Thursday, January 01, 2009

Treasure trove of ancient classics

I confess that if there is a spectrum of relationships to books that runs from bibliomania (the only officially recognized mania pertaining to collecting things) to bibliophile to just-don't-give-a-damn-i-watch-TV-anyway, that i am somewhere between the "phile" and the "mania". I do love books. And if i have a passion for collecting them, i am still safely distant from the pathological extreme. Nonetheless, i think i did salivate when i learned of the Clay Sanskrit Library (thanks, Corvin - it's all your fault), which is publishing remarkably affordable and excellent translations (so Corvin assures me and he's a far better judge than i since he reads Sanskrit, the lucky dog) of classical Sanskrit literature. Of course, this also appeals deeply to the storyteller in me. They've already published a complete translation of the Ramayana (in seven volumes). And they're working on the Mahabharata with at least 11 volumes already published. As the longest epic in human history it should take up quite the shelf space when complete. I have read bits and pieces of these epics for over 20 years, including a fair number of translations of the Bhagavad Gita (which is found in the Mahabharata). The Gita is considered one of the greatest literary works of all time and i'm inclined to agree. You can download an excerpt here.

In their introduction to the Mahabharata they write:
In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the narrator buys from an enigmatic bookdealer an ancient tome written in an indecipherable Indian script: the Book of Sand, so named because like the sand it has no beginning and no end. Whenever he opens the book, he finds different paragraphs and different illustrations on pages whose shifting numbers make no sense. Soon he becomes obsessed by the book’s fathomless depths, and his evenings are spent consumed in its protean secrets. I suspect that when Borges wrote his story, he had the Maha·bhárata in mind.
I agree with this speculation and this passage reminds me of having read Borges' accounts of books and libraries. His story The Library of Babel lodged firmly in my imagination the minute i read it. It's a delicious description of the universe as a library. And one that i have perhaps become lost within. Who knows. Some years ago this image, blended with that of other libraries about which i'd learned: Neil Gaiman's library in the land of the Dreaming (especially as depicted in the comic The Hunt) - a library that contains every book that anyone has ever dreamed; the description of the Book of Thoth in an ancient Egyptian story (a Book said to be hidden in golden box inside a silver box in a box of ivory and ebony in a sycamore box in a bronze box in an iron box and there's serpents carved into one of the boxes that protect it all rather lethally); the library depicted in Umberto Eco's In The Name of the Rose; and the Library of Alexandria whose history is described in The Vanished Library by Luciano Canfora (about which the reputed destruction by Muslims is challenged here). All this talk of books and libraries lead me to imagine my own version of a "vanished library" which contained books of wonder. I fashioned twenty-four descriptions of books found in this "vanished library" and, as i wrote these descripions i also came across Prospero's Books, Peter Greenaway's amazing interpretation of The Tempest. He, too, described fantastic books. And i imagine these might also be found in the vanished library. Here is one of the descriptions i wrote:
7. The Book of Delight
This book is housed in a puzzle-box made of seven different kinds of wood: zebra wood, rose wood, ebony, spalted maple, apple, teak and oak. Small panels must be moved into the correct position for the box to be opened. Once accomplished the curious (and determined) will find a thick book whose cover seems to run with many dark colours. The colours swirl slowly and resemble clouds moving across an obsidian sky. Patient readers will be rewarded by the marvelous sight of fireworks bursting amidst the swirls of dark colour. The pages of this book alternate between image and text. Each image (photograph, drawing, watercolour, doodle) has been produced by a person during a moment of joy. The text recounts moments of private delight – almost unnoticed by those who experienced them: a three-year old girl is bid goodnight by a storytelling uncle who says, “you’re so lucky,” and the almost sleeping child responds quietly into the darkness, “I feel lucky”; a lonely man walks along a sidewalk on a late-winter day and notices, upon looking up, that the magnolia tree is covered in velvety buds; in a beach cottage room full of family, a grandfather suddenly stands up and dances unselfconsciously with a doll, remembering younger days when his three-step dance “signature” was both well-recognized and desired. The latter half of the book is blank and the last piece of written text invites the reader to place their hand upon a blank page and recall forgotten moments of delight. Once done the reader is free to add to the book’s wealth. It is often reported that the sound of many voices cheering and laughing can be heard in the library as this book is read.

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