Monday, April 02, 2007

From the Bunker

Dorothy Parker once started a book review—I think of Kerouac, I’m sure unfavorably—with a reference to her good friend Robert Benchley. She said that Benchley dreaded walking into bookstores because the tall shelves stuffed with hardbacks only served as grim reminder of how little he had read. Benchley was by no means an uneducated, poorly read individual, he was merely commenting on the vast amount of available reading material measured against the short expanse of the average person’s life.

I recently came into possession of the New York Review of Books website and, subsequently, the paper catalogue. I always knew about this press and their collection of esoteric titles but now that I finally succumbed and purchased some books (Osip Mandelstam and a collection of Russian poets who met at the infamous Stray Dog Cabaret) I have the catalogue sitting at my desk begging me to give it a glance. And I do, most every morning. Within its pages are titles and authors I have never heard of, as well as some I know, although the New York Review’s backlist contains titles by people like Italo Svevo and Georges Simenon that I never knew existed. The New York Review is certainly a good place to nab some otherwise hard-to-find titles and explore continents of exciting books. But I can’t help feeling like Benchley.

There is more in my current library (last count around 3,000 books) then I’ll ever read. Even if I spent the rest of my life reading, I’d never finish them all because the library is constantly growing. Yesterday I spent a solid $3 in various resale shops and came home with six books (Ana Castillo, a hardback anthology of obscure world poetry, a Greek writer whose name escapes me, another copy of The Decameron, another copy of The Odyssey, and a nice paperback by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o). The day before I drove to E-town for two schoolbooks (on publishing) and then to 57th Street for a poetry anthology for my other class. In total, I bought nine books this weekend. This is better than average, but I consistently pick up cheap paperbacks at resale shops, as well as slightly more expensive (but still better than the new stores charge) books at used shops. It’s the only way to build a library on a budget. I do buy new books from time to time when the need is too great. I like the hunt of a bookstore and only cross over to cyberspace when it seems impossible to find something like Mikhail Bulgakov’s letters and journals (which I had to have). So I’ll never get through them all because the library will surely grow faster than I can read.

This is exciting most of the time. And who cares if never read every damn book? A functioning library need not be read from top to bottom. Anyway, I’ve always thought it important to know about books even if you don’t read every one. Nevertheless, I am starting to wonder if Benchley had a point.

Saturday I walked into Powell’s, right after spending almost an hour at the Seminary Co-Op. When I tried to explore the poetry wall, I started to feel a little overwhelmed. Too much. Why, one has to ask, do any of us wish to contribute to it all? Is it egoism or a genuine belief in the value of our voice and its importance in reaching some sort of audience? Wait, are those the same things?

I left the store and drove north to my apartment, made lunch, made tea and opted to begin one of my newly purchased books, a charming little memoir by way of expanded lectures on the publishing industry written by Jason Epstein, veteran of the business, co-founder of the New York Review (serendipity!), name-dropper (though he’s earned the right), and once incarcerated husband who refused to reveal his wife’s sources about a piece written on Karl Rove. I sank into the text, having fun reading and not worrying about not writing. Before long Epstein’s book offered some inspiring and terrifying ideas about the future of publishing, ideas that center around a tech revolution of on-demand printing and the old guard of publishing houses morphing into mere collections of editors and promoters no longer having to incur the cost of printing and storage. While the idea of books sold almost entirely online is exciting (cutting out the middleman/publisher is probably a good thing for writers) it is a dramatic change and fear is often part and parcel of the dramatic change. The future of books is going to change, but books themselves will still be around, that I am sure of.

But what if I’m wrong? Am I building a library or what will someday be a museum?

This love affair with books is for life. The love affair with writing them… maybe less so. The interest in publishing… who knows. Either way, I find that after over thirteen years of book collecting I cannot sleep in a room absent printed and bound pages. Maybe that’s it—maybe I’m not so much building a library so much as building walls.