May 20, 2013

Unpacking My LIbrary

I'm unpacking my books for the eleventh or eleventy-seventh or umpteenth time since I left for college with 350 volumes. I've hung on to as many as I could through many cities, two divorces and other relationships, which always mean some get left behind, as a kind of tax. (Or maybe it's a surtax.) I've noticed that the books I leave behind are afterward unread and have in at least one case wound up in the wet basement of a friend, rotting. (This shows I forgive all.) I'm convinced, at last, that the books that got lost in that way just didn't make it out the door. My former wives or lovers didn't want what they kept and they didn't keep them. I keep the ones I've managed to keep because it bothers me so much to reach for a book I once owned only to discover it didn't make it across the time-space leaps from home to home, life to life. By now I have around 3000 books. The first time I lost a big chunk of my library I replaced many volumes over the next fifteen years. I was full of good intentions this time. I decided I could probably let go of a lot of contemporary fiction, reducing my library to poetry (Gilgamesh at one end, David Ferry at the other), philosophy Aristotle to Zettel, as I unbox them, the fiction that turns up is already pretty well pared down to necessary books that I may never again read in their entirety but can't imagine life without. The ones I intend to discard must still be in my other storage bin. But not enough of them. Essentials: Lots of Kafka, including as many little oddball volumes as I've been able to pick up over the years, including something called (in Wittgensteinian fashion) the Blue Octavo Notebooks and a little black selection of aphorisms put together by Roberto Calasso (whose book on Kafka is essential). All of Donald Barthelme. W. G. Sebald. An incomplete but interesting William Burroughs collection. Every translated work of Julio Cortazar. Likewise, everything in English by Borges. Almost all of Beckett. All of Italo Calvino. When do I hit the inessential? Not yet. When I find Don Delillo's Cosmopolis I'll give it another look and get rid of it. I reread The Names not long ago and didn't love it any more. (I had long thought of it as my favorite of his books.) A friend who cut his library in half when he moved insists I must not let any of them go. The main argument for keeping them all, at this point, is that I've lugged them around all my life. (Which is nearly over.) I remember when Anatole Broyard started culling out the books he didn't need anymore. But he had cancer and knew there was a definite limit. Would he ever read Philip Roth again? Not a chance. No big surprise. But he also jettisoned Kafka. His horizon was so short--shorter by far than he realized even then--that he knew he would never read The Castle again. Who would read it more than twice, anyway? In its way it's every bit as unreadable as Finnegans Wake and less entertaining. (The Wake has not turned up. I have an old Viking paperback that is half falling apart, an early hardback edition, also from Viking, Joseph Campbell's A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, and the amazing and delightful Anthony Burgess abridgement, A Shorter Finnegans Wake. Since moving in I've added the new edition from the same team that brought you the corrected Ulysses and a rival version from Oxford Classics with a list of variants in the back. All are indispensable, as are the four copies of Ulysses.) I'm surprised at how much I now value Donald Barthelme--so much so that I dearly wish I'd been able to hold on to my 1965 paperback of Come Back, Doctor Caligari (left rotting in that wet basement). I used to think he was on the too-cute side, but the hundred stories that make up his two big collections are, I'm now certain, the best fiction of their time. I'll probably let go of Vonnegut, except for Slaughterhouse Five, I start to tell myself, and then I realize I fully intend to buy the recent biography of him and the Library of America editions...there's also my whole beat literature collection, with biographies, two volumes of Kerouac letters, and minor works by Chandler Brossard and...I drew the line at Cassady's fiction. Though I am not a collector, some parts of my library are distinct and more complete than others, detachable from the main category (poetry, fiction). I could pare it away by jettisoning subsections, such as the books in philosophy on the Theory of Reference, in which I was interested thirty years ago but now believe is a subject that can be dealt with fully in one sentence. "Nouns denote things." This subsection of my library, maybe fifty books, has no important content although the spines are studded with big names, none bigger than Saul Kripke. But hold on, I