Our Literature

On the gloomy days, when the American catastrophes are too much to bear, I turn to my bookcases for solace and even something like friendship, and the shelves throw a welcoming arm over me. The bookcases are organized on the principle of no principle, and nowhere among them is there a section dedicated strictly to the traumas and treasures of life in our unhappy country. Still, scattered here and about are a number of squat volumes in sumptuous black dust jackets, all of the same height, devoted to flights of the American imagination — a sufficient number of those books, such that, if I ever gathered them together, a proper bookcase devoted to them alone would stand before me. These are volumes in the publishing series called the Library of America, which brings out the classics of American literature, Emerson and Mark Twain and little-known names like William Bartram, the ornithologist, and onward to Saul Bellow and beyond, perhaps too much beyond, in a uniform edition. One of those volumes plops into my hand. The cover is maybe a little too sumptuous. A glossy ribbon of red, white, and blue traverses the middle, as if it were a military sash on a colonel’s dress uniform. The publisher’s logo at the bottom of the spine is the Stars and Stripes, configured to suggest an open book. When I open the actual book, still more stars and more stripes blink upwards from the endpapers and the flyleaves. It is the Fourth of July. A tiny bugle says hello every time a page turns. Patriotism at the Library of America does not suffer from timidity. But I do like the feel of those books on my fingers, their heft, the cloth binding, the texture of the paper, and the buttery black dust jackets.

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