Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Talk: Collections and Speculations

I must point you to this little ode to book collecting. While the author makes some points and observations that I can understand, I’m a bit amused that this serious book collector has a mere 1,451 books in his library after thirteen years of combing New York’s used shops and the internet. Perhaps I am a bit more impulsive in my purchases, as my nineteen years of obsessive hording have netted me somewhere close to 4,000 books, give or take a few. I say give or take as I do not know for certain; I am not such the nerd that I have made a spreadsheet, as the author of this piece confesses to having done. Maybe I ought to? Eh, life’s too short and this need not be a geeky pissing contest. Anyway, he's got me beat on signed copies.

I agree with statements like this:

“I love looking through the bookcases of anyone’s house I’m in, and I love showing off my library to visitors. It’s a way of making those connections between so many different writers and people.”

I also love to show people the library and to recommend and even (gasp!) lend a book out from time to time, but here’s where I differ:

"Things I don’t like:
• ex-library copies
• books with the owner’s name written in it, unless the owner is a writer I like
• bookplates
• books inscribed to a friend from the gift-giver
• books inscribed by an author to someone who isn’t me (though I own a couple)
• paperbacks
• ugly books—you know the ones—books that look out of place in a nicely-arranged bookcase—I find the Penguin paperbacks with the lower half colored that nauseatingly bright orange to be pretty repellent

Sure, I like a book to look nice (by the way, Mr. Wilson, the all caps bullet point is equally as obnoxious as a gold sticker on a dust jacket), but I like used books with personal inscriptions or the former owner’s name written on the inside. I makes me feel as if I own a piece of someone, some stranger. They let these books into their lives briefly before discarding them, and now I have them on the shelf. Maybe it was gift from an ex-lover, an ex-friend, a no longer spoken to relative. Maybe their estranged parent tried to lure them back with a copy of Letters to a Young Poet? All these discarded memories are now mine. They wash up on my shores and come to rest. I keep them safe and let them know that, while their former owners rejected them, they have a place in my library. Imagine the stories they could tell? I have a used copy of Chronos by Felipe Alfau that had stuffed inside the pages a flyer for an art exhibit in Paris, circa the late 1980s. Where else has that book been? Are my books more traveled than I? Have they been around the globe? Have they seen the sun set from the deck of a massive ship or did they sleep in the purses of anxious women on trans-continental flights?

I will never know for sure, but I can speculate. In a sense, my books tell two stories: the one by the author and the one by the former owner. I believe in the reader response phenomenology and the convergence of reader, text, and author, so the idea, of course, fascinates me. Anyway, when story ideas run thin, I could, conceivably, use these used books as a means of inspiration. Now that's the ecstasy of influence!

Thanks for listening.