The Magazine

Ask Not What Conrad Can Do for You

Robert Messenger, bibliophile.

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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About a year ago, I bought a broken edition of the works of Joseph Conrad on eBay. It was quite cheap even though it was missing more volumes than the seller thought. The "Medallion Edition" is widely stated to be 20 volumes, a reprint of the collected edition that Conrad himself corrected for Heinemann in the early 1920s. But two additional volumes were published after his death in 1924: the unfinished Suspense and Tales of Hearsay. The set I bought had these later volumes, and with some patience and regular Internet searches I recently completed the edition.

In honor of this mild book-collecting achievement, I began rereading Lord Jim. I was struck afresh by Conrad's immense descriptive power. His slow careful cadences frustrate any attempt to misunderstand him, and his ideas of human nature are never confused or relative. His are stern and beautiful parables. They are also a challenge to the reader. Conrad didn't learn English until he was in his twenties. And though he was its master, his attachment to it is more scientific than poetic. His writing is gorgeous, but cold, lacking in the rhythms we absorb unconsciously in youth. I found myself working to read more slowly and to grasp at the beauty of the passages by doubling back. Conrad famously said in 1896 that he wrote in a state of constant doubt: "I ask myself--is it right?--is it true?--do I feel it so?" I was asking similar questions as I read.

How great a role my new purchase was playing in my enjoyment became clear one Saturday when I went to the movies. Not wanting to carry my 80-year-old book, I grabbed the Oxford World Classics edition I've had since college off the shelf. After the film, I repaired to a quiet hotel bar for a restorative. I found my place in the paperback and began to pick up the threads. It wasn't easy. The writing seemed suddenly less compelling and the story's complex narration more difficult to enter into. I just wasn't enjoying the novel. I looked at the book itself for a moment. The foxing of the cheap paper was noticeable. The margins and gutters were much too tight, and the printing had that fuzziness that letterpress doesn't. Everything seemed a little bit off. And then there was the regular intrusion of asterisks alerting me to cumbersome endnotes that could explain on which hotel Conrad had modeled the Malabar and how a belaying pin works.

It occurred to me that perhaps I was no longer giving Conrad his due: reading him at my convenience rather than on his terms. It was like affixing a Cézanne drawing to the refrigerator with magnets or going to the opera in pajamas. It is undoubtedly a pompous thought, but works of high art cannot be consumed in an effortless manner like some bit of journalism or a Wikipedia entry. Writers like Conrad or Henry James or Willa Cather struggled to produce their great books, calculating every effect, and they ask a lot of readers. Their novels are capable of the grandest effect of art: to make you see, then to know, and finally to understand. There's a reason their works were collected into full editions and we have sought to preserve their every utterance. Settling in to read a nicely made copy of Lord Jim--one that encourages concentration rather than frustrates it--is the least I can do for a writer as accomplished as Conrad.

This is why I collect books. My house is overflowing with the success of two decades' plowing through second-hand shops and library sales. I long to have at hand a good edition of each book when the spur comes to read it--for all books have their time and place, and the inspiration can be fleeting. (What I'm not is a collector of first printings or rare trophies. I want books "designed for use rather than ostentation," as Gibbon remarked of the Emperor Gordian's 62,000 volumes.) In the age of on-time printing of paperbacks and celebrity introductions for classic novels, these are a bit of luxury--as high art is itself a luxury of successful societies--but then I put on a tie before I head to the opera and I drink my Old-Fashioneds out of a decent glass. While I may revel in a Buchan or Forsyth shocker in disposable bindings, Conrad has the right to ask much more of me.

ROBERT MESSENGER