A Vanity of Reading
In college, I saved money by checking course books out of the library whenever it was possible, rather than buying the latest “critical edition” from the bookstore. (This was a lot easier in the English and History classes that made up the bulk of my education; science students get, as far as I can tell, fucked.)
There’d be occasional inconsistencies between page numbers and footnotes and the like that mildly irritated some of my professors, but for the most part they were sympathetic to the “I can’t actually afford to buy nineteen ‘critical edition’ novels at $25 a pop this semester” argument. Bless their hearts.
As a result, I tend to associate the dry-and-dusty literature of American history with equally dry-and-dusty volumes, preferably ones in tough, plain-colored library bindings with the little white-stamped titles on the spine. And this has led to a peculiar vanity: that shamelessly misrepresented copy of The House of the Seven Gables I blogged about last week has been an unexpectedly unsettling thing to read in public.
For those that can’t be bothered to click through, the book looks like this:
And it reads like this:
There were curtains to Phoebe’s bed; a dark, antique canopy, and ponderous festoons of a stuff which had been rich, and even magnificent, in its time; but which now brooded over the girl like a cloud, making a night in that one corner, while elsewhere it was beginning to be day. The morning light, however, soon stole into the aperture at the foot of the bed, betwixt those faded curtains. Finding the new guest there,–with a bloom on her cheeks like the morning’s own, and a gentle stir of departing slumber in her limbs, as when an early breeze moves the foliage, –the dawn kissed her brow. It was the caress which a dewy maiden–such as the Dawn is, immortally–gives to her sleeping sister, partly from the impulse of irresistible fondness, and partly as a pretty hint that it is time now to unclose her eyes.
We discussed the incongruities in detail last week. At the time, however, I hadn’t assigned much personal significance to it beyond amusing blog fodder.
Turns out I’m susceptible to a deep literary vanity.
I deeply disliked reading this particular edition in public. I’m too fond of myself for self-consciousness, most of the time, but something about reading a “classic” that looks like pulp fantasy bothered me far more than actually reading pulp fantasy in public (which I’ve done on many an occasion).
Pure literary snobbishness. We all want to be seen as challenging ourselves, at some level — Gosh, he’s reading Hawthorne for fun. That’s a smart boy there!
I’d have denied it, of course, if it had somehow come up in conversation. I like The House of the Seven Gables, and all the other Hawthorne I’ve read over the course of my years too; I don’t need to impress anyone to enjoy it.
But I can’t deny the impulse to stop the barista as she sneaks a glance and say “It’s an American classic, I swear!”
Nosce te ipsum. Apparently I like my classics to look like classics. Makes you wonder if there’s a market for trashy science-fiction or romance novels done up in dusty leather jackets, doesn’t it?