Lhude sing cuccu

With a puppy in the house, I have had occasion lately to be reminded of the poem “Cuckoo Song,” also known by its first line, “Sumer is icumen in,” which is the first poem in both of the editions of the Oxford Book of English Verse that I happen to own. In particular, the second verse has seemed pertinent:

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!

Or, to modernize it slightly, thereby ruining the rhymes:

Ewe bleats after lamb,
Cow lows after calf;
Bullock leaps, buck farts,
Merry sing cuckoo!

It’s the verting of the bucke that makes the poem, in my opinion. It’s so homely and unexpected—so unexpected that for a long time I’ve carried around in my head the notion that perhaps deer really do fart more in the early summer than at other times of the year. After all, ewes are more likely to have lambs then, and cows calves. I speculated that maybe in late spring deer start to eat grass and leaves in greater quantities, and maybe it takes their digestive systems a little while to adjust, and in thirteenth-century England, where deer and humans lived in gunpowder-free proximity, people noticed.

Maybe. But thanks to the internet, I see that a hunter in Texas heard a whitetail doe startle her fellow deer in January, and there are a couple of videos of farting deer available online, posted in October and November, so I’m guessing that deer fart year-round, not just in June, and that the poet intended for farting deer, like leaping bullocks, to signify a general, seasonless exuberance.


On a number of recent occasions, I have fallen into déjà lu while reading blogs. A blogger presents a link to a news item that sounds very familiar. Hmm, phosphorescent foraminifera, I think. Didn’t the Times already run an article on them just a few days ago? But the blogger advertises the link as new, or at least fails to apologize for linking late, and so I click through, thinking to myself, It’s unusual for there to be such two articles in short order; maybe this is the week that phosphorescent foraminifera finally come into their own! . . . only to discover that in fact this is the same article on phosphorescent foraminifera that I read three or four days ago.

When it happened once, I passed on in silence. By the fourth or fifth instance, I developed a theory: It must be that these bloggers do not read the New York Times, not in print anyway, and do not expect their readers to. They read bloggers who read bloggers who read the New York Times, and when an article underplayed on the web but worth reading anyway trickles down to them three or four days after publication, they perceive it as a neglected gem that they must rescue from obscurity. Not as yesterday’s news.

That was my theory: uncharitable, pessimistic, gloomy. But now I have a puppy, and all is right with the world, and now I understand. It isn’t that these bloggers fail to read the New York Times for themselves. How silly! It’s that they have puppies! Like me, four or five times a day, they find themselves opening a section of the Times that they don’t usually open, for the sake of the kitchen floor, and happening upon articles they would have loved to read if they had been in the front section instead of in Escapes, such as “Where Greek Ideals Meet New England Charm,” a lushly illustrated tour of shareholder libraries of nineteenth-century vintage, or in Business, such as “Book Lovers Ask, What’s Seattle’s Secret?”, an analysis of Seattle’s role as tastemaker in the literary ecosystem. And once you discover these interesting articles, you often find that your puppy too has noticed them, as it were, and the web edition of the Times, kept pristine by its lack of functionality in that department, really comes in handy.

Creative destruction

My friend Scott McLemee’s essay this week at Inside Higher Ed concerns the etiquette of bookshelves. Is it hypocrisy to place books one hasn’t read on shelves where casual visitors to one’s home may see them? A Time magazine blogger has suggested that it is, while an American Prospect blogger has suggested, contrariwise, that one ought to display unread books with special prominence, because they represent the readerly self one is aspiring to. A bystander might suspect that neither blogger has written without irony, but Scott takes each of them at his word, and points out that guilt about owning unread books is “a kind of guilt that no really bookish person would feel,” because intellectual curiosity leads one naturally into byroads, some of which inevitably turn out to be dead ends. If you are an open-minded reader, you’ll end up with books you once intended to read but haven’t so far and maybe, now that you know a little more about yourself and about the books in question, shouldn’t.

Should you therefore throw them out? From the comments at the end of Scott’s essay, it transpires that an important and enjoyable perquisite to having a library of one’s own is deciding what belongs in it and what doesn’t, and that different people decide the question differently. I’ve never worried about displaying books I haven’t read. “Have you really read all those?” sounds to me like a question that only illiterates ask. I find the discussion fascinating nonetheless, because lately I have been Throwing Books Out.

This does not come naturally, but I have no choice. It’s a question of limits. A larger apartment is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, and I realized a few weeks ago that if I were to buy that one last bookcase that I’d been planning on, the feng shui of my study would abruptly become prisonlike. The stacks of books clogging my study floor have nowhere to go, unless other books exit. There have been half a dozen trips to the Strand in the last couple of weeks, and several totebags’ worth of books have been cashiered.

I used to think of myself as a kind of Noah’s Ark of books. If I hadn’t read a book, all the more reason to keep it, because probably other people didn’t want to read it either, and it was in danger of vanishing from human memory unless I saved it. Narcissistic and crazy, I know. I am happy to say that in my maturity I find it kind of liberating and fun to destroy my collection. Paperbacks of lesser-known William Golding novels purchased at the town library booksale during high school? Don’t even cart them to the Strand; nobody wants them. Just bale them up with last week’s New York Times, and try not to think about the fact that you carried these books around with you unread for more years than you had lived through when you bought them.

