Reading Matter
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Books In Brief

More Books Than Sense

My father, God rest his soul, once said of me, “He has more books than sense.” It wasn’t the kindest of remarks, perhaps, but over the years I’ve conceded its accuracy. How else to account for the pile of his high school and college yearbooks that I’ve just reshelved in the freshly-painted bookshelves? What am I saving them for?

If I ever run out of things to do, I’ll check out the Web to see if anybody collects the things. Imagine: a national repository of yearbooks. Located in the heart of the country - say, across from the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota - the museum of yearbooks would set out to display one copy of each yearbook ever printed. Duplicate copies would be microfilmed - to save all those insincere autographs and smiley faces. Now that I’ve imagined this facility, I try to imagine actually boxing up Dad’s yearbooks and packing them off. Would I? You bet. I might even send my own.

But I haven’t entirely outgrown the pack-rat mentality that probably underlies most private libraries. I’m not going to tip the tomes down the garbage chute, or put tied up bundles of them along side the old newspapers for recycling. I also have my mother’s yearbooks. Unlike my father’s alma mater (the same as my own), my mother’s institution of higher learning ceased educating young women some time after her graduation in 1940 and was transformed into another kind of institution: a “laughing academy” (so the story goes). The annuals of the Maryland College for Women have almost certainly become rare. But it’s hard to imagine that any degree of rarity is ever going to make them valuable. Meanwhile, I’ve got a collection of amusing (and conveniently bound) old photographs of preppy girls riding horses and forming May Courts.

My mother, God keep her, was not a reader. She perused the ads in the Times, and leafed through the weekly newsmagazines, but even though I know she read novels occasionally I cannot picture her doing it. She preferred the activity of needlework, and I’m fairly certain that she regarded reading in public as antisocial. Without being at all social or sociable myself, I wasn’t a reader, either, until I was thirteen. Then, in a sort of interior coup, I put away my model railroad, abandoned my tree fort, and discovered Robert Benchley. I presented lists of books for Christmas, the titles chosen from the New York Times Book Review. I still have two of the ones that I was given in 1962: Harold Nicolson’s gentlemanly study, ‘Kings, Courts and Monarchy,’ and Edith Sitwell’s considerably more eccentric ‘The Queens and the Hive,’ about the struggle between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. For all the political reaction betrayed by these titles, I think the attraction of royalty was its parade of untrammeled individuals.

But I have long since gotten rid of ‘How To Write Letters For All Occasions,’ a disappointing reference book that I acquired when I joined something called - can it have been? - the Doubleday One Dollar Book Club. Printed on the cheap, like all of the club’s offerings, this was not the epistolary manual that I’d hoped it would be. The occasions that I envisioned did not require templates touching on marriage, death, or letters of reference. The kind of letters that I wanted to write were belles lettres. But in the sixties, writing letters of any kind was considered remarkable, and for years ‘How To Write Letters...’ stuck around as a kind of semi-professional handbook. I now realize that only people who hated writing letters could have gotten any use out of it.

Reference books are probably the only constituents of a library that need no justification, but I would just as soon consign most of them to a closet. They come in two shapes: huge and shabby. The shabby ones, of course, have become so by virtue of their usefulness, but I’m no more inclined to display my ripped old French-English Larousse than a carton of vacuum-cleaner bags or a jar of silver polish. The huge ones, like the Columbia Encyclopedia, are really not the sort of tomes that anyone with a back problem should be loading and unloading, and they always need to be carried to wherever Kathleen is sitting, which is usually in another room. I’ve thought of asking her to keep the OED under her pillow, where (since it is in the twilight between consciousness and sleep that Kathleen is beset by etymological concerns) it would be handiest, but I’ve never worked up the courage to make the suggestion. My favorite dictionary is the American Heritage. It’s by no means the best one I’ve got, but it resides on a compact disk in my computer - the ultimate convenience. What’s more, it talks.

Any attempt to arrange books by subject will be defeated by their height. People who limit themselves to paperbacks are probably not aware that, in addition to saving pots of money, they’re also making much better use of space. Clothbound books take up not only much more room but different kinds of room. My collections of plays and poems, for example, must therefore be distributed over several shelves, with all the inefficiency of a fragmented hard drive. As for giving in and arranging books by height, a tactic one hears about from time to time without quite believing it, one might as well arrange books by color. I did, once. I took all the red-bound books that I had and lined them up on a high shelf. The impression given was strangely but gratifyingly antiquarian. Thus I got that out of my system. Besides, I have my row of Loeb Classics. This is not the time or place to defend my stocking the Iliad and the Oresteia in Greek, a language I can barely sound out, but I’m sure it has nothing to do with pleasant pistachio dust jackets.

