Saturday, May 21, 2005

How I'm Spending my Summer Vacation

School’s out, what did you expect?

It would seem that a break from literary study would call for the reading of some quicker, less dense novels. That was always the case in the past. I’d get a break for a few weeks, or even 3 solid months, and I would read Bukowski, Vonnegut or any other fine, respected writer who offered a damn good story delivered perfectly in a few hundred enjoyable pages. I have never been one for pop fiction. I can’t lounge on the beach with Sidney Sheldon or Harold Robbins and my days of reading Stephen King are over. I have the utmost respect for Vonnegut or John Fante because their books are quite good and packed with uncluttered prose that is fresh and not at all daunting to read. Needless to say, these are not light novels written by light thinkers. Nevertheless, they rarely seem to make it into academia.

Classrooms are devoted to the canonized writers whose work is so revered (rightly so) because it was either innovative or (wrongly so) cumbersome to the point of almost unworthy recognition. I don’t care for James Joyce or Joseph Conrad. I have read them and I am glad, but I don’t get excited over their books and I certainly don’t plan to devote my free time between now and mid July (when summer school begins) to rereading their work. Vonnegut is perhaps my favorite living writer (along with Jeanette Winterson), but not because his books are easy reads. If anything, his work is deceptively simple, further proof of his unique talent. A Vonnegut novel can be read in a day’s time, assuming one has a day to sacrifice to the simple act of reading. Be that as it may, Cat’s Cradle, Jailbird and Hocus Pocus are fantastic books packed with near perfect, lucid prose. They jump around, they tell a story in an interesting way and, like Winterson, Vonnegut is more interested in the way the tale is told then the tale itself. Try and describe the plot of Hocus Pocus and you will sound like an idiot. There are far more interesting things going on than the story itself.

Winterson said as much in her book of essays, Art Objects. She fancies herself to be a writer who loves language and thus the story is secondary to the style. She fashions herself after Woolf in this way. Having little exposure to Woolf (for shame, Vince), I have decided to skip the so-called lighter reading and focus on some of Virginia’s books.

Most academics would say I am not skipping the light reading, as I am reading Orlando. I thought this would be a good way to start off the summer as it is considered by many to be her most accessible book—which translates, to the goons of academia, as least important. What a crock. The sad truth about academics, career ones especially, is that they only seem to judge a work by its difficulty. The canon is full of cumbersome writers and for one of these professors or critical theorists to actually finish an allegedly difficult work is the equivalent—in their mind’s—of crossing the Gobi or swimming from Sestos to Abydos. Orlando is not as difficult to maneuver through as To the Lighthouse. It is (as of page 226) a delightfully written book that presents ideas as well as a story of a man who crosses into womanhood and through centuries. I also suspect it has meet with lesser recognition due to its playful nature and overwhelming sense of fun.

Woolf is considered a serious writer because her books are serious and they deal with serious emotions. Woof was, as we know, victim to serious issues in her life, mostly emotional and certainly psychological. Her suicide is thus interpreted in a myriad of ways, as was her metal anguish. Her work is often judged in relation to her emotional state. As a result, a book like Orlando is considered the pulp of her complete oeuvre. Poppycock. Kafka’s Amerika meets with the same sort of dismissal as it is hardly the absurd masterpiece, “The Metamorphosis”, the paranoid and incomplete The Trail, or the deeply sad “Hunger Artist”. The image of Woolf or Kafka as something other than dour and tortured seems to bother scholars. It is again a case of the image being more important than the work. It happens. I have read some books by William S. Burroughs and a lot more information about him. I find his life more interesting than his work. Ditto Ezra Pound.

After I finish Orlando I will try and decode The Waves. Between the two I feel I will have better understanding of the scope of Woolf’s career. My reasons for choosing these two also correspond to Winterson’s book of essays, as she uses these works as platform for her thoughts on art. Reading the three books at once should prove fun and stimulating and part of me thinks it’ll go some way toward keeping the brain in shape during what is traditionally a time of slacking. I tried to do this while I was a college drop out. I read The Sound and the Fury three times, the last time reading a guide to the novel along with the book. I read “The Waste Land” and a lot of essays about the poem. Too many. I tried to have a balanced literary diet. I could let myself go and just kick back with something a tad less challenging, but what the hell? I might as well try and stay the course until this whole school thing is done. And if I drop out again, I doubt I’ll go running back to Dean Koontz or Anne Rice. We do not need to feel forced to read something more substantial, just as we do not need to feel as though we can’t enjoy a quick read. Some days we want prime rib and some days we want White Castles.

