We can assay the weight and substance of a given work and argue its merits, but essentially the value of the thing is in its power to move us and hold us and remain in our minds long after the event of our first reading. For example, Tarzan of the Apes is a silly work in almost any critical regard except in the way that matters.
When art and craft are brought to a work that has that power to endure, we have the transcendent experience of stepping beyond our petty concerns into other places, in other times, and living larger lives than what we have managed by ourselves.
Not every great work is a Moby Dick, or should be. Not every reader has the stamina, or the need for the quest of a Frodo, or a picaresque journey by raft on the Mississippi. And often enough, the best of our literature is not fiction but memoir–that assembly of fact from memory that bears truth more than history.
Everyone knows that Melville’s great work was forgotten for several generations. Essentially lost but for a few libraries. That is the latent power of a great library. I imagine the moment when an unsuspecting browser happened upon that work on a shadowed shelf and wondered what the fat volume with the odd name contained—unaware at that moment that their life was about be profoundly changed.
I’ve had the experience myself more than once. As a bookseller, I’ve had that advantage. That blessing. Booksellers live small lives for the most part. We are not soldiers. We are not explorers in the physical sense. We are not often brave, despite the better example of a Henry Knox. Our pleasures are most often restrained by the limits of the octavo, the quarto, and the folio. (Melville played with us on that point, didn’t he?)
And I’ve had that great giddy moment of experience again just this past week!
There is a library in Boston which is unique to the world. It is a private library, supported wholly by its members. One of the oldest libraries in America. It’s internal architecture alone is enough to pay for a visit. But what makes it unique are its books. Every library is different in that way, of course, some more than others. Some by sheer size. Some by the quality of the collection. The Athenaeum is unique on both counts, and then some. They don’t dispose of a good book simply because no fool has stumbled upon it in a misspent lifetime or two, nor throw it away because it has been edge worn by love.
My children gave me a membership to the Boston Athenaeum for Christmas. Snow and troubles followed. The twenty-five miles or so to Boston can be a barrier in more ways than are worth recounting. The petty matters of consequence work against our best wishes. But we finally made our way there into the teeth of a nor’easter last Monday to attend a gathering of new members. Good wine and cheese were not the draw so much as guilt over not managing the visit before.
I spent most of my hours that day climbing the stairwell from floor to floor and revelling in the nooks and crannies and joy of mere proximity. So many books, so little time. You know the joke. It’s played on us.
I checked out a Ross Macdonald mystery I did not remember reading before and another title I did not know at all, just for that fact. I have been a heavy reader and a bookseller all my life and titles I don’t know practically leap from the shelves at me. This was happening repeatedly that evening to the point of making me feel even more stupid than I know I am. Macdonald was a favorite of mine in my youth and most of his titles are long out of print. But this Macdonald was not one of his best, littered with many of his sharp observations, but reduced by over-convenience in plotting and sloppy writing. The other book was worse, and quickly forgotten.
I returned to the Athenaeum on the following Friday for another assault. The quiet aisles permit unlimited skulking. I devoted myself to the third floor this time—Biography. I tried the main concourse there with its alcoves of high shelves and ladders and discovered a wonderful biography of Ambrose Bierce by his friend, Walter Neale. I read three chapters while sitting in a stuffed chair by a window over looking the ancient Granary Burying Ground. As good as it looked, I wasn’t ready for the oddities of Mr. Bierce that day. The ghosts of Sam Adams and Paul Revere lying there in the graveyard below made me think I should go after bigger fish perhaps.
I made my way up a small winding cast-iron stair to the balcony with a vague notion about Mr. Revere’s midnight ride. I have been writing about that very moment in time just recently and it would be an appropriate subject for study. But I was ambushed on my way.
Walking on the thick translucent glass floor that gives all the balconies a vague feeling of transcendence above the vaulted rooms (it’s all in the mind you see) I was struck in the eye by an oddity I could not pass without investigation: the name Norman Maclean. Didn’t he write A River Runs Through it? A nice little book. Not a favorite, for no reason I can remember. But this particular book appeared to me older than anything that Mr. Maclean from Iowa might have written. What was it?
