A writer these days can feel not unlike a dinosaur: carded for extinction or drastic remodelling into a lizard or something. I choose the latter, trying my hand at scriptwriting, but in my heart of hearts I’m really just a prosaic scribbler tied to books. That is, doomed to extinction.
I console myself that every ending is also a new beginning, and cast my mind back to my optimistic midlife in the mid-90s, when I'd just become a jounalist and lived midway along St John’s Road, St Augustine, poised between two institutions of the book, the profane UWI and the sacred Mount St. Benedict.
My apartment overlooked a football field, where a Community Centre stands today, and in my otherwise empty front bedroom books were stacked higgledy piggledy, heaps propped against the walls upwards of forty inches, large ones below, smaller ones on top, medium sizes wherever they found a space when the boxes were unpacked. Size was the only criterion for rank.
Today there's still little order to my books so I usually can’t find anything I'm looking for, but at least there's a semblance of neatness, whereas back in the day, towards the centre of that St. Augustine bookroom, away from its walls and windows but otherwise covering most the floor space, books huddled together in lower but more precarious piles, towers of mutual support like a miniature ghetto of Kowloon, where the anarchy was even greater: old magazines, notebooks, diaries, pamphlets, clippings, letters, postcards, photograph albums, old chequebooks, manucripts, photocopies. A hi-rise shantytown of words. Three or four isolated towers were collapsed from their solitude while a few others had settled into a permanent teetering on the brink.
The overall chaos made it appear to contain more than it actually did, prompting the surprised visitor to ask incredulously, You read all them book?
No, I hadn’t. Less so today. Not cover to cover, not even by far. I owned many books I'd never read, and many more I'd only partially read. Yet I’ve never been a book collector, which is a species of antiquarian, hunting for old or rare editions. Once I bought – very cheaply – a 1957 first edition of Sam Selvon’s Ways of Sunlight, even though I had a paperback copy already. I acquired by other means copies of some of CLR's first editions (autographed), Walcott's The Gulf, The Murders of Boysie Singh, The Guinness Book of Records.
“There are grevious disappointments, but also happy finds,” rhapsodized German writer Walter Benjamin. “I once ordered a book with colour illustrations for my old collection of children’s books because it contained fairy tales by Albert Ludwig Grimm and was published at Grima, Thuringia. Grima was also the place of publication of a book of fables edited by the same Albert Ludwig Grimm. With its sixteen illustrations my copy of this book of fables was the only extant example of the early work of the great German book illustrator Lyser, who lived in Hamburg around the middle of the last century.”
E.M. Forster, in an essay on his own library, dismissed the idea of book collecting as “un-adult.” Forster lived the undramatic, sedentary life of a Cambridge Fellow. Once the clouds of World War II had blown away, he enjoyed the stability and continuity which allowed him to take for granted the existence of books and libraries.
Benjamin, on the other hand, wrote “Unpacking my Library” the year before Hitler came to power, which explains his zeal for collecting books and everything to do with them – anecdotes, quotations and fragments. As a socialist and a Jew he was doubly at jeopardy, and fled first Germany and then, eventually, France. In 1940 at the Spanish border, faced with the prospect of being handed over to the Gestapo, he committed suicide.
The condition of the refugee, the hoarder mentality of a man who cannot take a literary culture for granted, identifies me with Benjamin. As a schoolboy I developed a deep reservoir of patience and optimism for my regular and usually fruitless forays into various bookshops, the dark Lumen’s Bookshop on Pembroke Street, which had aquariams of fish along the wall, or dusty Muir Marshall’s at Independence Square. Sometimes, I suspected, distributors sent books the bookstores had never ordered, which is how Sartre’s Being and Nothingness landed in Ali’s bookstore on Duke Street, between the comics and pulp. And Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution in a drugstore and Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night in a stationery store in Chaguanas.
It took the sharpest of young, un-bespectacled eyes, plus intense concentration, to scour countless shelves of bodice-rippers for a single Borges, even in the respectable SPCK (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, I think), where West Indian history was stocked between shelves of prayer books and every species of liturgical texts, but at prohibitive prices, and Clifford Sealey’s The Book Shop, where hours of discourse obliged a purchase. Stevens on Frederick Street had more books but less food for thought, but even the miniscule Serendipity in Cobotown and Roy’s on Chacon Street hardly had anything. I got Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in the latter, and conversation with the owner, Roy Galt, who surprised me by being white. In those times elderly white men were hard-nosed businessmen, not bookish dreamers.
So, as with Benjamin, there were grevious disappointments and there were happy finds, like the time when, driving one evening in my hometown of St Augustine I came upon a sign advertising a garage sale pasted on the wall of a large, forbidding colonial house with tall windows and a large front garden. I was intimidated but my companion felt the prompting of domestic curiosity to which women are subject, so we entered.
A childless scion of one of Trinidad’s old landowning families had departed this world, having bequeathed his house and plant nursery to his gardener, and his remaining effects to his chagrined relatives, who were selling them off.
Everything seemed shabby and overpriced, anything of worth having been claimed by the family, but in the gloom of that high-ceilinged timber house, with relatives skulking around suspiciously, I espied an old bookcase containing a set of the Harvard Classics. Number 2934 of a limited 1910 alumni edition in 50 volumes for $100. I carted them off in grocery boxes and have dragged them with me through so many relocations, up too many staircases, even though most of their pages remained uncut. Most, but not all.
