Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ripping Yarns

I used to tear books in half for a living. Managing inventory for an indie bookstore during the 1990s, one of my tasks was "stripping" the mass market paperbacks. This entails, for those not in the trade, ripping the front cover off to return to the publisher in exchange for credit, then tearing the book in half (or into thirds or quarters, depending on the thickness of the tome) and trashing/recycling the remaining paper. I was often asked, Aren't you disturbed on some level, destroying all those books? Answer: Yes, I am disturbed on some level, but it's not from destroying all those books.

You might try and excuse this blasphemy by saying, well, they weren't sacred texts. It was a lot of unsold Danielle Steele and Zane Grey and Margaret Truman and Allan Folsom and Robert James Waller. But I'd rip up classics as well as over-ordered bestsellers -- not all those high school kids pick up what they need for Required Reading, after all, and there was no reason to keep stock of an extra 200 copies of The Awakening until the next fall, not when we needed credit for twelve cases of the new John Grisham novel, due to land come springtime.

That's how the book business works: We got only so much room for only so many books.

As of this writing, my library is comprised of just over 500 titles. (I know that number because, being disturbed on some level, I grabbed a cup of coffee and spent a couple-three minutes doing an inventory count, just like in the old days.) This is as small as my collection has been in many years. I reduced it significantly prior to our move to Birmingham, by somewhere in the neighborhood of forty percent, weeding out books I'd read decades prior, or might not read until decades hence, or might not read ever. It wasn't an entirely painless process, I will admit. Then again, neither was moving. We're talking four flights of stairs, here. Halfway through the day, I found myself wishing: If I knew which boxes my Really Treasured Books were in, I'd set the rest on fire, right down there in the street in full view of God and everybody, and only call the firemen to hose the ashes into the sewer.

My library has routinely expanded and contracted by way of constant acquisitions and occasional purges. I've tried to keep my collection bound by available shelf space, but this hasn't always worked; books tend to end up here and there, in decorative piles. But the purges accomplish more than clearing floor-space: as a dedicated apartment dweller, I never assumed permanence. Meaning, at some point, all that stuff has to be picked up and moved again, so why have more than I'm willing to carry? It's not so much about shelf space as it is about life space.

My sister Dena taught me to read when I was four, using Heckle & Jeckle comic books. (I disliked being read to, wanting instead to read for myself -- a characteristic I still have, pretty funny from a guy who came up with Southern Writers Reading as the eponymous title for an onstage literary event.) I was the unofficial class librarian throughout fourth grade, each week quickly raising my hand to volunteer for the task of dusting and tidying the industrial metal bookshelves that lined one wall of our classroom. I majored in English for five years, then found work in bookstores for the next thirteen -- and frankly got a much better education, taking home books about social and scientific theories, religion, histories, biographies, even a bit of literature now and then. I am, in short, no stranger to the joys that books provide.

I used to assume that a healthy personal library had to be a steadily growing thing -- it was a physical manifestation of the owner's mind, or at least a window into it. Books in that sense were trophies of achievement, each shelf the equivalent of a sheepskin certificate, even if it was only from the School of Nurse Romances. A library was evidence of the worthwhile shape of your life, and the more you had, the better, the faster, the smarter. But as somebody who hasn't lived in one particular place for more than a handful of years, my practical need to purge physical objects outweighs any urge to showcase what I've read in the past in order to perhaps prove to visitors that I can carry on an interesting conversation (because I often can't, anyway).

Buddhist monks spend hours, days, weeks creating those intricate mandalas out of colored sand, only to brush them away (ceremoniously, but still) after they finish. So, I wonder: What is this library but a multicolored mandala, a dreamcatcher, a skein of flexible ideas grouped here only temporarily, in this form, before again taking to the wind? Why hang onto books? Why even try? When Sonny Brewer and I were chasing dollars with used and rare tomes at Over the Transom, we'd occasionally receive a beloved copy of something, like that first state edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, or that full collection of Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese ghost stories -- and as tempting as it was to keep such things for ourselves, we had a great notion: we were only a temporary transit lounge. We were just keeping those books until their rightful owners came to collect them. We loved them, but we also loved seeing them go. (That is, after all, another way in which the book business works.)

