Monday, January 23, 2012

For the love of books

One from the stacks: Giving my books a second life on the Web

Like most writers I have a lot of books. They surround me while I work and I find that soothing and dispiriting at the same time. They remind me of all the work I haven't done; and sometimes that makes me want to give it all up and get a normal job like everyone else. A job that ends at five o'clock and requires no more of me than can be crammed into the space of eight hours and five days, so that the rest of the time I can do all the other things I enjoy, like running and cooking and dining out and drawing, and playing drums and just sitting in front of the television with my wife and my dog without feeling like I should be in front of the keyboard...well, writing.

Writing for a living (or more accurately, assuming anyone cares what you write) can lead, if unchecked, to unrestrained arrogance; and the presence of books, lots of books – by writers much better than myself – helps keep me in my place. But more often they are less trenchant, reminding me that I am engaged in a timeless pursuit, a linguistic crusade for truth and beauty that I should be honored to count myself a part of it. I know I'm not alone in saying books – printed books, on paper, not electrically charged particles of liquid crystal – are inspirational.

I've never counted my books, nor do I have a reasonable estimate of how many I might have. Sometimes they are an immense burden. And I mean that in the literal sense. Books are heavy as shit, and hard as hell to move. At 41 I just bought my very first house; in other words I've spent the entirety of my adult life as a renter, moving myself and my books an average of once every two years. It's a pain in the ass, and I know I've stayed places (and with people) longer than I would have liked to because of my reluctance to pack my books.

Every time I move, my books are the first things boxed and the last unpacked. Also with each move I invariably determine that when I finally get around to unpacking them, I will catalog them in some relevant way – typically in the standard manner, alphabetically by author; but on at least one occasion I settled on regional classifications subcategorized by genre (Continental fiction, American nonfiction, English get the idea). This has yet to happen, which can make looking for an individual volume frustrating to the point of madness. As you can see from the photograph above (which shows just a tiny corner of one shelf) more often than not my library endures in perpetual disarray, a prolonged state of literary anarchy in need of a bibliophilic Dear Leader to instill order and discipline.

Given all the drawbacks of mass book ownership it shouldn't come as a surprise to know that I sometimes question the rationale of carrying these thousands of pages around at all. On more than one occasion I've considered tossing them, or more likely giving them away. Once, many years ago, I sold my entire collection to a young entrepreneur who was trying to open an indy bookstore (a noble if foolish endeavor). I needed the money. And he needed the books. I don't remember getting much for them, but it was enough for what I needed at the time. I never did get to visit the store and can't say with any certainty if it ever even opened.

I've since replaced some of the books I sold (a collection of Paul Bowles' short stories comes to mind). I wouldn't sell my books now. Mostly because I no longer see them as individual items, commodities if you will, but as something much more personal: A library is an intellectual self-portrait of he who created it.

I do however occasionally commit to whittling down my library and disposing of the more expendable volumes. I like placing them in a box in front of my house and watching from the window as passersby rifle through the books I've determined are no longer worthy of standing sentry on my shelf. Let them bother someone else for a while.

Yet I'm still plagued by the notion that my books are waiting for something to happen that never will. Do they tire of being shuffled from place to place, collecting dust in between moves? I make sure to give them attention. I like pulling them down at random and flipping through the pages. Sometimes I find old notes, bookmarks from bookstores that I visited that no longer exist, or highlighted passages that long ago had meaning. Sometimes the words still do and it's like finding a little piece of treasure I'd forgotten I had. Other times, removed from whatever context inspired me to make the notation in the first place, they are cryptic messages from another time, another me, and I take pleasure in trying to decipher their (and my) meaning. But except for a handful of favorites, I rarely read books twice. There are too many unread ones that still require my attention.

It's high time that I did my books some justice. With more and more people turning to e-readers and tablets, the printed book needs it more than ever. So I've decided to give my own modest collection a renewed purpose, and hopefully give something to you at the same time.

At random intervals (i.e. when I feel inspired to and have the time) I will feature a single volume from my library with a brief (or sometimes not so brief) assessment of what it meant to me and why I think you should read it (or not).

I won't tell you I'm going to work through my entire library. For one thing I'll probably lose interest before long and then I'd have made a promise I can't, or won't keep. And anyway not every book in my library is worthy of the time. Not to mention, I haven't read them all. Any true bibliophile who tells you they have is lying through their teeth. As I've already noted, book collecting is as much about being in the presence of great books as it is about reading them. Which is why, no matter how many e-readers are sold and how many e-books marketed, the printed volume will always have a place in the world of the true lover of literature. This is my way of honoring my library – or part of it at least – with a second life on the Web. 

One From The Stacks Archives

The Bridge on the Drina, By Ivo Andrić

The Art of Eating, By M.F.K. Fischer

Justine, By Lawrence Durrell

The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943, By Joseph Goebbels

Burning Chrome, By William Gibson

Collected Stories (1936-1976), Without Stopping, Paul Bowles 

Last Exit to Brooklyn, By Hubert Selby Jr. 

The Journals of André Gide, By André Gide