Samuel Beckett's Book Collection

George Hunka on a recent survey of Samuel Beckett's reading habits
Samuel Beckett reading in his Paris apartment
From George Hunka (The Theatre Bar):
The books with which a writer chooses to surround himself may be a far more interesting clue to his own writings than the biography — what he read is more germane to the work than what he ate, what clothes he wore, whom he slept with. And perhaps it’s not necessary that he read all of the books on those shelves: he found them, at one time or another, of interest to himself or of relevance to his own creative endeavor.

So now we have Samuel Beckett’s Library, published late last month by Cambridge University Press, a census and study of the books that remained in Beckett’s library at his death, by Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon. For those more interested in the work than the life, the book is an essential text, and even partakes of an intellectual biography itself. Along with the continuing series of letters (two volumes published, two more to follow), one can trace Beckett’s growth and maturity as an artist through the various marginalia (and even non-marginalia; see below) that he leaves along his reading trail. “As Maryanne Wolf argues, ‘the experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind,’” Van Hulle and Nixon write in their introduction. “It is impossible to look ‘inside’ a reader’s or a writer’s mind with hindsight, but its transformations are partially retraceable on the basis of reading notes.”

A census — a simple list of the books in Beckett’s library — is included as an appendix, but they tell us only as much as a simple list can tell us. Van Hulle and Nixon differentiate between different kinds of reading traces — marginalia, dog-eared pages, non-marginalia (phrases and references that occur in Beckett’s work but are not marked), and extractions (passages copied verbatim from a printed text into a notebook). Among these non-marginalia in Beckett’s work are phrases and passages from Charles Darwin and William Shakespeare, phrases and passages that struck Beckett so sharply that their marking was unnecessary and testimony to his excellent memory.

There are both recognitions and surprises to be found. Dante, Shakespeare, and Schopenhauer are obviously present — and so is a single volume of Nietzsche, The Gay Science, “showing several dog-ears” but no written marginalia. (There is none of Ionesco’s plays in the library, only a single novel; Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double is present, but unmarked.) Darwin, as mentioned above, was read and re-read. So were several volumes of secondary literature — surveys of literary and philosophical history provided Beckett with the starting points for his own individual explorations. Van Hulle and Nixon are particularly good on Beckett’s indebtedness to Mauthner and Wittgenstein and managed to unearth “one of the most surprising books in the extant library: Olga Pl├╝macher’s Der Pessimismus,” a book from one of the writers in Frank Wedekind’s circle and now likely to become the basis for a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation or two. [Read More]

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