At the end of Fahrenheit 451, there are almost no books left in the world, only people who remember those books. But it is more than memory, it is life itself. I am Plato's Republic, says one character, introducing others: I want you to meet Jonathan Swift [...] and this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr Albert Schweitzer. And so do we all become Spartacus, one book at a time.

I suppose it all boils down to a rephrasing of an old cliche: When I croak, I won't take any of these books with me. I'll only take what I've read. And what a gift that will be.

[This was a response to The Wily Blogger who will, I hope, one day reinstate her wily blogging.]

Monday, June 3, 2013

V. (1963)

Now and then, it takes a few honest tries before I can get certain books to fit inside my skull. Square pegs, round holes, we will sell no wine before its time, all that. It took several attempts over a handful of years before Blood Meridian screwed down in there, for example. Same with Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and, for reasons I am unwilling to discuss, World War Z.

Thomas Pynchon's debut novel V. was no different, first time I picked it up in 1990, shortly after finishing Vineland. Reading it now for the 6th or 7th time (though it's my first go-round in over a decade), it's somewhat easy to forget why -- I'm now well-acquainted with the basic structure, and am no longer fooled when Pynchon goes off on some labyrinthine philosophical/scientific/pseudo-historical tangent, or introduces, often with fanfare or at least an elaborate pun, some new character who then all but disappears for the rest of the novel. Like many first-time readers, I found myself unduly vexed by these basic Pynchonian stylistic nuances and peccadilloes, which are present in even his most streamlined narratives. It's a little like being a novice sailor or kook surfer -- first, frustrating impression will be that a body may move in only one direction: the way of the wind or the wave. But an old salt knows energy moves in multiple directions; you take your pick and plot your course. The wind, the waves, those are just symptoms of a power ready to be harnessed.

So Profane's aimless drift and Stencil's misdirected quest are now Beaten Paths; instead of worrying over the map, I can just enjoy the scenery: those smaller details that spread out from all angles, often telegraphing ideas that will be expanded upon, or at least queerly mirrored, in novels to come. At the forefront is Pynchon's morbid fascination with self-dehumanization, which is far more creepy than the aspect of being dehumanized by a collective, whether bureaucratic or conspiratorial, under the aims of social control. In V., the characters are ready to take matters into their own hands: No one wants to be who they are, and are haunted by ideas of unrealistic, unholy perfection. There are no attempts at self-discovery or even improvement beyond the shallow, the physical -- only yearnings for others, unattainable Others.

And forget the Machine Age, these characters are entering a Machine Consciousness. Pulses and hearts tick like frantic clockwork. Spongy brains whir. Women seduce automobiles. Eyeballs contain secret sprockets and gears. (Pynchon didn't start dabbling with steampunk in Against the Day, he started it here, before the practice even had a genre title.) But we are not machines, with parts that can be swapped out when they fail; we are humans, and there's only so much improving we can do before time moves us off the playing field. Herbert Stencil, searching for a wispy historical phantom known only by the titular initial, has at best a vague grasp of this essential concept. But only because he is obsessed with history, and possessed of a knack to always begin his investigations just as the principles from whom he most needs answers all disappear behind the layered veils of passing time.

But I, like the novel itself, digress ...

I used to pick up every book with the fevered intention to finish, like it was some kind of assignment, a grade I'd get in Heaven. No more of that crap, here in my old-ish age. I'm not shy about putting a book down, for good -- or even reaching for the trash can, if necessary. Novels better not get bogged down in rambling detail, or neglect atmosphere at the risk of moving too quickly, or be too clever, or have stupid dialogue, or obvious or strained humor, or be written by a clod who uses exclamation points, or ever, ever feel the need to mention a character's last experience in noninvasive lighting.

