An essay by Pedro Blas Gonzalez on the pleasures of the physical book and reading James Gould Cozzens, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and writer out of time
On a recent trip to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my all time favorite bookstores. I have been visiting that wonderful store for 23 years. The place has thousands of books: hardcover, rare, and first-editions that the average reader who only reads best sellers cannot even suspect exist. I always get excited when I climb the movable ladders that hook around the shelves in this marvelous bookstore. I feel great anticipation of what I will discover this time around. This is a place where patience is highly rewarded. In old bookstores one encounters the feel and smell of old volumes, but also a living history of where we have been as people. Opening books that I may not intend to purchase, but which are alluring nonetheless, I begin to feel my heart pulsating faster. There is nothing more boring for this reader and book collector than the sterile and predictable shelves of bookstores that only sell new books. Whenever I visit a bookstore that specializes in old volumes, I always look for books and authors that I have been after for a long time. I am also excited by the sight of books, editions, and authors that I have never encountered. I welcome this positive tension. I often feel pity for those lost souls who today easily get turned on by those nonsensical, electronic-book gadgets, and other such aberrations, which are strictly designed for non-readers. I find the idea that books and their authors show come to us to be one of the great fallacies of our age. This is a rather laughable and lazy notion. Imagine people who think they are entitled to be loved; the day-to-day tortured existence of those pathetic people who demand that love should come to them.
People who actively seek knowledge, those who are not intimidated by the often unsavory backbone of truth, and who cherish making connections between this-and-that aspect of human existence, such people never expect knowledge to come to them. Reading is no different. Knowledge is not a right that is conferred on us by nature or the managers of bureaucratic utopias. If we want a drink, we go to the banks of a river or we look for a well. This is quite simple. Otherwise, we perish. This is all part of the fundamental understanding that reality is nothing other than resistance to our every whim, passion, desire, and aspiration. This is also what makes life so enjoyable for those who understand and cherish the nature of this all too human resistance. Ours is an age replete with pointless ironies, isn’t it? Finding other readers to converse with today is a rare thing. Genuine readers are actually rare gems. They are as rare as the mythical white buffalo, unicorns, or sirens. Often, when I come across another reader, I get the strange sensation that I am starring into an opaque mirror, or that I am in the presence of a ghost. Rummaging through the shelves of the Toronto bookstore that is replete with old hardcover books; I came across some very interesting first editions that I had been searching for: Hemingway, Dos Passos, O’Hara, and several books by James Gould Cozzens that I didn’t own. I have always been a consumer of works of literature. I find Polish writers to be some of the best exponents of genuine ideas, writers who can achieve this with much beauty, and who do so without recourse to pedantry.
English literature, especially the romantic and metaphysical writers, has excited me since I was a young boy. In addition, American literature, particularly the era pertaining to the “lost generation,” that group of writers that was virtually invented by F. Scott Fitzgerald, showcases a great deal of sincerity and truth that stands as a testament to the dignity of the individual – in any future age. Writers, like the aforementioned, have much to offer us today that remain valuable in helping us to understand ourselves as free and autonomous individuals. I find such writers to be the must interesting. These writers navigate the intersection of philosophical reflection and literature like very few others in modern literature. It is in this same bookstore that I first encountered Kingsley Amis and his letter-writing friend, Philip Larkin. Imagine my delight to find Cozzens’ novel Morning Noon and Night. This is a 1968 first edition that has an impeccable dust jacket and pristine pages. The book has been kept in a virtual time capsule. Beyond the physical appearance of this lovely edition, this novel is highly desirable to me, because it is a superbly original work. This is a rather intricate work: a novel posing as memoir, a philosophical essay that asks, “Is it all worthwhile?” or an anti-novel, as some critics have referred to it. Morning Noon and Night, is anything but conventional.
By the time Morning Noon and Night was published, in 1968, those who embraced radical ideology were seen by some as having reached the zenith of cool. Cozzens and his books certainty did not exude coolness, if we are to believe his critics, the denizens of social mayhem and revolution. Cozzens was savagely attacked by ill-willed, partisan critics. He was crucified as an Eisenhower-era traditionalist writer by politically-charged and lazy critics who cared little to actually read his books.
Henry Worthington, the protagonist, is the founder of a consulting firm. He narrates how he came to be the man that he is, what understanding he extracted from human reality as a young boy, his experiences with other people as an adult, and just what it means to live and die.
I dare say that Cozzens is a more engaging philosopher than the vast majority of those who possess advanced degrees today in that noble discipline. Reading Cozzens carefully sends me reeling with excitement. He reminds me of the lofty possibilities that literature can attain to. I rejoice in witnessing that philosophical reflection is alive and well. Cozzens is not tainted by the shameless sterilization and moral/spiritual castration that institutions of higher learning subject philosophical vocation today. Worthington relates to the reader what life is like for him, what it has been, and the realization that he has lived, as if in a dream. The novel begins: “I have been young and now I am old”. Henry Worthington then goes on to say that old age does not necessarily deliver one to wisdom, but he assures the reader that, in his case, this indeed is the case. Worthington and Cozzens are both that rare example of men who know their own mind. This is as difficult an undertaking as it is a solitary task. In many respects, Cozzens enlightens us about an age that has not been our own for a long time now, and which, regrettably, will likely never return.
There is tremendous pathos in Morning Noon and Night. However, this is not the cheap, gratuitous, and fashionable sadness that socially/politically motivated individuals promote in our own time.
This novel reminds me of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. Both works display profound courage in getting down to the nitty-gritty, those difficult to swallow moments of human existence, which no popular appeals to utopia can assuage. Cozzens does not give us soothing pills to alleviate our spiritual emptiness. On the contrary, he seems to say: “If you are willing to ride along with me, let us then take a walk through fields of natural resistance to all our sophomoric whims.” How many of us are sincerely willing to embrace this challenge? What a pity that men of honor, those few souls who can deliver us to truth, must perish. What a shame that fewer and fewer men today are capable of taking their place.
Pedro Blas Gonzalez is a writer and philosopher who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy. He has written Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega y Gasset’s Philosophy of Subjectivity; Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy; Unamuno: A Lyrical Essay; Dreaming in the Cathedral and Ortega’s ‘The Revolt of the Masses’ and the Triumph of the New Man.