Shelf Life

By Wood, James | The New Yorker, November 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Shelf Life


Wood, James, The New Yorker


Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity.

--W. G. Sebald, "Austerlitz."

Route 12D, north of Utica, New York, south of Fort Drum and Carthage, runs through poor, shabby countryside. In the unravelled townships, there are trailers and collapsed farmhouses. Here and there, a new silo, shining like a chrome torpedo, suggests a fresh start, or maybe just the arrival of agribusiness. The pall of lost prosperity hangs heavily. Heavily? No, to the skimming driver aiming elsewhere it falls only vaguely.

In Talcottville, an example of that lost prosperity can be seen from the road--a grand, fine limestone house with a white double-storied porch. The house is anomalous, both in its size and in its proximity to the road. But for a long time it must have been the house's contents that were truly anomalous: a careful, distinguished library of thousands of volumes. For this was Edmund Wilson's family home, built at the end of the eighteenth century by the Talcotts, one of whom married Wilson's great-grandfather. It was the place the literary critic most happily returned to in later life, though never uncomplicatedly. In his journal of life in Talcottville, "Upstate," Wilson expresses his love for the region, while grumbling, in an old man's crooked jabs, about the bad restaurants and intellectually modest company. "In a sense, it has always been stranded," he once wrote of the property. It was here that he died, one morning in June, 1972.

I used to drive past Edmund Wilson's house on my way to Canada, to visit my wife's parents. Though in apparently reasonable shape, the Wilson home always seemed closed up, forgotten, and in some ways it is the fate of such a house, ignored by a newer road, to seem chronically forgotten. In my mind, I could see into the library, see those shelves and shelves of eloquent, mute books, sunk in themselves like a rotting paper harvest, the ancient, classical authors gesturing in puzzlement to the classical New World place-names of New York State: Rome, Troy, Ithaca, Syracuse.

My father-in-law died last year, and my mother-in-law is ailing, so this summer my wife and I drove up to their house, to empty it for sale. Again we passed the Wilson house, and again I thought about the silent longevity of his books, and the strange incommunicability of that defunct library, uselessly posthumous, once sleeping by the side of this provincial road. I knew that what awaited us in Canada was the puzzle of how to dispose of my father-in-law's library, a collection of about four thousand books, similarly asleep, in a large Victorian house in the flat, open fields of rural Ontario. We would take perhaps a hundred books back to Boston, but had no room in our house for more. And then what?

Francois-Michel Messud, my father-in-law, was a complicated, difficult, brilliant man. He was born in France but spent his early childhood nomadically, in Beirut, Istanbul, and Salonica, before the family settled down in Algiers. In the early nineteen-fifties, he came to America, as one of the first Fulbright scholars, and stayed on to do graduate work in Middle Eastern studies. He married Margaret Riches, from Toronto, and the young couple spent their early years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he began a Ph.D. on Turkish politics. For six months of academic field work, they lived in Ankara, an experience they always cherished. (My mother-in-law, whose upbringing had been landlocked and largely Canadian, wrote wide-eyed letters about Turkish life to her parents in Toronto.) Eventually, though, my father-in-law abandoned the Ph.D., and went into business, a decision probably born of academic anxiety and patriarchal masochism. He was not a natural businessman, and retained the instincts of a scholar and traveller. His mind was worldly, with little hospitality toward literature or music. What interested him were societies, tribes, roots, exile, journeys, languages. …

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