by Raju Peddada
"Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had for abstaining from flesh? For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds? ... It is certainly not lions and wolves that we eat out of self-defense; on the contrary, we ignore these and slaughter harmless, tame creatures without stings or teeth to harm us, creatures that, I swear, Nature appears to have produced for the sake of their beauty and grace. But nothing abashed us, not the flower-like tinting of the flesh, not the persuasiveness of the harmonious voice, not the cleanliness of their habits or the unusual intelligence that may be found in the poor wretches. No, for the sake of a little flesh we deprive them of sun, of light, of the duration of life to which they are entitled by birth and being."
"What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality."
—Plutarch (45 AD - 120 AD)
(Swans - April 7, 2014) A few days ago I was at Amaranth Used Books in Evanston, which I haunt frequently. There, as I scanned the shelves, something in the periphery caught my eye. In the corner on the floor was this old and damaged stack of books that Joe keeps as virtual giveaways. Adjacent to it was a dusty blue stack in five volumes, with a gold coin embossed on the covers. A closer look revealed it to be Plutarch's Lives. Oh! I have this!, I thought and moved on. As I was ready to step out of the store, something nagged me -- the blue pile wouldn't relinquish it's grip of me. It was as if Plutarch's invisible hand sprang from the stack, reached over, and yanked me back. So I went back in, ignoring that fleeting smirk on Joe's face, and picked up the first volume to examine. It was really worn; somebody had read it again and again, as the cobalt clay-coated cloth was cracked and shedding at the top and bottom of the spine.
Yes, there is etiquette in pulling and putting the books back onto the shelves. Unfortunately, the previous owners were not privy to this. Book spines fall apart when we pull a book by hooking our fingers on the top extension of the spine over the body, to extract it from between a tightly-packed shelf, in effect, prying the spine away from the body of the book, called signatures. And shoving it back into its spot, by leaning and dragging the bottom extension of the spine against the shelf itself. Do this on a regular basis, and your books will appear as though they have been dragged on the street, standing up, as punishment for your guilty pleasure.
Where were we? We were done with the spine. The paper, inside on the hard cover, over the cloth and the front leaf was again clay-coated, but in a darker shade of cobalt, which was in surprisingly pristine state, and on this was affixed a plain white EX LIBRIS label, 1.25 by 3 inches, with the names WALTER G. and E. M. G. WHITTINGHAM. After three pages inside of the deckle-edged book was the right hand title page: PLUTARCH'S LIVES -- The Translation called Dryden's -- Corrected from the Greek and Revised By A. H. CLOUGH -- LONDON -- JOHN C. NIMMO (publisher) -- 14 King William Street, Strand -- MDCCCXCIII (1893). It was 122 years old! The scuffed and cracked spine on top of the first volume revealed the signatures like a row of teeth in a diffident, yet incorrigible smile. The condition outside was pathetic, but astonishingly pristine inside. "Joe, how much?" I asked motioning to the stack -- "Ten dollars." I purchased it -- my conscience relieved.
Why did I purchase it, if I already had it? There are many reasons. It had aged beautifully. Then, it was this specific human being: a Church of England bishop, who presided at St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, which I came to know later -- clearly identified, with a face I could see, from over a 100 years ago that had enjoyed the books, probably with his family, as evidenced by its condition. The books were entirely handcrafted by the binders in London, sometime in 1891-92. They had survived many wars, the dampness of the Isles, the passing from generation to generation, and then, inexplicably loaded onto an ocean liner bound for the U.S. And then, I assume, from the Port in New York to Chicago. But, with who? You see, before I even open the first volume, there's so much to contemplate around them -- their makers, previous handlers, and their journey across time. I thought they deserved respite from so much action. It struck me that their survival is probably as intriguing and interesting as the content they carry, that's 1900 years old. I know that old books have two stories to tell, the one they carry within, and the one they've have been through. As often is the case, the latter story, as time dissolves, accrues a deeper character.
Books, for me, are objects of infinite beauty. Most are crafted to carry profound freight that can shape or destroy us -- thoughts of individuals, from the earliest of times. Depending on their freight, they can become the mechanisms of immortality. Looking at the cobalt stack, I was convinced of something. I wasn't the one rescuing this set of books, it was the other way around -- I was being rescued, from futility and presumptions -- and from the illusion of that smug satisfaction over having it. Then, I was saved again, by the realization that beauty, whether aged or nascent, cannot be possessed by anyone, except be possessed by it, as I was.
I am a mere custodian, a steward, just like the Whittinghams were -- offered the pleasure to temporarily have, read, and pass on the works of a polytheistic thinker from the temple of Apollo at Delphi, almost 2000 years ago. Books in gestation, just like a fetus, are not travelers till they are delivered, and once delivered, we can never control their destinations, nor destiny. We readers are simply their happy couriers for the next generation, and what a privilege it is!
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)