Friday, March 23, 2012

Ken Probert: Our libraries, ourselves

On Wednesday I met with Bruce and Kathy Probert, Ken's brother and sister-in-law, to consider what might best be done with Ken's enormous and varied library.  We took the green tea Kathy had made and wandered the rooms upstairs, where the books were all hugger-mugger, some of them in large blue bins--perhaps moved from his office and sadly never unpacked.  There was one bookshelf devoted to beautiful books--a Folio Society slip-cased edition of Trollope's novels and a beautiful boxed set of Jane Austen; Grimm's complete Fairy Tales next to two lovely volumes of Sherlock Holmes.  He had a number of titles from McSweeney's publishing house, each put together in a way that playfully challenged what the book could be.  Part of the portrait that emerged here was that of a man who loved the beauty of books, who felt their seductions and satisfactions.
What an interesting portrait of a man who read Foucault and Freud, but who was interested in New Yorker covers and Edith Wharton's decorating style.  Books on slavery, the result of Ken's interest in nineteenth-century American literature, nudged books on World War I.  He wasn't simply interested in other places, though the Saskatchewan Encyclopedia had lost touch with Saskatchewan geography and history, so we did some sorting.  There was one island of order in all this:  Ken's set of Library of America editions, which will be a significant addition to the University of Regina Archer Library.  We never found, though, copies of the books he edited, Writing Saskatchewan, and Writing Addiction.  Ken's humility was clearly in overdrive.

Fortified by Kathy's tasty cookies which have healthy seeds and decadent chocolate chips, we went downstairs.  The "family room" had built-in bookshelves, and as I stood in front of them I suspected I could see the young Ken Probert organizing his intellectual passions as he filled the first bookshelves in his house.  There were all of G.B. Shaw's plays; a set of "complete poems" from all the important nineteenth-century Romantic poets (and a bit beyond):  Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Tennyson; three lovely volumes of Yeats. His more recent enthusiasms had built up in the spaces between, where Alice Munro was evident.

As I stood back to attempt to get a view of this wall as a whole, I suddenly found my memory inhabiting Buswell Street in Boston's Back Bay.  My first husband Dan and I had moved into Boston University married housing, while he worked on his Master's degree in music.  For three or four weeks, my own books remained in boxes:  can you imagine that university housing had no bookshelves?  I became, frankly, more and more depressed as I took buses to and from Brandeis University where I typed up (and slyly corrected) the writing of a group of social scientists.  (People caught on to my furtive improvement of their work and were pleased, though I do remember one very tall fellow looking at typed-up copy, reading the first page, and exclaiming "Did I write that?  Wow!"  I didn't enlighten him.)  I needed to have my books out, I told Dan miserably.  That weekend we headed to the nearest lumber yard where we bought the wood for bookshelves that my daughter Veronica continues to use.  Ken's boxed set of Austen will be happy there.

But as my mind conflated this memory with the books before me, I thought about our relationship to books.  First, how hopeful they are, how they speak to us of hope and adventure as we imagine reading them.  How they speak of our willingness to go to places deeply unfamiliar as well as half-known.  Even if some of the titles on our shelves are only there because we think they should be, they speak of better, deeper, wiser selves we hope to become.  (Until this year, Remembrance of Lost Things has filled that space on my bookshelves.)  How we organize them tells something about us.  Are they alphabetical, speaking of our penchant for order?  Do we have the beautiful books at eye level, the orange Penguin paperbacks down near the floor?  Do we fancy our high-falutin taste for European literature, and give them place of prominence?  Have we kept our Hesse?  Do we claim solidarity with the guys and set Cormack McCarthy next to Hemingway or show our support of women by putting Marge Piercy and Doris Lessing next to George Eliot and Margaret Drabble?  Do we slip in a little chick lit to prove we're not snobs?  Maybe The Jane Austen Book Club?  (I have a copy that Ken gave me.  He was my snob detector.)

Interestingly, the fiction was on shelves in another corner of the room:  most of the important British and American and Canadian fiction of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, all thumbed and annotated.  Any of us who have inherited Ken's well-read books can speak to what an intelligent, uncanny reader he was.

After we'd packed up some books I thought my colleagues would value--Helen Vendler on the Sonnet for Jeanne Shami, and Emily Dickinson and Edith Wharton for Cindy MacKenzie--the three of us stood in the hallway, a bit overwhelmed.  It had been in many ways a plangent and congenial afternoon thinking about Ken.  (Though I have to say that Ken has called me more than once on my love of that word "plangent.") As you will know, I simply had to bring up Virginia Woolf, particularly Mrs Dalloway, and this passage from the beginning of the novel, where Clarissa is walking across London to choose the flowers for her party:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.  (8)

"That's what we're doing with Ken's books," I told them.  "We're sending him out into the world."



  1. A very thoughtful post, especially in the age of the digital reader. There is something very satisfying about holding a book and turning pages. Thank you for sharing.
    P.S. I organize my bookshelves first by century and then alphabetical in each century!

    1. I organize mine by nationality and then alphabetize them! One needs some kind order--except for my contemporary poetry, which is a jumble.

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