Apuleius’s The Golden Ass: Is It My Last Book Purchase?

The Limited Edition of The Golden Ass

I recently ordered a copy of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, published by the Limited Editions Club in 1932. This beautiful leather book with its soft silky pages is a replacement for my tatty paperback.

And, she says dramatically,  it may be the last book I ever buy.    I have given up buying books, and I wanted to go out with a bang!

Illustration by Percival Goodman: Lucius watches the witch Pamphile transform herself into an owl.

Written in the second century A.D., The Golden Ass is the only Roman novel to survive whole.   I  first read Jack Lindsay’s lively translation in my senior year at the University of Iowa. I lived in a tiny room with a  mattress, a few books, no chair, and no closet for my clothes. (That was in the hall.)  l sat on the mattress for hours reading, then raced to my job, and then conducted my social life  at the Burger Palace, a local dive. If not for my absorption in classical studies, my life would have been something out of Dostoevsky.  Fortunately, reading Apuleius was one of the delights of that semester. I chortled over the fantastic adventures of Lucius, a comic hero whose curiosity about witchcraft results in his transformation into an ass.

Jack Lindsay’s brilliant translation is by far the funniest and the closest in spirit to Apuleius, and it is the translation published by the Limited Edition Club.  In the introduction, Lindsay writes that The Golden Ass is “one of the great fantasies of the world.” He compares it to Gargantua and Pantagruel, Don Quixote,  Gulliver’s Travels, and Robinson Crusoe.

Apuleius, born in Africa and educated in Carthage, was fascinated by magic:  he was even accused of witchcraft after his rich wife and stepson died.  (He successfully defended himself.)   Latin was not his first language, and some critics believe his quirky style was the result.  But Lindsay disagrees.  He writes,

The freakishness of the style is an essential part of the fantasy; and yet it is slighted as something of which to be ashamed, a lapse on Apulieus’s part which the kindly translator should do his best to correct.  But it is ridiculous to infer that these gamesome conceits and involutions are mere excrescences on the otherwise even tenor of a romantic tale.  They are an organic part of the symbolism; and if they are lacking, the adventures of the ass lose half their suggestive relish and ironic commentary.

The Indiana University Press paperback edition of Lindsay’s translation.

Did I need a beautiful Limited Edition of The Golden Ass?  No, but why not?

Consumerism is exhausting, though. Why have I bought so many books? Did I need that Penguin copy of Theodor Fontane’s No Way Out?  I did not, and I did not even enjoy it.  That is the case with so many obscure books I read.  Oh, I want this, I think.  And later I think, Why?

During the black mold scare last year, we had to move seven bookcases out of the study.  Bizarrely, the bookcases had contributed to the problem. A few tall bookcases blocked the windows, where condensation formed and dripped into the wall.

As a result, we boxed up many of our books.

Was it a sign?

I was not in debt, but I was profligate.  One day shopping stopped being fun, and I just stopped.

There are all kinds of reasons for shopping addiction. An article in the Huffington Post says,  “Compulsive shopping is an attempt to fill an emotional void, like loneliness, lack of control, or lack of self-confidence.”

Well, we all have emotional voids. I am not sure this is one.   I am crazy about books.  I started buying books in junior high and never stopped. Years of book-buying have filled our shelves, but I don’t regret it.  I just want to read what  we have for a while.

The Golden Ass is my last purchase.  Well, my last for the summer anyway!

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & The Book-Buying Habits of Bloggers

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading "Emma" in "The Jane Austen Book Club"

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading “Emma” in “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Book bloggers are an intense bunch.  Think of all that writing with no reward except to share our avidity for reading.

I was thinking about the act of book-blogging because it is  National Readathon Day, a pro-literacy event sponsored by The National Book Foundation, Penguin Random House, Goodreads, and Mashable

I was busy during official readathon hours, but  I made up for it later.  I finished Pamela Hansford Johnson’s remarkable novel, The Philistines, an exploration of the psychology of an unhappy woman who marries a suburban banker after she realizes she has no talent for writing.  Her mother, an artistic widow, is appalled.

What else should I do?  I have no future.”

“There’ll be something…something.”

“Oh, something!” Gwen cried, with a bitterness that made her instantly ashamed.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLFrom the beginning, we understand that unconventional Gwen is headed for disaster.  She and Clifford live with his  mother and sister, and never move into their own place.. Motherhood does not fulfill her, and the social life at the club is monotonous.  She develops a crush on a doctor, and it is not returned. She fantasizes about him for years.. I was struck by the intensity of the crush, an emoition so common among women in their thirties, yet largely unwritten about in novels. Perhaps romance is more exciting, but how many women actually sustain themselves by fantasies ? More on this next week.

Johnson always breaks taboos by delving into forbidden psychological territory.


There is a new trend among book bloggers:  we say at the beginning of every year we are going to read only from our shelves.

We are going to be like Susan Hill in Howards End Is on the Landing, a wonderful book about her reading  from her home bookshelves for a year.

That’s what I say I’ll do, and I do read from my shelves, but book-buying is where my materialism comes in.  And I recently made a very interesting discovery :   I can get very cheap used books if I settle for “good” instead of “very good” or “like new” condition.

At our house it is very like a ’60s sitcom when books arrive in the mail on weekends.  I wish I were like Samantha in “Bewitched” and could twitch my nose and make the books disappear.   Today my husband intercepted four packages.  “Is it your birthday?”

I have very good reasons for buying these books, as he  shortly learned.  I had to replace my copy of A Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement, because it fell apart while I was addictively rereading  Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant.

I swore I couldn’t get it at the library.

And so now I am done buying books.  For the year.

We’ll see!