Wednesday, June 24, 2015
In getting ready to move from one apartment to another, smaller but fahncier [sic] one in the same building, we are winnowing books. Hundreds of them. At first the rule was take out the ones you don’t want. Foolish. Take out the ones you do want makes much more sense. So that’s what I’ve been up to, in preparation for going up to the, yes, now I’ll say it, penthouse. My wife likes to say 14E, but that strikes me as paradoxically more ostentatious than just coming out and saying it: PENTHOUSE. PENTHOUSPENTHOUSEPENTHOUSEPENTHOUSEPENTHOUSE
Oh, the books. It’s troubling and exhilarating to find out what you want to take with you and what you don’t. First of all, there’s the astonishment of how DEAD so many books are. This came to me first when I was cleaning up and clearing out my parents’ house in Rockland County, many years ago. Most of the books there were not, as the proverbs would have it, alive, but dead. There is nothing deader than a dead book. And most books are. Dead. Some of these books were books that almost surely no one in the world would ever read again. (In a terrifying, funny book of his own, “Nothing To Be Frightened Of,” about the acute thanatophobia he suffers, Julian Barnes writes about the eventual fate of every book: to have a “last reader.” But he takes only despondency from this fact–no Zen comfort.)
All those writers’ hours forced between covers, enjoying their brief lives, if they had any lives at all, and then evaporating into nothingness. It’s sad but also reassuring, about the levelling justice that time will sooner or later serve to books, and us. It’s always nice to believe you’re special, especially if you are. It’s also good to know you’re no different from everyone else.
But I had forgotten that first book-mortality experience until I started the weeding process here, a few days ago. “Vanity of vanities–all is vanity” came to embarrassing life with the establishment of my first criterion for what I would keep: Books and authors I have been lucky enough to work with, as an editor. (“Lucky enough” is like saying “14E” instead of “penthouse.”) So, for example, off to the Strand: Barbara Pym, Jonathan Coe, Angela Carter, Shirley Ann Grau, and Harrison Salisbury; up to the penthouse: Matthew Klam, Amy Bloom, Richard Dooling, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster,” Antonya Nelson.
The second criterion has been endurance, at least as I reckon it: Shakespeare, Yeats, Gatsby, Eliot, Eudora Welty, Munro (whom I was also, er, lucky enough to work with), Keats, Homer, etc. Books to which I might return and have returned, for many different reasons. Especially Yeats, again and again. “Turning and turning in a widening gyre,/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer” seems so timely, always. Right now puts me in mind of drones.
The third criterion has been–well, caprice. A book of funny names, dirty limericks, Freud. (I wasn’t sure if he belonged up there with the second criterion. He knows.)
Finally, my own books. What a surprise.
Hundreds of books will be gone. I have been pretty ruthless in general. Good memories, admiration, gratitude accompanied much of this jettisoning, but also a kind of executioner’s glee. Once you get into the rhythm of book-shedding, you want to keep up the dance. “Who am I kidding?” you say to yourself, if you hesitate. “I will never, ever read or even look at this book again.” A kind of mania sets in. It’s a purge of sorts. Flickers of sentiment and nostalgia begin to flare up; you enjoy extinguishing them as a child loves to blow the candles out.
From our penthouse, we can see the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Riverside Drive at 89th Street. Those men never had the chance to refine and distill their lives near the end. They remind you about how lucky you are. They remind you that no one stays lucky.