I’m sitting in my Aunt’s basement after having watched two films for the first time in longer than I’d like to admit, and I look at a bookshelf near the couch I’m sleeping on. Among the assorted titles are Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, but as you can tell by the picture below, I was immediately drawn to the older titles on the left.
It’s an eclectic collection to say the least. From Salman Rushdie to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm. There’s something that sets the other three titles out though.
It’s hard to make out in the photo, but there are actually two different editions of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – one as part of a compilation with Dubliners and Chamber Music in a sleeve that makes me feel it was printed in the 90s. The other, a 1928 printing from The Modern Library with faded binding and sloppy underlining through the text. What stood out to me about this edition though is this faded inscription on the inner front cover.
If I’m reading that right, this 88 year old book was once owned by a Jo Morgan. So many literary analysts spend so much time and effort trying to figure out what can be gleaned about the author of a book from the prose. Yet at this moment, I’m more interested in who this Jo Morgan is and what I can glean from the notes that he took, however many years ago.
Next up is the edition of Great Expectations. Not nearly as old as the Joyce as the most recent printing listed is 1976, but this book seems for more loved by its previous owner.
Kate Sharpe, I have to assume, was a student when she owned this book. There are coffee stains everywhere and only rarely are there any marks on the pages which makes me think that Kate found out where the important scenes were and underlined everything to make it seem like she had done her homework. I can’t help but find is just a little funny, the geneaology of students struggling through great literature for school.
The last book (Gatsby) though is by far the most interesting because of who’s name is on its inside cover.
That my friends, is my father’s signature. Whenever he owned this, he only highlighted two passages. The first is the infamous, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”But the second is more interesting.
The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.
This isn’t the quote I think of when I think of Gatsby, but I’ve got to say it’s an interesting choice. I wonder what was going through his mind when he highlighted this.
But the reason I started writing this actually has to do with the advice Nick Carraway’s father gave him – which I found on the first page as I opened this book for the first time in years.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
This makes me think of all the politics of privilege that I’ve learned about in my university education. It makes me think of the nature of patience and long-suffering my religious upbringing has given me. It makes me think of how I’m glad that my response to all these books was wonder rather than ambivalence. I have the advantage of posterity, and I hope that someone someday picks up a book with my name in it, and thinks about the enormity of time and experience to which physical books grant us access.