Winter term has ended, leaving me no excuse (good or bad) to continue neglecting the blog. For some reason, turning in final papers and other end-of-term requirements often prompts me to go book shopping. I guess my reasoning is that I have a bit more time on my hands, so maybe I ought to go pick up a book or two (or three or four or five) that I can read at my leisure—that is, without a pencil in hand and that little voice in the back of my head telling me that every fourth or fifth sentence might be applicable to the next class discussion, a future paper or assignment, etc…
Although Montréal is certainly not the best city for finding books in English, those few shops scattered across the island that specialize in English literature are extraordinarily well-stocked. My top three (in no particular order) are Encore on Sherbrooke Ouest, Cheap Thrills on Metcalfe, and The Word on Milton near McGill. It’s worth noting that Encore and Cheap Thrills also keep a pretty excellent selection of fairly priced vinyl records on hand, and there’s nothing better than going home with a good book in one hand and a good record in the other.
So, as per my loosely defined tradition, I made the bookstore rounds this past week, searching for anything fitting the somewhat contradictory criteria of enjoyable, easily digestible, slightly relative to my studies, and well-formatted. Although his works don’t fit the bill perfectly, I must have been fated to read T.S. Eliot during my week-long break between winter and summer sessions, as I ended up finding and buying three different collections of his writings: The Sacred Wood (Methuen, 1920), Notes towards the Definition of Culture (Faber and Faber, 1948), and Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1954).
The first volume is a collection of some of Eliot’s most influential and widely read “essays on poetry and criticism,” the most famous of which being “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The edition I bought is actually a University Paperbacks reprint of the original 1920 Methuen edition, apparently printed for sale in the U.S. by Barnes & Noble in 1966. While the book’s cover art and color scheme fit its content quite well, I was less attracted to the publication format and more to the idea of having The Sacred Wood in physical print form (the full text is available online courtesy of Bartleby.com).
On the other hand, Notes towards the Definition of Culture and Selected Poems are both reprints published by Eliot’s very own Faber & Faber, where he worked from 1925 until his death in 1965. Soberly decorated with a focus on the title, the author, and the publisher, the books’ cover designs are immediately recognizable as Faber. On the back cover of Notes there is a list of Eliot’s other works available as “Faber paper covered editions,” complete with short synopses, while the back cover of Selected Poems features a list—continued from the other side of the leaf—of “some Faber paper covered editions” by contemporary authors, all priced in shillings (s) and pennies (d). Although both books were reprinted in the second half of the 20th century (Notes is dated 1972 and Selected Poems 1965), the marketing efforts are fascinating as they speak to modernist literature’s gradual commodification throughout the century.
The Faber editions in particular interest me since Eliot was so highly involved with the publishing company throughout his lifetime as a poet, editor, and director. Aside from advertising push on the back of its cover, Selected Poems also offers some peculiar material in its opening pages. The inside of the front cover (the overleaf, I suppose) informs the reader that he or she can also purchase Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot “in a cloth-bound edition at 12s 6d.” With a little online research, I discovered that, accounting for inflation, 12s 6d today would be worth approximately £10.24 GBP or $17.25 USD. Further down, a price of “5s net” is listed, which today would be worth approximately £4.10 GBP or $6.91 USD. The “paper covered” edition I purchased last week was priced $3.95 CAD—a steal!
Economics aside, in the middle of these prices for various editions, there is the following text:
This selection, which may be regarded as an introduction to his work was made by T.S. Eliot himself.
What a scheme! The man selects his own poems as an “introduction” to his own work, which is published by his own (to a certain extent) publisher! To top it off, I think it’s safe to assume that Eliot wrote this little inscription himself as well. Although this particular collection of poems was published in 1954, well after the heyday of modernism and the origins of its institutionalization, these few lines are still telling of the efforts of Eliot, and others like him, to create a monument of modernism out of little more than themselves and their words. And, although we can look back now while chuckling and criticizing, the whole “self-canonization” process must have required quite the effort, not to mention a certain degree of either ignoring or simply lacking self-awareness with regard to some of the more absurd elements of the project.
In any case, I’ve already read through half of Selected Poems, most of which is not new to me. I’m saving the less poetic and more presumptuous essays in The Sacred Wood and Notes towards the Definition of Culture for last, and I can already picture my reactions to them both—alternately laughing, sighing, nodding my head, shaking my head, losing sense of time and space, falling asleep, and so forth. In fact, now that I think about it, this is what I find most captivating about the high modernists, specifically the male ones and their critical works. There is such conviction and relentless self-assurance in these works (among which, we might include Pound’s ABC of Reading and “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”) that is incredibly difficult and, at the same time, incredibly easy to take them seriously. In both cases, I find it necessary to pick and choose the good from the bad, all the while never forgetting that it was, indeed, a human being who wrote this, and that this human being, no matter how entrenched within the “monument” of modernism, was still susceptible to wide-reaching historical and geographical contexts.