Thursday, November 3, 2016
At the University of UC Corner
Originally UC Corner on Telegraph Avenue was an international newsstand; that was why it had clocks on the Durant Avenue side window with all the time zones; indeed, it did still have international papers and magazines through at least most of my student years. But it became the best stocked and best organized of the stores of paperbacks and then of LP records.
Of course, there had always been paperbacks, but they were all pulp, such as crime and other non-literary, and one called them Pocket Books, as A Pocket Book of Boners. The exception was Penguin, the categories color coded: turquoise blue for non-fiction, dark green for mysteries, brown for Greek classics, purple for Latin classics, orange (?) for Scandinavian, orange for, well, respectable fiction, and others—a wonderful system. Then, of a sudden alongside the rows of Penguin paperbacks on the shelves of UC Corner, there were Anchor Paperbacks from Doubleday, almost all of them of permanent value and, one noticed, most of them pre-War, out of print. Not just otherwise unavailable but great. At the back of one of the first that I got, Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, was a list of those available in 1957. My first paperback was a turquoise Penguin, Civilization by Clive Bell. I got it at the little bookstore of the College of Arts and Crafts (N.B., before I'd even heard of his famous sister in law). For several years his little essay was like a bible to me! But my systematic acquisition of quality paperbacks began when I moved to Berkeley and to the University of California. I searched out one after the other and read them eagerly. Some of them have been acquired now by the New York Review of Books, such as Lionel Trilling's, but more were such as Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages and before long, when Harper (Torchbooks) joined the movement, E. R. Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. By then my mentor professor had also had me read Virginia Woolf's First and Second Reader. Needless to say, by the time that I graduated with a BA in Art, specializing in History of Art (for that was how it was administered then), I had worked my way through college, and mostly working in the Loan Department of the UC Library, with a good-looking transcript, yes, but also virtually with an extra major in all the subjects I hadn't been able to take for credit. I did have, by the time I finished the requirements for the PhD, almost a real complete major in Classics. Being able to read Latin and Greek, I see in retrospect, was probably the most useful thing I did, apart from art and architecture per se.
I'll try to concentrate in this blog on some of the value of all the reading that, in retrospect, I see that Berkeley gave me, specifically the south of campus (now utterly changed, since the 1960s and 1970s) alongTelegraph Avenue. Everything I stole time to read added up to another education in its own right, and it centered on the jam-packed but by no means junky establishment of UC Corner. By the 1980s that was no longer what it had been, and, if the internet serves me aright, today it no longer exists at all.
Today, indeed with a touch of presbyopeia and living hundreds of miles from Berkeley, anyway, it is Amazon that feeds my hunger for self-education; another revolution has replaced the paperback revolution as such. That is good, because the Telegraph Avenue with its UC Corner that I took for granted would exist wherever there was a university no longer exists for avid students hardly anywhere. Yet so long as the avid learners exist, well, if Erich Auerbach could write Mimesis in wartime Istanbul, young scholars will take advantage of what we have now.
P.S. The choice of a picture for the cover of the original paperback (and I have in this case treasured the original) is wonderful. It is a detail from the North Porch of Chartres and the sculptor has found the means of showing God envisaging the creature that in his love he is making in his own image.