elizabeth B. Carter. Introduction & Epilogue by James R. Mellow. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.

The great value of Thoreau, for me, is that he asks all the right questions. His answers, by and large, are less useful to me. I can't see myself building a cabin with my own hands out in the woods behind Mairangi Bay (even if someone would let me). But I do feel it necessary to ask those same questions about how best to live, how to avoid mortgaging your life to other people's expectations, and to that awful trepidation that overcomes so many of us at the thought of stepping down from our current position of solvency.

I've always admired C. K. Stead's decision to resign from Auckland University in his fifties to pursue the life of a full-time writer. I never - until now - thought to emulate it, but it seems now, for a combination of serendipitous reasons, that I'm going to.

Karl has given me a number of useful pieces of advice over the years, but I think it was his example in this particular respect which has proved most inspiring to me. I could easily have stayed in my job until 65, then retired on a full pension. But, to be honest, I don't feel a real vocation for it any longer.

I've done a lot of things in the fifty-odd semesters I've been teaching on Massey University's Albany Campus (and the five years before that at other places, and the ten years before that as a student), but now I think I've started to repeat myself. It's time for someone new to step into the role - someone who has everything to prove and has the burning desire to tell other people all about it.

It's not that I've stopped loving teaching, but I want now to shift gears into full-time rather than part-time writing and research instead. Every one of the books I've published to date was written while I was teaching at Massey. It's never been easy to claw back enough time to do it without a great deal of compromise on both sides, however.

Étienne Carjat: Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

To be perfectly honest, right now I feel as happy as a sandboy. Whatever the future holds, it will be unpredictable, uncharted territory. As Baudelaire puts it so succinctly in 'Le Voyage':
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe ?
Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau !

[To the depths of the abyss, Hell or Heaven, who cares?
To the depths of the Unknown to find something new!]

Henry Thoreau (1856)

Henry David Thoreau


  1. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Other Writings. 1854. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. Foreword by Townsend Scudder. 1937. The Modern Library College Editions. New York: Random House, Inc., 1950.

  2. Thoreau, Henry David. The Annotated Walden: Walden; or, Life in the Woods, together with “Civil Disobedience,” a Detailed Chronology and Various Pieces about its author, the Writing and Publishing of the Book. 1854. Ed. Philip van Doren Stern. New York: Bramhall House, 1970.

  3. Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden: or, Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod. 1849, 1854, 1864, 1865. Ed. Robert F. Sayre. The Library of America, 28. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1985.

  4. Poetry:

  5. Bode, Carl, ed. Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau: Enlarged Edition. 1943 & 1964. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.

  6. Thoreau, Henry David. Collected Essays and Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell. The Library of America, 124. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2001.

  7. Journals:

  8. Torrey, Bradford, & Francis H. Allen, ed. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. 14 vols in 2. 1906. Foreword by Walter Harding. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1962.

  9. Shepard, Odell, ed. The Heart of Thoreau's Journals. 1906. Boston & New York: The Houghton & Mifflin Company / Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1927.

  10. Thoreau, Henry David. A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851. 1990 & 1992. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Seven Stages of Book Collecting

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying Swiss-German psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed the celebrated "five stages of grief":
  1. denial
  2. anger
  3. bargaining
  4. depression
  5. acceptance
(I should perhaps add that the Wikipedia entry on the subject adds - in what seems to me an unnecessarily pompous manner - that:
Although commonly referenced in popular culture, studies have not empirically demonstrated the existence of these stages, and the model is considered to be outdated, inaccurate, and unhelpful in explaining the grieving process.)

Ken Ross: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004)

Be that as it may, I've decided to follow her example, in a somewhat more humble fashion, by introducing the John Mackenzie Ross "seven stages of book collecting" model. Here it is:
  1. Buy the book
  2. Shelve it
  3. Cover it
  4. Catalogue it
  5. Research it
  6. Read it
  7. Write about it
Naturally, each of these stages may require further exposition. I've more than once been greeted with blank incomprehension when mentioning some (to me) routine aspect of collecting which turned out to be far less self-explanatory than I'd anticipated.

Bronwyn Lloyd: Jack's Arabian Nights Bookcase (30/7/21)

Take, for example, my online interview with novelist Jaspreet Singh on the subject of my 1001 Nights book collection. "When exactly did you start seeing your growing collection as a separate bookshelf?" was one of his questions, and yet to me appropriate display is an obvious outgrowth of the collecting bug.

