Of Clocks and Books

Over the years I have learned to keep a watchful eye on things and events around me: not major things and momentous events, but rather the more common things and activities of daily life. Like working with the ‘Chinese Book of Changes,’ the I Ching, one can pay attention to what seem like accidents or coincidences, or what Carl Jung referred to as synchronistic events, and self apply them. Just before Christmas I happened upon a little watch & clock repair shop in a local mall. I detest malls, but sometimes it’s OK to enter if one goes with a mission in mind. Mine was to find a present for my wife, and while at this repair shop I found a timepiece which –although cheaper at another huge department store– I decided to buy from the proprietor who had set up just days before. We got to talking and I mentioned that I have a wall clock which hasn’t run for a several years, and he invited me to bring it in for repair. Following the holidays I did just that, and recently brought the fixed clock home and hung it at its old location in the M&M room (Music & Mosher). For the next day and night I again heard it chime on the hour and the half hour, and slipped once again into serious thoughts about this incremental pacer and reminder of one’s mortality.

The next morning I was again wakened by the clock’s distantly familiar chimes. It’s going to take time to become accustomed to them once again. While reading my newspaper over morning coffee at the local George Street Café my eyes alighted upon an obituary entitled “Charles Ditmas, 91, dies; kept Harvard’s clocks” (by Tom Long of the Boston Globe) which I read with utter fascination. Talk about synchronicity! Charles Ditmas, a bit of an Edwardian dandy, was honorary keeper of hundreds of clocks at Harvard University since 1943. Long reports: “James Cuno, director of the Harvard University Art Museums, remembered him as a much-loved eccentric and one of the last of the enlightened amateurs at Harvard, whose expertise was not so much a result of schooling as a ‘highly individualized passion’ ” and was further identified as “a man enraptured with the inner workings of a timepiece, not just taken with the outer beauty of its case.” He listened intently to the music of a clock’s gears, often saying that “they speak to me” and admitting that electric clocks did not so affect him. Thus for 59 years, Charles Ditmas roamed the Harvard campus with black tool bag in hand, “fussing over timepieces.”

Has anyone noticed how quaintly parallel this man’s avowed passion is with a book collector’s fervor. True, collectors of any-thing might be intensely interested in the items of their collections, but how many can not only admire their outer appearance, but also deeply connect with their intrinsic beauty and wonderment –worlds unto themselves. Ditmas’ persona intertwined with a clock’s mechanism. Likewise a book collector may blend with the book-as-object and with its contents, in fact, so much so that it may help fashion his life. I previously wrote about connoisseurship in the Delaware Bibliophiles’ Endpapers (March 2001) as a response to Edith Wharton’s “The Daunt Diana,” I discussed my personal experiences from the perspective of the character, Humphrey Neave, whose knowledge and passion over Roman antiquities drove him to collect in a deeply personal way. Wharton gave us an insight into what informed, refined collecting means and how we can savor its fruits. The impassioned life of Charles Ditmas gives us yet another angle to consider, and both of these stories help us to investigate different facets of the collector’s reflective “crystal” held up to the light. In this case Ditmas not only admired the objects of his affection, but also deeply appreciated their marvelous inner worlds and devoted his energies to tending their needs. Imagine this man’s devotion to his clocks and the gain for posterity because of his silent, daily attention to their well being. Yet posterity may not gain even half as much as Ditmas himself did. His person merged with his clocks. To an outsider, and even to collegiate intellectuals, such devotion and activity probably looks very odd and eccentric, but as experienced by one from the inside, it’s a warm and glowing effusion of meaning helping to form and validate the very life of the individual. In a sense, it’s a sign of the creative process inside the individual, blending and molding with the object in such a way that the personality is itself affected.

Reflecting on yet another characteristic, Ditmas mentioned that the clocks actually “speak to me.” At the risk of sounding loony, this is precisely the wording I have used and even heard others employ with regard to certain items in their book collection. Strange how some binding or Mosher book “speaks” to me through its appearance, its background and provenance, my encounters with the same book in the past but now seen or “heard” in a new way due to newly uncovered facts or acquired knowledge. Loosely said, a certain book may have an attraction so strong that it may be said to “call out” to one. Granted, it’s somewhat of an anthropomorphic assignment on my part, but the mind can assign such a quality bringing the object into closer relationship with the collector. Is such thinking just the product of an over imaginative mind? Maybe it only reveals a deep seated desire to find meaning in the common actions and events in life. Whatever the case, it does appear to be a mainstay of this book collector’s inner life.

True, Ditmas could actually hear the sounds of a clock’s mechanism and through experience learn to differentiate its sounds so as to determine if it needed oil, new bushings, or a new mainspring. I’m sure he could tell much about the clock and its inner workings through such listening, but I think what one can tease out of the phrase “speaks to me” moves beyond that. The individual is so enwrapped in these objects, has such a keen understanding of their nature, and so persistently communes with them, that he can actually formulate a conversational give and take with an object in hand. So it was with Ditmas and his clocks, and so it is with some of us book collectors. Shortly I’ll describe in detail how some modern bindings by Silvia Rennie spoke to me under the subtitle “Speak Up, or Forever Hold Your Peace.

What Ditmas couldn’t hear, however, was the electric clock. Likewise, I and other like-minded folks cannot commune with an e-book. Oh to be sure, not only can an e-book download the same text as a book, but it can even be made to read the words aloud via synthetic electronic voice. But to my way of thinking, there is a deep chasm between a palm held e-book and a book of the traditional sense with binding and pages to be turned. As an artifact a book has taken on a traceable life, or at the very least one can imagine its former ownership and the hands that it passed through. One can speak of how it was neglected, how it must have been studied as evidenced by the underlines, check marks, or hand-written notes on its pages. One can even recall one’s own personal history with the book. All such things, however, the e-book totally lacks. It leaves me cold. It’s detached from what it contains which is alterable 10,000 times over. Download this text, erase that text, and finally throw the thing away when it breaks. How can such a thing meaningfully speak to me?

Indeed, I mourn the death of Charles Ditmas, but celebrate the light of inspired living his quirky life exemplified for those of us who continue like-minded in our chosen fields of endeavor. I revel in the insight given through the coincidental intersection of the wall clock’s orbit and clock worker’s obit. By reflecting upon the personal meaning behind the coincidence, and unearthing the subconscious meaning it helps one discover, how can one not feel a strong sense of sympathy with the likes of a Charles Ditmas. For him, clocks, for me, Mosher books; and together, displaying signs of an uncommon life rooted in meaning beyond the mere acquisition and handling of objects.

© Philip R. Bishop

Note: The above was adapted and revised from two articles appearing in the March 2002 issue of the Delaware Bibliophiles’ newsletter, Endpapers, used here with the kind permission of the president and editor of that organization and newsletter, Gordon Pfeiffer.