I Love (Physical) Books

I was going to mention this in the post about Dombey and Son, but it was already rather long: my pleasure in reading the novel was enhanced by the nature of the physical object which contains it. A few years ago I came into possession of several Dickens volumes which, along with a lot of other books, would otherwise have gone to Goodwill (it's a longish story, not important to tell). I didn't look at them very closely at the time, and there wasn't space for them on our shelves, so they went into a closet and didn't come out again until the fall of 2022, when we moved to a new house. Before the move we culled our book collection fairly severely, getting rid of everything that we had read and didn't expect to read again, or figured we would never read. 

I considered getting rid of these, but on finally taking a good look at them realized they were treasures. They are part of a complete Dickens published by Scribner's ("Charles Scribner's Sons") in 1911. And I very much wish I had the whole set. If you want one, Abebooks currently has it available for $500. Which is really a pretty reasonable price, around $14 per volume. When I put it that way, it's actually sort of tempting....

Here are the nine volumes in their new home. The white spots seem to be paint, the work of some sloppy painter of who knows how long ago. It's lamentable that I only have volume one of The Old Curiosity Shop

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Here are a couple of sample pages from Dombey and Son. The illustrations are the original ones by "Phiz," Hablot Knight Browne, and they're delightful. 

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Reading these is a physical pleasure. Splitting the novels into two volumes of four or five hundred pages makes for very comfortable handling and reading, in a typeface and size that are easy on the eyes (an increasing consideration for me), and margins that don't make the pages seem crowded. And because they were printed with real movable type you can actually feel the impressions on the paper: a slight but genuine pleasure. 

I'm not a bibliophile, not any sort of collector. A book doesn't have to have any particular charm or excellence for me to like it. It just needs to be a physical book. Too many of mine are really pretty poor physical specimens, bought used or picked up from library discard shelves. Sometimes these are pretty dilapidated, having permanent marks of their library career, sometimes in the form of those rather ugly library bindings, or defaced by the underlining or highlighting of a student (though more than a few instances of the latter will prevent me from getting the book in the first place). But when I read anything longer than, say, a blog post, I want a book, a book made of paper. 

I know a lot of people find reading on a Kindle or similar device perfectly acceptable, with various convenience factors actually making the electronic device more appealing than a book. But I think I can safely say that I never will do that. I've tried it, and I just don't much like it. I could go into more detail about that, but "I don't like it" is sufficient. It's not just my age, as I know several people of similar age, including my wife, who have made the transition. I have a Kindle Fire but only use it to read journalism and similar stuff online. I once tried reading one of those public domain electronic versions of The Pickwick Papers on the Kindle and abandoned it after fifty pages or so. I look forward to reading the Pickwick you can see in the photo above. 

I do like one thing about a book in electronic form: the ability to search for words and phrases. I have electronic copies, obtained from Project Gutenberg, of both Dombey and Son and Bleak House on my computer, and have used them as, for instance, I did yesterday, to refresh my memory about who Gridley is in Bleak House. But I wouldn't sit and read the novels that way, unless I had no other choice. Which may be the situation someday, but not in my lifetime. 


Dickens: Dombey And Son

On re-reading my post about Great Expectations, I note that I more or less assumed that the reader knows the story, which means that there was a certain level of spoilage in the post. Although it doesn't go into any detail, it does reveal the final condition of the two main characters. I am not going to do that here, so I will be a little vague.

The Dombey with whom this story is concerned is Son. The first Dombey is disposed of in a few sentences, and Son Dombey is already in middle age, with a wife and a daughter and a son who is in the process of being born when the story opens. Dombey and Son is one of the great houses in London's business world; there's even a suggestion that it may be the greatest. Dombey the Second is immensely proud of this, and it is his greatest wish that it continue with future Dombeys rotating through the firm's name. These would of course have to be male; apart from the generally very separate roles of the sexes at the time (or for that matter most times and places), they would, obviously, have to be male in order for the name to remain the same. As there is no question of a daughter succeeding to that headship, Dombey has no interest in his daughter, Florence, who is about six years old when the story opens. "No interest" is putting it mildly, as being the highest point to which his fatherly heart rises. Active contempt is increasingly the case.

And those are the mainsprings of the story, which runs to roughly a thousand pages in the edition I have. As the son, Paul, is being born, the wife, Fanny, is dying, in spite of the motivational speech--"You must make an effort"--given to her by her sister-in-law. Or perhaps it was the motivational speech that delivered the last blow to her will to live, already (so it is suggested) half-crushed by living among Dombeys. Certainly the death occurs in immediate succession to the speech. 

Little Paul is an odd and sickly child. He loves and is loved by Florence. Florence lives partly for him and partly in perpetual desperate hope of being loved by her father, who begins implacably indifferent to her and grows hostile as Paul fails to develop as his father assumes that he will, in fact can hardly imagine that he will not. Mr. Dombey has the royal pride of a pharoah or the Sun King. 

This pride, of course, is not going to lead him to a happy place. It blinds him not only to the love of a daughter whom everyone else can see is an angel, but to the presence within his circle of an Iago, a secret flattering enemy who works toward his destruction. 

If you knew anything about Dickens at all you would suppose, even without looking at the book, that this is going to be a long and complex and often very sad story. And it is, taking place over a period of roughly fifteen years and involving a great many characters. The Wikipedia page for the novel lists a round 50 of them (49 if you don't count Diogenes the dog). Many of these of course have fairly small roles, but every one is rendered with Dickens's astonishing ability to create a portrait with only a few strokes. And the names--did he really just keep an eye out for useful ones, or did he invent some of them? Peps, Pilkins, Pilcher, Pipchin, Toodle, Toots, Tox, Nipper, Gills, Cuttle, Blitherstone, Skettles....

