Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Reflections: A Strong Spine is Good

Picked up A Short History of the Movies, by Gerald Mast, yesterday, in the one-dollar bin at a local used book store. The book is 575 pages and about 1.5 inches thick, and it’s as old as I am. That it gets past the early ’70s makes me feel young. That it costs a buck, after only 33 years, makes me feel mortal.

At the risk of being too eloquent, let me say I bought this book for the can. That is, for bathroom reading. It’s perfect for that space; divided into chapters with predictable titles like ‘Birth’ or ‘Sound’ or ‘France Between the Wars,’ each chapter subdivided into bolded sections such as ‘Projection,’ or ‘von Sternberg, Ford, Hitchcock, Welles.’ The book is chronological, more or less, but you can dive into any period you want and find standalone information, guiding yourself more by the thoughts you had upon entering the john than any prior point you’d reached in the pages.

And anyway, there’s no room on my bookshelves for this one. My shelves are full and overflowing already with books I haven’t read—many of them poorly suited to the bathroom.

A moment of truth, here: this entry is inspired by a response I made to Roger Ebert’s blog yesterday. He’s already drawn 200+ responses to the subject of his bookshelf (down from the 1,200 he drew on the subject of Tea-partyers, birthers, and other assorted nuts last week). Here’s what I said:

I haven’t read most of my books either, but their collective presence brings me joy. I love the colours of their spines, their various thicknesses, and their various title fonts, set next to one another on the black shelves.

If I look closer, I can marvel at their subject matter, and feel proud of myself for possessing them (and, at the very least, desiring to read them). I know there’s some I’ll never get to, especially in the Digital Age. However, if guests visit my home for the first time, and I step into the kitchen to fix us a drink, I’ll come back to find them inspecting that shelf, to know me a little better. And they will know me.

There’s only so much life, and if we’re fortunate enough to live a long one, we’ll still never read, watch or listen to every worthy thing. So perhaps an abundant bookshelf is our push-back against eternity? It’s our way of saying that, while we may be mortal, we at least can envision an immortal version of ourselves. Not by knowing what that immortal self would know, but by knowing what that self would pursue, because time was not against it. We can appreciate, if not actually become, our Ideal Human.

Aren’t I deep and heavy? Didn’t mention the can one time.

Commenting on Ebert’s blog, particularly when he’s combating the Right Wing, feels a bit like dropping a pebble from a helicopter into the Pacific Ocean. Short and pithy entries are better, I think. I could have gone on to write about how strictly my bookshelves are organized by subject, and how fun I find organizing a bookshelf to be. I could have patted myself on the back for having such clean and tidy shelves, in which every spine is visible. Some people—very smart people, better read than me, in many cases—have bookshelves spilling over with big and little tomes. They pile books atop the top shelf, and on the floor, from which they rise to obscure the bottom shelf altogether. More books are stacked lengthwise on top of rows of even more books. This too, is charming, but it isn’t the Ideal Me.

But back to A Short History of the Movies for a sec. A Short History of the Movies, I hope, will represent a little victory for me against the tyranny of a busy life. It will be waiting for me, just behind my shoulder, whenever pressing duties of the day must give way to one that won’t wait. To these moments I have an indisputable right as a continent man, so I might as well multitask and enrich myself. If this can’t help me watch all the great old films—silent and otherwise—that are worth watching, at least it can help me know what to look for, and be conscious of deserves a second viewing.

Now, back to work.

Btw, the book is still going strong. Here’s a link to the tenth edition of A Short History of the Movies. Dr. Mast, who unfortunately died quite young, is listed as co-author in more recent versions.

Mast’s obituary in the
New York Times.