Friday, August 5, 2011

Reading Apollinaire's Bestiary


I do not argue that e-books will never replace the traditional book.  The advantages of being able to throw a few hundred books into your overnight bag are pretty well established by now.  Nor is it seemly for a man who makes a living from writing science fiction to wax overly nostalgic about the technologies of his youth.

But still.  There is a particular pleasure to a well-made book, and here's a case in point.  I am currently reading (and have been for some time) Guillaume Apollinaire's first collection of poems, The Bestiary: or Procession of Orpheus.  I have a particular fondness for bestiaries and for collections of verse, so this was a natural for me.  Also, I've never really gotten a handle on Apollinaire as a poet and I figured this was a good place to start.

The appeal of e-books seems to me chiefly one of efficiency.  You conceive a desire for a particular book and in less time than it would take to find the keys and back the car out of the driveway, your purchase is complete.  Rather than having to rattle through the house, searching through shelves and stacks of books, you simply boot up the reader and there the text is, at your fingertips.  These are undeniably good things.

Sometimes, though, you don't want efficiency.  The Bestiary is a collection of poems that are only four lines long.  You could barrel through it in fifteen minutes if you were willing to sacrifice  comprehension.  And yet.  The slim volume I have (from Johns Hopkins University Press) is designed for languorous reading.  The pages are thick, cream-colored stock, a mild pleasure to touch, and they are of slightly staggered lengths, so that one opens it at random to find a small treasure awaiting:  on the left-hand page, a single poem printed twice, first in the original French and then in English translation by X. J. Kennedy and on the right-hand page a woodcut by Raoul Dufy of the creature in question.  It is a book that as good as says, I am a complete waste of your time.  Come -- waste your time in my pleasant company.

It is when we are at our most inefficient that we enjoy life best.  I don't know how much of the book I've read yet.  But I'm sure that someday I'll pick it up and realize that I've read every poem it contains.  X. J. Kennedy also provides an explanatory essay at the beginning and I may get around to reading that too, someday.  Or maybe not, depending on my mood.


1 comment:

David Stone said...

In the end it won't be aesthetic considerations or convenience that does the paper book in, it will be people like my wife who are tired of their husband having literally tons of books filling up every square inch of flat surface in the house (and then some). But surely I'll still be able to keep a few on the coffee table or night stand.