Pyramids of Books Piled to the Heavens
SOME bookshops you enter, buy a book, and leave - nothing else happens; you emerge unscathed. In others, entry is fateful - it was for me in the case of W. Dalgleish, Bookseller. One October evening, coming after classes along a little back lane near the university, I was drawn by a light in a window and by the glimpse of someone - surely W. Dalgleish himself - sitting inside at a table, reading. I kept on knocking at the closed door, until at last it was opened, reluctantly, and an elderly man peered out. ``I had to finish the chapter,'' he said apologetically. He was thin as a rake with wildly ruffled hair and weary eyes that blinked out from behind thick glasses.
His shop was like Tutankhamun's Tomb, filled with wonders. Books were piled in high pyramids and a long ladder leaned up against the overflowing shelves. Dalgleish returned to his reading at a table pulled close to the window. As I wandered about looking for a volume of Hardy's poetry, I had the impression that I was being watched, even more, weighed in the balance: Was I worthy of being admitted to this sanctuary? Beyond the window lay a dim courtyard with tall lime trees, still further a labyrinth of cobbled lanes. No sound of traffic came, only the far-off chimes of the university and a robin's autumn song.
After that first visit I came here almost every day after classes, joining the special fraternity of students who had found this treasure trove and its owner. When Dalgleish mounted the long ladder to see if he had the very edition of Lowell or Yeats I wanted, he had a way of looking down sardonically. ``Remember Eliot's line about measuring out life with coffee spoons? Mine's measured by this ladder's rungs - no fear that I'll fall.''
He held every volume close to his nose, sniffing at it. ``No better perfume than the pages of a book!'' he exclaimed. He read aloud certain lines: ``When shall the stars be blown about the sky!'' ``The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the windowpanes,'' always ending with ``Beat that!'' drawing us into his enthusiasm.
Sometimes, as the shop emptied, he grew confidential. ``See yon man who's just left. When he first came, long years ago, I knew that he was only here to kill time, waiting till the rain went off or his appointment was due. I hand him an author I discovered at his age, watch his face and how it changes as he reads. He's off on the great quest, nothing else matters. `By this I knew the Soul had passed beyond the illusions of Time, Space, and of Things.' Now where's that from, tell me!'' He liked to tease us with quotations, testing us.
He often looked up from his own read-ing, breaking into ours: ``What better thing in life to be than a bookworm, creeping inside a book, nibbling at it, becoming so absorbed in those other lives that soon are almost realler than your own? Pip and Magwitch, Pierre and Natasha, Huck and Jim sailing down the Mississippi, Kim and his lama hunting for the river....''
I came to know that bookshop in all seasons during my student years, in rain and mist and snow. As the months passed, Dalgleish's eyes grew wearier, his nose even close to the page. He was always passing on some new discovery, dropping pebbles into pools. Had we read Mandelstam or Pasternak yet? What about Frost? ``The woods are lovely, dark and deep./ But I have promises to keep,/ and miles to go before I sleep.'' Beat that! Did we know Sorley MacLean's Isle of Raasay - floor of bracken and birch in the high green room?
What did we not learn in that cluttered, dusty space? Any illusion we might have had of being widely read was soon demolished by Dalgleish who poked sly fun at any pretensions. What he called the great adventure of the mind meant following one trail after another, always open to the rapture of discovery. We would watch him taking out his paper knife, carefully cutting the pages of a newly arrived edition. Sometimes, unaware that he had an audience, he would read aloud from favorite passages - Levin with the peasants, Leskov's terrifying Lady Macbeth of the Msensk Province, from Turgenev's King Lear of the Steppes; Ivan Karamazov in conversation with the devil; Falstaff denied by Prince Hal.
He was always returning to his two great loves. ``Take Dante now - only Shakespeare can beat him. `Great Dante's hell was real enough to him, Wi' cleuchs and corries scabbit ower wi' snaw....' Who wrote that? Who else gives you yon shiver in the small of your back the way Shakespeare does? `And take upon's the mystery of things as if we were God's spies.' God's spies! Beat that!''
At the window behind his chair the autumn dusk crept up, blue and gray, golden lime leaves fluttered down, the robin repeated its song of the year's fall. We breathed in the mingled fragrance of the leather of old books and of pages freshly cut. Dalgleish would remember something and be up the ladder yet again. ``I've never really moved beyond these bournes,'' he said, ``Yet what travels! Round many Western islands have I been. Lonely? Who could ever be with all that company?'' He saluted the shelves with so wide a wave of the arm that we feared he might overbalance and topple down. He did look worn out.
``I can't go on forever climbing creaking ladders when my own bones have begun to creak too,'' he said. ``I'll not die, I'll just go up, rung by rung, and vanish off inside a book, Shakespeare maybe, savoring its essence for all eternity - no customers to hold me back!'' He was suddenly serious. An almost valedictory note came into his slow Scots voice. ``Never forget this,'' he said solemnly, ``and if you wonder who wrote it I'll tell you - it was Flaubert in one of his letters: `Do not read as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious for the purpose of instruction - no,''' he gave a wonderful smile at this, ```read in order to live.' Beat that!''
One night, a week before the final exams, I came too late to find the shop open but there was Dalgleish himself, coming slowly toward me, a great pile of books under his arm. He was unaware of anyone else in the dark lane and was muttering something under his breath: ``The bright day is done and we are for the dark.'' I had never before seen him outside his familiar setting and realized with a pang how very ancient he was.
After the final exam I returned, wanting to thank the man from whom we had learned far more than in any university lecture room. He had taught us the beginning of knowledge: We knew that we knew nothing. The door was bolted and barred. No light glinted from the window as on that first night years before. Never again would I read certain poems and novels without hearing that slow voice repeating, ``Beat that!'' see the lime leaves drift down, hear the university chimes ring out, the robin whistle from the windowsill. Behind those shutters I imagined the old Bookworm steadily mounting the long ladder, up and up into his own special immortality of the realms of gold.