Also fun: Selling off scholarly books that one acquired out of a sense of duty and which one had excused oneself from reading but not from continuing to own. Can I say something candid about the poems that eighteenth-century America left in manuscript for the late twentieth century to rediscover and print in scholarly editions? Most of them are wretched. Also, there’s a limit to the number of sailor’s narratives that even the most hardened Melvillean needs to read. Such discards are tricky, of course, because there’s not only ebb and flow but also cyclicality to one’s interests over time. Or, anyway, to mine. This is probably why I’m a journalist and not a proper academic. I really enjoy forgetting. It has become almost second nature with me to kill Caleb Crain in order to become him. (I have killed the Czech translator, the science journalist, the literature professor. Who next?) So why not throw out his books? The trouble is that sometimes one is later tempted to revisit one’s earlier self, and it would cause expense and hassle to have to repurchase two dozen books about, say, the Anglo-American rhetoric of sympathy in the early nineteenth century if some day one were to decide that one had something else to say about it. But there are a few places that I will not be returning to, and it seems clearer each year what sort of places those are.

Of course, the professionally unjustifiable books are often the ones I can’t bear to part with: the paperback about dinosaur physics, say, or the three slightly different versions of The Week-End Book (a miscellany of poems, songs, games, bird descriptions, and first-aid advice) dating from 1928, 1955, and 2005. I hesitate to catalog too specifically the books I have been getting rid of, because if I do someone will emerge to defend them. That’s why I get money for them at the Strand, after all. I will say, though, that as with Scott, the selection process for me doesn’t have that much to do with how I want others to see me. The underlying principle seems to be the kind of work and play I am looking forward to.

Publishers invent whole new reason not to buy books

For several years, I owned two out of the four volumes of an edition of an important twentieth-century writer-philosopher, who shall remain nameless here because he is long dead and innocent of the crime I am about to describe. Recently, having been paid and feeling flush, I decided to buy the two volumes missing from my collection. Since Amazon and the publisher’s own website list the volumes as still in print, I elected to buy the books new. A portion of my cash was transferred electronically to Amazon; I waited patiently by my mailbox; and in due time, a brown cardboard box arrived.

But woe came to Brooklyn with that cardboard box. There was no trouble with volume 1. Like the volumes I already owned, its pages were fine in texture and cream in color, the binding was sewn, and the printing of the type crisp and clear. Not so volume 2. Its pages, by contrast, were bluish and flimsy, its binding was by glue, and the printing . . . Oh, the printing was the worst part. The illustrations were textureless, as if they had been photocopied, the ink was blobby on the page, and the type was filmy and inexact, so that the thick parts of letters were thicker than they ought to be, and the thin parts dropped out altogether.

It was clear what had happened. Volume 2 had gone out of print. And to put it back in print, the publishers had hired a print-on-demand service. Inside hard covers deceptively similar to those of the other volumes, the publisher had stuck a text block that was only a shoddy knock-off of what ought to have been there. But, reader, they charged full price.

I returned the volume to Amazon, after having selected from the drop-down menu “Product performance/quality is not up to my expectations.” And now I haunt the online booksellers, writing to them plaintive requests to take down the volume from their shelves before they sell it to me, and to answer me, Is the binding sewn? Are the pages clearly printed? Someday, I hope, I shall find the volume I am in search of, in its true form.

Bruised by the experience, I became alert to clues that I had not noticed before. Leafing through the stacks of books in my study, I recall the illegible numerals in a monograph from a university press, and indeed, it seems to have suffered the same changeling swap, sometime between its first and its second printing. In a bookstore, I pick up a paperback issued by a very-tony publisher, and selling for $20; the eye rebels against the out-of-focus type; it is printed no more carefully than a Xeroxed coursepack.

Publishers of the world, did you need to give your customers another reason to distrust you? If you are going to sell us shoddy goods, couldn’t you lower the price? Couldn’t you let us know? I do not like a print-on-demand title, but I do not mind it if I know that that’s what I’m purchasing, and if the price corresponds. But to farce print-on-demand slurry between prestigious-seeming cloth covers—who do you think shells out hard cash for nice editions? People who don’t care about books?

UPDATE (Feb. 20): The world may not in fact be coming to an end, it turns out. Last week, in response to an email that I sent around the time I wrote this blog entry, I received a polite and very informative reply from someone responsible for design and production at the university press in question. This person wrote that yes, indeed, the volume I had purchased was on lower-quality paper than its siblings, and the printing was digital whereas its siblings had had offset printing. In fact, he further explained, the printing on the objectionable volume was worse than digital printing usually is, because it wasn’t printed from “live” PDF files but from scans of an earlier printing. “This was not a good decision on our part,” he wrote.

There were a couple of pieces of good news in his message. Only about 300 copies of a print run of nearly 9,000 were flawed the way mine was; the bad decisions were part of a one-time stopgap measure. And the glue binding that I objected to was a “cold melt” binding, also known as a double-fan binding, that is in fact stronger and more durable than Smyth-sewn binding.