The Former Days was published in England by Hodder and Stoughton in 1945–written by a man who had been bearing that same familiar name, but born on the Isle of Skye in 1868. He had written several novels, histories, biographies, political and religious tracts. And I had never heard of him. The third volume of this memoir, there on the shelf as well, had been published in 1952, shortly after his death. A frontispiece portrait showed a rather severe Reverend Norman Maclean in his doctoral robes. This certainly wasn’t what I was looking for. Was it?
Out of habit I turned to the first page of the first volume.
“It was called the Otter’s cave, and my first recollection of it was being taken there by my father when he set a trap to catch an otter.” Simple enough. I was caught. I stood on the glass floor and read further. By the end of the page I was in a country I have dreamed of visiting since I was a child reading Robert Louis Stevenson, and to an island I have wanted to know since—since when? I took the book down to the stuffed chair and read further. The powerful ghosts of the Granary burying ground were forgotten beside this better world of peat fires and thatched roofs and porridge.
How is a great writer forgotten? I have no clue to this mystery. Many are not given their due, but are at least kept alive by those readers who can love the finely wrought sentence and the artful word. One of my favorites, Patrick Leigh Fermor, gets a new edition every few years as the fire he has kindled with A Time of Gifts is passed from reader to reader. But perhaps this world of peat fires and open hearths is just too remote. Like Maurice O’Sullivan’s Great Blasket Island off the rocky shore of Ireland. But even O’Sullivan’s Twenty Years a’Growing has more often been kept in print.
If you Google the name Norman Maclean you get a lot about the American writer from Iowa, but you have to dig through more than a few pages to find the Scottish reverend who came home from his last posting in India during the Second World War to write down what he knew of The Former Days, a world already vanished in the cold light of new holocausts. Like Fermor, he conjures his memories with an intimacy that brings a close understanding to the reader’s mind. These were people who lived and died with your own dreams on their lips.
“It does not need a high hill to realize the joys of ascending. As you rise, how amazingly does the world grow large. The horizon recedes, and as it recedes, islands hitherto invisible rise out of the sea; new bays and lochs leap into view…In the enlarging world, the scheming of men, their toils and their quarrels, are dwarfed into insignificance. That is why the soul finds its healing in the mountains.”
And there at the top of Ben Lee, the hungry minded boy who has left his sheep to graze, has his world enlarged more than he could have imagined. “There is a cairn of rough stones, just high enough to shelter from the wind that always blows at that height. As a north breeze was blowing, I purposed sitting on the south side of the cairn, but when I got round it, there I found a woman with the wind in her hair and her tam-o’shanter in her lap, gazing at the ramparts of the Coolins. No wonder she gazed with her eyes alit, for, search the world over, you could not find a more entrancing scene. If I were astonished, the stranger was equally astonished. She wasn’t startled, for the appearance of a red-haired, freckled boy of twelve does not startle, even on a hill top.
‘Hullo! Where did you come from?’
‘Which of the Braes?’
‘What is your name?’
‘What else? What is your surname?’
‘You ought to be a MacLeod with the Christian name Norman.’
‘My grandmother is a MacLeod.’
‘That explains it. This is an Island of Macdonalds, Macleods, and Mackinnons. How come you to be here and not in Mull?’
‘My father came from Coigach in Lochbroom.’
‘That is a strange place for a Maclean to be from.’
‘His grandfather escaped from Culloden and fled to the west with a companion. He settled in Coigach, and there are many Macleans there now. So my father says.’
‘Why did your father come to Skye?’
‘He is a schoolmaster.’
‘Do sit down and let us have a comfortable talk.’
I did not however sit down, but lay on a clump of heather and cupping my chin in my hands, looked up at the stranger and thought to myself that never had I seen so beautiful a woman.”
They determined that they were cousins. But he discovered more than the beauty of a woman. She found out his need for books and sent him the forbidden fruit of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides.
Yes! That’s how I first discovered Skye myself. With Boswell and Johnson.
The Isle of Skye is a place on tourist maps now. The social upheavals of the highland clearances and the rote ignorance of most modernization has cleared away the crofts. But you can still visit that place, without a passport if you wish. The Reverend Norman Maclean will take you.
The book is your ship. The library is your port of departure. You may thus become the master of your fate.