As Lenin put it, Que Faire? What is to be done with clothbound novels? One buys them because one can’t wait for paper. Then what? I talk about carting them down to the Strand, but I’ve heard rather frightening things about the clerks there, a fastidious lot, it seems, whose rejections would be really horrible if it weren’t for a garbage can outside the store. I could revive the big birthday parties that I used to give in the eighties, and force every guest to take a novel away. But I’m not really keen to break up what is in fact, for better or worse, the history of my imagination’s external inputs. I used to dump old novels at our lake house, but we're free of that encumbrance now, so we've filled up a storage unit. It turns out to be very easy to whisk through the piles on the floor distinguishing the books that I’d really liked from the ones that I hadn’t. I might very well re-read some of the latter, especially after they’ve acquired the allure of being unavailable most of the time. For the time being, nine shopping bags filled with novels are lined up neatly in the foyer, looking for some reason like a work of conceptual art.

The only justification for keeping a library is the opportunity it holds out to re-read good books. Otherwise, it’s a very cumbersome vanity, well replaced by a good picture. Human nature being what it is, of course, books have always enjoyed a second career as trophies. As Nicolson Baker points out in his wry examination of the use of books in mail-order catalogues, ‘Books as Furniture’ (collected in The Size of Thoughts, Random House, 1996), an array of books bespeaks a weird kind of wealth:

If you amass a library of hundreds of thousands of volumes, as the great Caliph Hakim II of Cordoba did before he died, in the year 976, you can feel confident that you have secured a kind of implied immortality: you die owning in reserve all the hours and years it would take those who outlive you to read, not to mention copy over, the words each book contains - and that bank of shelved time is your afterlife.

Surveying the disarray surrounding the spruce bookcases, I’m afraid that my afterlife may commence before the mess is cleaned up. This is what comes of changing the color of a room. Even had I been able to live with the accumulated grime that eight years of Manhattan’s fine fresh air and Second Avenue’s exhaust-spewing semi-trailers deposited on the shelves, painting around the bookcases was never an option, as the marine blue of the walls would have fought disagreeably with the creamy teal of the old paint. Simply putting the books back where they’d been wasn’t an option, either. The only consideration capable of reconciling me to the upheaval of having the room painted at all was the opportunity it would provide not only to put the books in order but to make a note of where they were. I began assembling a database of my books soon after I got my first PC, and miraculously enough it has survived half a dozen upgrades. Ten years have passed, though, since I conscientiously tried to account for all the books I own, and the database has become more a little more historical and lots less practical.

The ordeal of cataloguing books is not without its forbidden pleasures. There’s nothing quite like the surprise of coming across an appealing book and sinking into an armchair with it, momentarily persuaded that it holds the secret of life. To think that this codex of wonders has been right under one’s nose! The sad fact is that, tucked away in its proper place, a book is easily diminished into part of a lineup of spines as familiar as old wallpaper. Turned out of its accustomed order and brought into the open air, or (further along) emerging from the disaster of a toppled pile, it resumes its quirky identity and recaptures some of the charm that induced one to buy it in the first place.

Looking for something new to re-read - I’m always looking for something to add to my pile of books, especially when I shouldn’t be - I picked up an old paperback edition of John Fowles’ The Ebony Tower, a collection of three stories and a novella, and read the novella, which carries the same title. I know I read it years ago, but my database isn’t helpful; apparently I never filled out a form for this volume. I know I read it, and yet almost nothing about it was familiar. For there is really no such thing as re-reading a book. Just as, according to Einstein, you can’t walk into the same river twice, so the simple motion of time carries you away - and pretty swiftly, too - from the person you are when you put a book down. Pick it up again, two or three years later, and you find that something has changed. Much as your vanity insists that it must be the book, obviously it can’t be. It’s you who have changed. If nothing else, you know more than you did the last time. You’ve seen more of life. Your tastes may have changed. I know that my view of a number of things treated in ‘Ebony Tower’ has changed drastically since 1975 - the date of my paperback - and not much less than drastically since the early 80’s, which is when I suspect I last opened this book.

On a visit to interview a famous old painter in Brittany, thirty-one year-old David Williams, man of the arts - a successful abstract painter and an articulate reviewer - makes the ash-tasting discovery that he has been living an unchallengingly safe and even priggish life. Predictably, he is helped to this epiphany by means of a sexual misadventure. The best thing about the story is the way Fowles serves up the happily married, father-of-two young man as a victim marked for sacrifice and then traces his rationalizing steps toward attempted adultery. “The ultimate vanity (and folly, in an artist) was not to seem vain.” The tension between decency and vitality is a theme that runs through Fowles’ fiction. In the contest of order and disorder, I suspect that Fowles and I root for opposing teams. But since it took the upheaval of repainting bookcases to put his beautifully-written work in my hands, I must concede that disorder has its uses. (March 2000)

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