[Ed. Note: Today’s post is by Lucian McMahon a Penn Classics Post-Baccalaureate ‘14 who was a Penn Libraries Collections Student Assistant 2013–2014]
Despite the seemingly inexorable conquest of the e-book and contrary to the doom-and-gloom prognostications of bibliophiles (and publishing houses) everywhere, the physical book continues somehow to eke out an existence, maintaining a mysteriously tenacious hold on many readers. For some, the type on paper is easier on the eyes; for others, a bound book is more suitable for close reading—for underlining, circling, highlighting, writing in the margins; for others, living rooms chaotic with crowded bookshelves comfort and remind them of lives spent with the written word, each book a companion in this world and a guide to another.
Whatever the specific reason for the mysterious attraction, the physicality of the book is primary. More than just ethereal and ephemeral words on a screen, a book is a real object that can be touched, smelled, annotated, traded, inherited. We lend books to congenially-minded friends, we give them away when we move, we wrap them up as presents. We write in them to remind ourselves of a specific passage, to list characters and plotlines, to make a book a personal gift.
Our personal libraries are testaments of lives spent buying, trading, giving away, receiving, reading books. They tell a story beyond the stories in each individual book, a story found in the margins and on the inside covers and between the pages. Each annotation, inscription, forgotten slip of paper or memento is a snapshot of a life. Take all these snapshots and flip through them fast enough and you can watch a movie spanning decades.
Recently, while going through a gift to the Penn Libraries from Michael and Susan Levitt (not their real names), I was privileged to watch just such a movie. Looking up each book in the library catalogue as a student collections assistant, looking for defects, inscriptions, stamps, plates, etc. I began, unwittingly at first, to piece together their lives from the clues they had left behind in their books.
From the notes and dedications they and their children Jeff and Maria wrote to one another, from the letters forgotten and pieces of miscellanea left between the pages, I watched the lives of Michael and Susan unfold in fast forward: A dedication from Michael to Susan in The Poems and Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde in 1942, perhaps when he was soldiering overseas; an undated Valentine’s Day card in Borges’ Personal Anthology; a love note from Susan to Michael on the occasion of their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary in Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life; Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting a Christmas gift in 1980; Living at the Edge by Squires and Talbot given to Susan on her 83rd birthday; a photograph of Michael peacefully asleep in an armchair with an obliging cat on his lap, “found in 2010,” in the pages of God’s Funeral by A. N. Wilson.
The 1960s and 70s left their mark on Michael and Susan’s library: The Bhagavad-Gita, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Confucius’ Analects, Herman Hesse. They read poetry, Rilke and Blake and Yeats and Coleridge. They read philosophy and history. Literature too, of course. A shelf of musical scores—compositions by Michael Levitt.
I found a book of the collected poems of Jeff Levitt. The preface tells of tragic events within the household. Suddenly, the melancholy strain wending through many of the inscriptions began to make sense. Maria appears to be a Near Eastern Studies scholar and a novelist in her own right. Michael was an accomplished scholar who must have died recently—a nursing home directory falls out of Yeats’ Mythologies and next to “Levitt” the name Susan stands alone.
When these books are catalogued and scattered throughout the stacks of the library and the snapshots of Michael and Susan’s lives have become disembodied and context-less, the story unfolding in their personal library will be lost—probably forever. A future student, plucking Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives from the shelf, might find a dedication to the Levitts’ sixty-fourth wedding anniversary, not knowing anything about Michael and Susan and Jeff and Maria. The student might begin to wonder about their lives and briefly invent a new story for them, with infinite possibilities. A Library of Babel of possible Levitt lives.
But while the books are still together, they tell a story beyond just what their owners liked to read or what the metadata of the future catalogue entry includes (how many pages, published when, where, and by whom). The inscriptions and personal effects tell a story of a life lived with love and sorrow, loss and gain. It is deeply touching to think I was lucky enough to be a last witness to this, Michael and Susan’s story.