Jack Ross: A Gentle Madness (2009- )

Similarly, one of my ex-students posted the following set of queries on my Book collection blog, A Gentle Madness (prefacing them with the possibly accurate comment, "Captain Jack, you've gone quite mad, but I guess you must have always been this way!"):

  1. Did you one day realise you had the makings of a "collection" or was it your intention to "collect"?

  2. What book started your collection (when it first became a collection or when you first realised it)?

  3. Do you read every book you buy?

  4. How do you decide what books to buy? Must they be your personal favourites? Are there boxes you need to tick before a book can be allowed into the collection?

  5. Would you ever allow Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown in your collection?

These are all good questions, I guess, but they proved surprisingly difficult to answer. I'll leave you to see what kind of a fist I made of that by directing you to the original post here.

    The Booksellers (2019)

  1. Buy the book

  2. The thrill of the chase is probably the most familiar aspect of collecting even to people who don't share this passion themselves. How else account for the immense popularity of such reality TV series as American Pickers or Pawn Stars?

    I wrote a post about the Lost Bookshops of Auckland some years ago now, where I tried to convey some of my own nostalgia for the second-hand and antiquarian bookshops which once dotted the city.

    Something of the same spirit is conveyed in the recent documentary The Booksellers, which takes us into the inner sanctum of some of New York's most celebrated bookstores.

    Now, of course, the game has changed utterly, thanks to the immense convenience and practicality of online purchasing from the likes of or AbeBooks. This, too, is not without its risks and excitements, but it is a somewhat domesticated version of the sport. It's hard to imagine any serious present-day collectors ignoring it when it comes to filling significant gaps in their collections, though.

    Mike Wolfe, Danielle Colby-Cushman & Frank Fritz: American Pickers (2010- )

    Bronwyn Lloyd: "Before" (2019)

  3. Shelve it

  4. No matter how much shelf space you have, you will fill it eventually. Accordingly, as you'll gather from the "After" picture below, I've had to resort to stowing away my books in double rows.

    This is certainly not an ideal way to present them. I've taken to putting one book by some particularly prolific author in the front row, and shelving all the rest of that person's books behind. That way you can deduce with a reasonable amount of certainty what is likely to be there - if you have some idea of the scope of the collection in the first place, that is.

    I am not myself a fan of bookcases which graduate the height of the shelves so as to allow for bigger books in one, standard hardbacks in another, and even smaller ones (such as paperbacks) in another. Authors are seldom so obliging as it make all of their books the same size, so one ends up having to run parallel alphabetical rows of books on different levels to accommodate any one writer. Which can be very confusing to outsiders trying to find a specific book.

    After considerable research, I've come up with the following rough ratio for the ideal bookcase (for my own requirements, that is). All shelves should have exactly the same dimensions, except for the top one, which should be open on top so as to accommodate exceptionallly large books. Each shelf should be roughly 280 mm. [= c.11 inches] deep, by 280 mm. high. That is tall enough for most books, and also provides ample room for two rows of normal sized volumes. I'd recommend including at least seven shelves, which would add up to a height of 2 metres [= c. 6 feet], with a breadth of at least a metre - or even a metre and a half [= 3-4 feet].

    In other words:
    180 mm. deep x
    180 mm. high

    1000 mm. tall x
    500-750 mm. wide
    Aby Warburg saw his own book collection (now housed in the Warburg Institute in London) as a dynamic way of connecting otherwise disparate disciplines. Merely by shelving the books a certain way:
    the library revealed the similarities which existed among each of the investigative approaches pertaining to these disciplines and promoted the insight that multiple problems cannot be solved by considering each of them in isolation.
    I can make no such lofty claims for my own assortment of disparate titles, but it's true that they do encourage such juxtapositions by the very fact of their coexistence in the same space.

    Bronwyn Lloyd: "After" (2019)

    Model Ship World: Covering Dustjackets (2013)

  5. Cover it

  6. For years I've been trying to protect at least a few of my books with plastic covers, but it wasn't until I managed to locate a reliable source of mylar plastic rolls in the past couple of years that I've been able to do this more systematically.

    At first it was only hardbacks with dustjackets which received this treatment, but more recently I've taken to covering all the hardbacks, as well as a few of the more vulnerable paperbacks. I make an exception for books in slipcases, as they seem to be quite sufficiently protected already.

    Damp air and direct sunlight are the two main enemies of books. The first promotes mould and foxing, the second fades brightly covered spines. Of the two, I prefer sunlight, as I'd rather have a faded dry book than a colourful damp one. Best of all, of course, is a temperature controlled environment (a dehumidifier will help you with this) in a room with appropriately placed curtains.

