Books: grassy notes, a hint of vanilla, whatever books still are, whatever books still mean

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the dim, dark reaches of The Wasteland, a woman calls:
et cum illi pueri dicerent: "Σίβυλλα, τί θέλεις;" respondebat illa: "ἀποθανεῖν θέλω".

I myself saw the Cumaean Sibyl with my own eyes, hanging in a cruet, and when the boys asked her, "Sibyl, what do you want?", she answered, "I want to die."
Most people who have read the poem don't have a public school education, by which the English mean a private school education, and don't get the joke, if something so unfunny may be regarded as a joke.

T.S. Eliot was restricting the comprehension of his poetry by including this quote. He was young, he was free, he was understood by no one better than that nascent fascist, Ezra Pound.

And yet, politics aside, this passage speaks to me. Ezra was an asshole and a fascist, we all know that. But he understood poetry better than politics. He knew, from reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, that Eliot was a genius.

I've thought of this because the Paul Simon lyric:
I am blinded by the light
Of God and truth and right
And I wander in the night without direction. 
 is an earworm in my head, and I cannot be free of it until I've sent the message on to you. I blame memes, and poetry, and the inescapable now.

Full lyrics here:

I have no absolution, no solution to the devolution of our culture and our devastating now. I'm a creature of the night and the everlasting rights of the corporations' copyrights.

I'm a bookseller, whatever that still means. Whatever books still are, whatever books still mean.

They smell (grassy notes, an acid note with a tang of vanilla.) They exist, independent of electronics -- corporeal objects, physical things with smell and texture and weight, quite unlike their ghostly replacements.

And they exist as ideas, as notions without the corporeal existence we see in the fossils of ancient ferns.

And still I lie in the weeds, not yet a fossil, and wait for the sediments to fall on me. And still I wait for history to bury me in sediment and and the seeds and the tangled weeds that know no tomorrow and know no yesterday and never know today..

And still I dream of tomorrow, better than a thousand yesterdays.

I think I'll go sailing, my other atavistic passion...

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word:


  1. Books still mean more than most imagine. Electrons only last moments, books last centuries. the dusk falls this night. dawn breaks on pages strewn like flowers on library tables.

    the age of the book is not over.

  2. A people move from books to blogs to Tumblr and Twitter, people are reading things that are more immediate and less in-dept, less written for the ages. Our minds are being changed, rewired. I'm beginning to feel like a living fossil for having grown up with books, but I hope the world will always have a place for the physical book and the time and concentration it takes to write one and to read one.

    But no one memorizes epic poems anymore, and there is no longer a market for new ones. I suppose there will always be a market for stories, though.

  3. 'grassy notes, an acid note with a tang of vanilla'

    Mmm, there's something about the luxurious smell of a crisp, fresh-leaved new book that electronic words cannot replace.

    Nor the experience of walking into a 2nd-hand book store or library, laden heavily with the dusty, deep-bodied leathery-oak scent of yellowing old books, maturing on the shelves like wines in a cellar.


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