“The reader who makes himself familiar with these ten volumes and a half, with the Confessions of St. Augustine, and with the two volumes of Sacred Writings,” recommended series editor Charles Eliot, “may feel sure that he has followed the course of the best thinking of mankind down to the Italian Renaissance.” That is, a classic 19th-century European liberal education, with but a very light sprinkle of non-whites like Confucious and Mohammed. But perhaps because of where I lived and because I’d become curious about the black man who’d snuck into this august assembly, and because from my apartment I heard the bells of the monastery a mile up the road, I cut the pages of Volume VII: The Confessions of Saint Augustine.
Aurelius Augstinus was born in AD354 at Thagaste in the Roman province of Numidia, which covers what is now Tunisia and East Algeria. He was a spirited child who later admitted, “I loved not study and hated to be forced to it.” So Latin and Greek was flogged into him, leaving him to ponder, for he must already have had a philosophic turn of mind, the contradiction between love and discipline. “My elders and even my mother and father, who would not have wished me any ill, laughed at the beating I received, great and heavy and ill as it was to me.”
Cut-arse for Saint Augustine, by Niccolò di Pietro 1413–15
Later he studed at the University of Carthage and met with outstanding academic success, despite his affection for carnal pleasures and vagrant liberties. "There sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves," he confessed: "I sought what I might love, in love with loving."
He became a teacher of rhetoric, first in Thagaste, then in Carthage, then Rome, until at the age of 29 he found himself a professor at the University of Milan. Classical Rhetoric was not just how to communicate (orally), the rules and principles of eloquent expression, but also the concepts of the Good, the True and the Beautiful - that is, justice, knowledge and aesthetics.
In Milan Augustine encountered the man who was to change his life: Bishop Ambrose. Until then Augustine had been of the Manichean faith, and despised the Roman church, but slowly the sweetness of Ambrose's speech attracted the rhetorician, gradually suffusing him with Christian ideas.
"I listened diligently to his preaching to the people, not with that intent I ought, but, as it were, trying his eloquence, whether it answered the fame thereof, or flowed fuller or lower than was reported; and I hung on his words attentively; but of the matter I was as a careless and scornful looker-on; and I was delighted with the sweetness of his discourse," recalled Augustine. "For though I took no pains to learn what he spake, but only to hear how he spake... yet together with the words which I would choose, came also into my mind the things which I would refuse; for I could not separate them. And while I opened my heart to admit how eloquently he spake, there also entered how truly he spake; but this by degrees."
In 387 Augustine was baptised by Ambrose and, just when his academic eminence would have brought him high public office, perhaps a provincial governorship, he renounced his career. Four years later he went to Hippo Regius, Numidia's second city, as a monk and was consecrated a priest. His sermons became famous - more than 350 are preserved - and in 395 he was made Bishop. And there, in that cup in the North African hills, from which he could see the shifting colours of the Mediterranean, he lived the remaining 35 years of his life and wrote his 90-plus works, incuding the Confessions, the first autobiography in Western culture.
In 410 the German Visigoths overran Rome: "Those who worship the multitude of false gods, whom we usually call pagans, tried to lay the blame for this disaster on the Christian religion, and began to blaspheme the true God more fiercely and bitterly than before. This fired me with zeal for the house of God and I began to write the City of God to confute their blasphemies and falsehoods."
Three years after he completed City of God the Vandals took North Africa. Towards the end of 430 Hippo, crowded with refugees, was itself beseiged and Augustine in his final illness. According to Possidius, one of his biographers, Augustine healed a dying man during the seige, his only miracle, and then on August 28 he died. Thereafter the Vandals burned the city, destroying all but Augustine's cathedral and library, which were left untouched.
His had been a dying world, but the Confessions, Volume VII of the Harvard Classics, chronicled a particular, precious moment, a beginning that is only now coming to its close in this era of educated illiteracy. This occured when the young teacher of rhetoric had just begun to frequent the home of Bishop Ambrose (painted below in the Middle Ages) and noticed something he thought remarkable:
"When he [Ambrose] was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Oft times when we had come (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart, conjecturing that in the small interval which he obtained, free from the din of others' business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loth to be taken off; and perchance he dreaded lest if the author he read should deliver any thing obscurely, some attentive or perplexed hearer should desire him to expound it, or to discuss some of the harder questions; so that his time being thus spent, he could not turn over so many volumes as he desired; although the preserving of his voice (which a very little speaking would weaken) might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But with what intent soever he did it, certain in such a man it was good."
It took Gutenberg's invention, the Protestant and bourgeois revolutions, 1,500 years, before silent reading achieved its full apogee, maybe in 19th century Europe, when men of the governing classes were sufficiently wealthy and educated to own personal libraries, rooms that excluded their wives, children and servants; and had sufficient leisure time to enjoy the books therein. Or maybe it was in the 20th century colonies when Caliban, colonial polymaths such as CLR James, Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Winsford DesVignes, embraced the book, and "illiterate" came to mean ignorant - i.e. stupid and violent. Now I read a kindle but prefer to listen to podcasts, but what a journey it's been!