Update if anyone cares:

I finished Orlando and it was wonderful. Read it. I am not going to summer school for a myriad of reasons, mostly financial, as in aid and the lack thereof. I am attempting Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities which may kill me. But what a way to go.

Have a nice Summer.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Umberto Eco writes in his book of essays, How to Travel with a Salmon, about justifying a personal library, and Jeanette Winterson writes on the obsession of book collecting in Art Objects. How do I know this? Because I have collected these books and countless others. I’ve read a few as well.

I have been collecting for years, long before I left my mother’s home, long after I left school, long after I quit working for a bookseller. It has been an obsession, but when I consider the book collectors I know—people who have been doing this for longer than I have been alive—my library seems paltry. It is, really. I estimate that I have around 2000 books, not all different titles but different editions. Again, this is nothing. I need to double the number, at least. Maybe when I have 4000 books I will feel as though I have enough to call my collection a personal library.

Moving, as I often do (too often), is never easy. I have to box the books, packing them with care, making sure none of them will shift, tape the boxes and find a way to transport them. The last move was pretty bad. I drove back and forth from each of the apartments, loading my car with as many boxes as space would allow. Then it was a walk up three floors, a box at a time. Even after a few of these trips, I still had more for the professional moves to haul. One man, a short gentleman with an ex-con’s muscles, carried four of these boxes on his back all the way up the stairs. I tipped him well.

I once thought of moving to a different state. I had several boxes shipped to North Carolina, only to decide that Chicago was my home. I had to get the books back to Chi-town. Money was tight, so I put as many as would fit in one oversized box, had it shipped, and transported the rest in giant sports bags on a series of Greyhound buses. Transferring from one bus to another—in Knoxville, Tennessee, in Kentucky, in Cincinnati, Ohio, in Indianapolis—was no small task.

Why would I do all of this? Because I have no choice.

Working for the Aspidistra Bookshop certainly helped triple my library. Hitting resale shops and used bookstores in Chicago has since become part of my regular routine. It is the only shopping I enjoy. Walking into Sears, Marshall Fields, Nordstrom’s, Nike Town or any other store that does not stock books is a miserable experience. Borders, on the other hand, is a very nice place to whittle away a few hours.

Strange as it seems to many people, I do not care for public libraries. People see these giant rooms filled with books and assume I will fell quite at home within. I don’t. I usually find them dull before very long. This should not seem confusing. After all, those books are not for sale.

This brings me to one of the more interesting aspects of my hobby. Collecting books should not be confused with actually reading them. Clearly I am never going to read every book in my library. Even if I find the money to retire tomorrow I’ll never get through them all. I am not even interested in reading every book I own. I have two copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book I have often said I do not care for. I have a nice hardback copy of Faulkner’s A Fable, a notoriously bad novel, which I have no plans to read. It took him ten years to write and I won’t give it ten minutes. But I love Faulkner, so I have this book. I don’t love Joyce, but I understand and respect the importance of his major novel, thus I have it included in my collection. Not having it would be like not having a tooth in an otherwise flawless smile.

Many of the books that seem interesting, ones that I would very much like to read, I have not picked up. God knows when I’ll get around to Jose Lezema Lima’s Paradiso or Infante’s Inferno. Someday, I hope, but first I should re-familiarize myself with Dante. And Jesus, there’s school to deal with. And work and what little social life I wish to pursue. I know that I’ll never read them all, especially if I keep collecting them at such a rate. This is something anyone who collects books understands and it bothers them not a whit. It is always more important to have books than to have read them all. I love books for so many reasons, one of which is their ability to communicate stories and ideas. I also love they way they look, feel and smell. Books have the ability to entice more than one sense. They are multifaceted and miraculous that way. There is no reason I should experience them on one level only.

People see my collection and inevitably ask, “Have you read all of these?” They want me to say “no” more than they want me to say “yes”, as perhaps that will make them feel less guilty about not having read very much. I certainly feel as though I have read very little, but this is based on the vast amount of material there is to read. Walking into a shop stuffed with books will humble anyone. That is the feeling I am trying to create at home. Well, that and awe, inspiration and respect for the books. I love reading, but I love books more.

All things considered, there are worse habits I could cultivate. I have many. Overeating, smoking, Jack Daniels. Compared to these vices, book collecting, though it costs considerable sums and eats even more space, is far better for me. It is also far better and more fun than blogging.