I'm sorry to say, though, that Florence herself is a partial exception to this success, though she is, more than Dombey himself, the center of the story. I mentioned that she seems an angel, and that's the problem. She is so pure, so sweet, so self-effacing, so entirely without fault or resentment, as to seem not quite real, not quite a really living person in the way that other characters are. I don't think this is so much a failure in portraiture, a failure in execution, as a result of a choice made at a level above that, the choice of the kind of person Dickens has imagined. 

The sentimentality of that portrait is not in general an anomaly in the novel. One expects a fair amount of that from Dickens, along with melodrama and implausible coincidences that would be ridiculous in other hands. I accept them as conventions of the times, and they don't diminish--well, not very much--the irresistible power of the language and the narrative. I found myself at times thinking of Shakespeare's astonishing fluency. A descriptive imaginative power far beyond the reach of most writers hardly ever stops and is brought to bear on both great and small moments. In the first paragraph, Dombey is sitting in a room with newborn Son, who

..lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

This doom-laden figure constitutes the second paragraph: 

On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time—remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go—while the countenance of Son was crossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.

And in the third:

Son, with his little fists curled up and clenched, seemed, in his feeble way, to be squaring at existence for having come upon him so unexpectedly.

No sentimentality or far-fetched coincidence can diminish the appeal of such writing.

The sentimentality is often transcended. I'm thinking particularly of the death of one character--no, make that two: the death of Fanny Dombey is handled briefly and with great poignancy. The other is protracted, and has the character drifting slowly out of this life and into another in a way that borders on the mystical. If, or more likely when, this novel fades in my memory into a blur from which only certain scenes stand out clearly, this will be one of those scenes.

Dickens's well-known concern with the wretched plight of the 19th-century urban poor is very present, often with the most furious sarcasm directed at the hypocrisy and indifference of the upper classes. The cast of characters range from those at the bottom who are barely surviving, and that only in constant physical discomfort or worse, to those near the top who are unable to conceive that it is not part of the fabric of nature that those who are below them should not serve and honor them. The anger is plain and potent. That much would be, presumably is, applauded by our contemporaries who are advocates for "social justice." But it's strikingly different in that it has no visible ideological component at all. There is nothing abstract about it. Whatever ideas Dickens may have had about changing the situation are not presented. The persons involved are persons with conscience and the ability to act--what we call nowadays "agency." The basic structures of society may seem like the laws of the universe to them, but there is nothing in the way of their behaving well within those boundaries. Some do, and some don't, and it is a clear illustration of Solzhenitsyn's famous statement that the line between good and evil is within every heart. 

I wondered, as I've wondered before without doing anything to turn wondering into knowledge, what Dickens's religious beliefs were. The established church certainly comes off pretty badly, and self-righteous religiosity, though not a prominent element, gets a few knocks here and there. But there is more than one passage where a deep regard for some bedrock of the faith is evidenced:

Harriet complied and read—read the eternal book for all the weary, and the heavy-laden; for all the wretched, fallen, and neglected of this earth—read the blessed history, in which the blind lame palsied beggar, the criminal, the woman stained with shame, the shunned of all our dainty clay, has each a portion, that no human pride, indifference, or sophistry, through all the ages that this world shall last, can take away, or by the thousandth atom of a grain reduce—read the ministry of Him who, through the round of human life, and all its hopes and griefs, from birth to death, from infancy to age, had sweet compassion for, and interest in, its every scene and stage, its every suffering and sorrow.

Dickens himself seems to have felt that compassion and interest. 


A New Beth Gibbons Song

I generally avoid listening to pop music during Lent, and will hold off until after Easter posting about a couple of pop albums that I've been listening to recently. But I'll mention this, which will be of interest to any fan of Portishead. Possibly that includes, apart from me, only one reader of this blog, but anyway, if you are one, you know that Beth Gibbons is the singer for that singular band, and will be interested in her solo album, Lives Outgrown. It's not due out until May, but one track, "Floating On a Moment," has just been released. Most of the video is a swirling sort of liquid kaleidoscope effect which started to give me a headache after fifteen or twenty seconds. But I looked away and enjoyed the song. 

Here's the Pitchfork article about the new album. This struck me:

The songs address anxieties about ageing, according to a press release. “I realized what life was like with no hope,” [Gibbons] said. “And that was a sadness I’d never felt."

"No hope" presumably means "no earthly hope," and may or may not mean "no hope of any kind ever." Apart from that theological question, it's interesting that she'd never felt that way before. She's 59  years old. I'd say that means she's had a fairly fortunate life. Or that she has a generally positive temperament. Which I wouldn't have supposed from her singing. 

Though this is the first album released under her name alone, the album Out of Season, on which she shared credit with "Rustin Man," the pseudonym of Paul Webb, a former member of Talk Talk, seems to be at least half her work. I have that one and liked it on initial acquaintance but have not really given it a proper listen. Maybe I'll do that between Easter and May. 

She also sang the soprano (?) part in a recording of Henryk Górecki's Symphony #3, the famous "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," which I have never heard (the recording, I mean--like at least a million other people, I have the CD which made the symphony famous thirty years or so ago). I thought it seemed like a gimmick, but this review, also in Pitchfork, makes it sound interesting:

Symphony No. 3 has a nightmarish undertone that tends to get smoothed out in dulcet recordings—one of the texts is meant to be the sound of a woman calling out for her murdered child—and Gibbons brings that squirming danger right to the surface.

Part of the tension comes from hearing her untrained voice scale these rocky heights. Her vibrato, tight and trilling and barely controlled, sounds an awful lot like someone fighting off a panic attack.