own a copy of Naming and Necessity, that has to be . . . well, worth something. But here's a good example of the dilemma: I could get rid of a whole section of my library, Latin American literature. It may be a shocking admission but I don't think I am likely to read Garcia Marquez again as long as I live and I own an almost first edition of 100 Years of Solitude, as well as everything he wrote up to Innocent Erendira and other Stories, when I lost interest (although I have somehow read Love in a Time of Cholera and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, probably at y parents' house. The problem is like this: I also have a copy of his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, and I may even own--the boxes haven't revealed it yet--a copy of the Spanish version that I bought (knowing no Spanish) for the title alone, Viva Para Contrarla, similar in effect to another great Latin American title (missing from my library) Words to Say It by Maria Cardenal. Not only do I have Garcia Marquez's autobiography, however; I have a book by a friend of his that I value more than anything Marquez wrote: The Adventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. What is more, I have every book Cortazar published in English--except Blow Up all beautiful hardback editions. It would be as hard to dispense with these as it would be to let go of Italo Calvino. (I do not mention Borges, whom I continue to read.) But to deprive Alvaro Mutis of his friend Gabo makes no sense, so there it is. Finally, I have the work of Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Three Trapped Tigers, Infante's Inferno, and Guilty of Dancing the Cha Cha Cha. Because I have these books I feel no need to own any by Gary Shteyngart. Could I lose Garcia Marquez and maroon Borges, Cortazar, and Infante? "Dentro de la revolucion todo; fuera de la revolucion nada," as Castro put it. With Il Boom either you're all in, I feel, or all out. Well, I'm sure there are some books I can let go of, but the final decision will wait until I've assembled all the shelves and brought home whatever is still in the storage bin. The first books to emerge from the randomly packed boxes were the poets. Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Robert Lowell's Complete Poems(and Letters), Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Eliot, Williams, then Donne and Campion and the Elizabethans and Cavaliers in the tiny little Harvard paperback editions, Wyatt, Jonson, Marvell, Ralegh, England's Helicon...the two huge volumes of Tottel's Miscellany...Soon I'll buy all three volumes of T. S. Eliot's letters, which I look forward to spending a few gray winters reading. A lost volume of Pound's Cantos was indispensable--the Faber paperback in a black and white binding covered with ff--so I replaced it from AbeBooks, and then binged,buying a hardback of 1 - 95 that turned out on arrival to have terrific annotations in meticulous penmanship by a previous owner who gave up when Pound's antisemitism spoils the poem. My obsession with books has been for most of my life an outward, physical expression of my education and so of the self I began to create with such high hopes more than fifty years ago. It's my central vein of narcissism. I wanted to know everything I could learn (as Aristotle did, in legend) and I wanted to own the books that contained the knowledge. Now I want the books more than I want the knowledge; I want them to be on the shelf when I reach for them. So rather than discarding books, I'm plugging holes, just as I am still plugging holes in my education. But whether I keep the knowledge no longer means anything to me. There may be a few peripheral, discardable volumes of philosophy. (In one part of my mind I am tempted to throw out every volume of epistemology, but no, I spent too much time on the skeptics of various stripes, and I still love the little node of titles, among them Ignorance, Knowledge, Objective Knowledge, half a dozen volumes on truth, all futile philosophical fantasies but no less interesiing for that. I can let go of a few singletons on subjects I never really got into. Leibniz? Am I ever going to read the Leibniz-Courtauld correpsondence? But then...I have a book called Analyticity that I have never read. I've now read--really read, with the same attention I once gave to Finnegans Wake, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, so maybe a book on Analyticity would be interesting now. Likewise Leibniz--those letters are probably about physics. So it will end up that the shelves tell me, when they are full. And now I understand Borges's stories about infinite libraries. I'll never finish mine. Then, when I'm dead, no one will want it. Oh. I'll probably keep Walter Benjamin.

No comments:

Post a Comment