    I am, finally, far more interested in what's inside a book than its outside appearance, but there isn't much point in spending a lot of money on acquiring nice things if you don't take care of them once you have them.

    Ubiquitous Books: Mylar Covers for Books (2019)

    A Gentle Madness (2009- )

  7. Catalogue it

  8. This is a major part of my collecting endeavour. I catalogue each new book I acquire both by category and by location.

    "Mr. Humphries and His Inheritance" is probably my favourite M. R. James story of all time. In it, James relegates his usual ghostly shenanigans to the background even more than usual, since it mostly concerns a bookish young man who's just inherited an old house with a wonderful maze as well as a library of mostly unexamined treasures form a distant relative.

    "The drawing up of a catalogue raisonné would be a delicious occupation for winter," is probably the one line from this story which has influenced me most over the years. Yes it would be a "delicious activity" - and it is. Cataloguing can become a chore like any other, but when it's done for pleasure, the possibilities of online book catalogues are as yet in their infancy, I firmly believe.

    Besides the principal functions mentioned above, my own book collection website, A Gentle Madness, includes complete listings of the books of favourite authors of mine so that I know what I still need to be be on the lookout for. It also includes a category of posts about recent acquisitions to my library.

    Further refinements will no doubt follow. Hopefully they'll be reasonably easy to institute, now that most of the essential data is in place.

    Jack Ross: A Gentle Madness: Acquisitions (2012- )

  9. Research it

  10. I suppose, since I have spent thirty years working as a teacher at tertiary level - and ten years as a university student before that - I should know a little bit about this subject.

    What's more, I date from an era when dissertations where painstakingly tapped out on typewriters, and when access to a bank of encyclopedias and dictionaries was necessary to provide the necessary facts for literary research.

    The horrid truth, though, is that I have a tendency to make my first stop Wikipedia just like most of my students do. And why not? Many of the entries are flawed and incomplete, admittedly, but then so were most of the reference sources I used to access in the university library. The advantage with an online encyclopedia is that one can click on the links to supplement the basic information included there.

    It will certainly provide you with most of what you need to know about the contents (and authors) of most of the books in an average library. Beyond that, admittedly, more specialised techniques may have to be employed - but that's another story (as Rudyard Kipling was probably not the first to say).

    Wikipedia (2001- )

    Eve Arnold: Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce (1955)

  11. Read it

  12. "Have you read them all?"

    This is probably the book collecting equivalent of that infamous question for writers: "Where do you get your ideas?"

    No, of course I haven't read all of them. Nor would I really relish looking round at a group of books every one of which I'd already read. "La chair est triste, hélas ! et j'ai lu tous les livres," as Stéphane Mallarmé once put it: "The flesh is sad, alas, and I've read all the books."

    I have read a pretty sizeable percentage of them, though, some many times, and am gradually working my way through the others. Interestingly enough, not all book collectors actually do this. There are even some library collections which boast of including only uncut copies, unread and unseen by any human eye.

    That's all very well, but my collection exists for use, not ornament. There are a few that are kind of old and delicate, and those I might choose to read in a library copy instead, but most of them I read regardless of any risk to their spines or their ancient acidic paper. It is, after all, a large part of my job, as well as my leisure (though generally somewhat different books).

    I am, one might say, a reading machine - by necessity as well as inclination.

    Bronwyn Lloyd: Reading at Paekakariki (2013)

    Jack Ross: The Imaginary Museum (2006- )

  13. Write about it

  14. Writing about the books you've bought and read is really the icing on the cake. Ever since I first started this blog in 2006, it's been moving more and more towards an exclusive focus on book collecting. Hence this post, among many others along the same lines, and hence the various series of author or series-focussed blogposts I've written.

    Books are, after all, fascinatingly various objects. They have a physical presence as well as existing on a more ideal or abstract plane. The object interests me as much as its content, in most cases. They can be old or new, big or small, beautifully bound and packaged or scruffily mass-produced.

    But I suppose that the main point of collecting them is to connect with them in some way: either by suggesting new ideas or refinements of ideas in you, or just delighting you with "the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to life beyond life" (Milton).

So that's a little taste of the background to my madness. What about yours?

I suppose that the term "hobbyist" might be applied by many to what I do here in place of the rather more grandiose "collector." But a collection is nothing but a hobby with a college education (to paraphrase Mark Twain), so yar boo sucks to them!