Library Note:
Book Tour
24 January 2018

¶ So, here’s how it started. Someone was reviewing the poetry of Nancy Cunard in the LRB. Nancy Cunard wrote poetry? Something called “Moods” was quoted, four lines of nursery rhyme. The reviewer compared it unfavorably to Auden’s “Night Mail” — a poem I didn’t know. If I had known it, I’d have wanted to re-read it, so, one way or the other, I set out for Auden’s Collected Poems (edited by Edward Mendelson; Random House, 1976). 

I couldn’t find it.

I still don’t know where half the books in my library are, or even if they’re still in my library, what with last summer’s storage-evacuation purges. Poetry books are kept in two places, but Auden wasn’t in either of them. I couldn’t believe it! Auden! I began tearing apart one of the breakfront shelves in the book room, where the books are three deep, because it’s one of the poetry spots, if not the one where I expected to find Auden. And, what do you know!  I found Lisa Chaney’s Elizabeth David: A Mediterranean Passion, one of the two David biographies that I’d wanted to look at after re-reading Roger Williams’s Lunch With Elizabeth David, which I mentioned the other day. But I hadn’t tried to find them as I was now hunting down Auden. With Chaney in hand, I added Artemis Cooper’s Writing at the Kitchen Table, the other biography, to the search. Pretty soon (but over the course of two days), the writing table in the book room was covered with toppling piles of books, the contents of Shelf B2 mostly. Neither Auden nor Cooper turned up, but as long as I had a mess to clean up, I thought I might as well do it properly.  

Regular readers will be crouching and covering their heads in anticipation of yet another tantrum about the inadequacies of library software. The year before I started this Web log, I lost a nearly complete and highly detailed Access database, all entered by hand, to malware (a visiting relative was visiting Web sites that he oughtn’t t’have), and I have been moaning and groaning about it ever since. (Microsoft abandoned Access, and I am simply not going to say another word about Readerware, because, read on.) When we moved into this apartment a few years ago, I resorted to Evernote to keep track of a few books, and my improvisations there have turned out to be perfectly adequate, as, shelf by shelf, I have entered authors’ names and titles into two-columned tables. If a book has been catalogued in this rudimentary way, I’ll be able to find out where it is in an instant. For a long time, I confined my efforts to the invisible books, the ones shelved behind others. Now I make a record of what’s in front, too, because, as we shall see, I’m often quite bullheadedly mistaken about what I’m looking for, in the way of dust-jackets and bindings. 

When Shelf B2 was cleared, but for the rank at the rear, I created a Note, B2R (“R” for “rear”). Then I hauled out all the books so that I could put their information into a table. The first book was Neil Harris’s Capital Culture, and the third was Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers. Sticky Fingers had been lying about somewhere else, not yet shelved, but, like Capital Culture, it was a book that I didn’t really like very much but that contained too much useful information to discard. I created another table for the short books that I stacked horizontally, including Alan Mandelbaum’s Dante. (When I was done, W S Merwin’s Purgatorio stood out in front. That’s literary criticism at its most elementary.) Then a third entry, without a table: “Miscellaneous Chinese books.” 

The Note for B2M (“M” for “middle”) began with a long table of books relating to food. It was in this cluster that I had discovered Chaney and then expected to find Cooper. I created another table, for miscellaneous books, the most important of which is probably Frank Kermode’s memoir, Not Entitled. A third table covered all the poetry books that didn’t seem quite good enough for the front of the shelf, B2F. (Need I?) By now, most of the piles on the writing table had toppled onto the floor, taking desktop knickknacks with them. I managed to stock the front of the shelf without further hands-and-knees frolic. 

There was a bit of extra space in the front, so I thought that I’d bring in some of the poetry books from the mantelpiece bookshelf, which is where Auden was supposed to be AND WAS, all the time. This is what I mean by bullheaded. I didn’t know what to look for, and, besides, the lighting is very atmospheric in the living room, meaning that you can’t see anything unless you’re sitting next to a lamp. Auden was on the top shelf, and I’d discarded the dust jacket, which would have been much easier to read than the small gold lettering on the spine. 

And guess what? Now that I was combing the mantelpiece bookshelf for poetry books, I looked to see what was standing next to Charles Passage’s metrical rendering of Horace, and found, not another book of verse, but the clothbound edition — I’d been expecting a paperback — of Cooper’s Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David. 

The poem that appears after “Night Mail” — better than Nancy Cunard’s railway piece, to be sure, but nevertheless written to be narrated in a General Post Office short — is the famous “As I Walked Out One Evening.” I lingered over these terribly mortal lines, 

In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,

with a dash of Schadenfreude, for I had just eliminated a headache and a worry: I had found my Auden and my Cooper. 

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