But every now and then, I put a book down not for any aesthetic such reasons, however petty, but because I know I'm not ready for it. It's not you, I tell the book, it's me. Still, I often wonder about my fascination with the prose of Thomas Pynchon, why I always stick with it when I really prefer pulp-era science fiction or crime or weird horror, no apologies. Let's face it, I ought not like it. I don't like Tom Robbins or David Foster Wallace or most of what gets labeled as "post-modern literature." I've put down a lot of those books; their challenges and rewards aren't for me. But I found a kindred spirit in Pynchon for some reason, despite the stupid names he bestows upon his characters. And I keep coming back to these novels, time and again, which is unusual for me (short stories by Bradbury and Lovecraft are one thing, but I plow through a novel once, I'm typically finished. Friends who are driven to re-read Austin and Fitzgerald and Twain on a cyclical schedule are gifted with an impulse I lack). There's an scene in V. where a painter struggles with a painting because the light keeps shifting in the room, but Pynchon uses that to illustrate how our perception of art (among other things) changes over time, and we should use that to examine ourselves. He's got something there.

Then again, maybe it's as simple as a pattern set early in my reading life by The Hobbit and its obscure, out-of-print sequel, The Lord of the Rings. Those books involve long, intertwining plot lines, not to mention a ComicCon's-worth of weirdly named characters. (Against the nomenclature of what seems like nineteen-thousand generations of kings-in-exile, Russian novels are cakewalks.) But I loved them, I loved them from the first pages, and when I was about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring, I tried to talk my sister into reading them too. But, nah, she'd already tried, and gave up just a few chapters into The Hobbit. Too many dwarves, too many weird names. This really disappointed me, that part of every reader that wants to share the experience of a deeply-loved book. And I suppose I vowed then that I would never let anything so trifling as a menagerie of characters, however all bizarrely named, get in the way of a great reading experience. That's the only explanation I have for why I forgive Pynchon all these insanely stupid names. Dewey Gland, after all. Jeebus.

I was operating on the motto Make It Literary, a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.
     -- Thomas Pynchon, on the subject of his early writing, from the introduction to Slow Learner

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Outer Sanctum

Yesterday, I underwent part 2 (of 4) of a root canal procedure. Like many folks who take a dip in something unpleasant but inevitable, I spent part of the experience trying to imagine I was elsewhere. For some, the triggering horror might be a plane ride, a visit to the proctologist/tax accountant, or a birthday party involving clowns, but nothing has me meditating after a Happy Place quite like the prospect of spending a couple hours drooling in a dentist's chair. (Nothing against dentists, personally, mind you -- it's just that, well, I abhor going to the dentist. Particularly when there's a root canal involved.)

Such as it is, my Happy Place has morphed over the years. As a small child, I thought simply of flying through space. Later, I envisioned the white sand stretch of western Gulf Shores frequently stomped upon during my teenage years. (Occasionally I tried to imagine myself surfing along said beach, which never worked, partly because the closest I've thus far come to surfing is listening to The Ventures while trying to balance on my Bongo Board, but mostly because surf-able waves do not occur in Gulf Shores unless a hurricane is coming -- not the best backdrop for a Happy Place.) More lately, it's been a particular summer afternoon, apple-green in memory: fishing at a remote lake alongside old friends, Appalachian hillocks looming ahead, high yellow sunlight splintering off the water, impossible to detect whether or not the bobber is actually bobbing, not that it matters.

So there I was (as all great adventure stories begin, or at least all decently exaggerated ones). Drooling in the dentist's chair. But just when I started concentrating my astral travel back to that lake, that molten sunlight, maybe that beach -- a sudden shifting of space, a sound expected in one room but coming from another -- I found myself instead back home, on our sun-toasted front porch, sitting flat on my butt on the pollen-dusted boarding, scratching the belly of our cat, Audrey, who rolls from one lazy side to the other, not a meaningful thought in either of our heads. A domestic scene from merely a day or two prior.

The deck was the deciding factor in choosing the apartment. Jutting forward from the upper story of a Lovecraft-era quadruplex itself situated on a blunt rise, it provides a crow's nest perspective of a neighborhood intersection in Birmingham's culture-quilt Southside heart. We roost out there every evening, sipping coffee, watching vehicles stutter past the stop signs as if in confusion to traffic etiquette, much less laws; dog walkers negotiate their distracted pets down the sidewalks; people spill in and out of the corner convenience store in various states of clarity. Occasional fist batons with accompanying chin music, as one driver nearly scrapes another. The OCD landscaping hobby of a homeowner across the way. A squirrel, scrabbling in the grass below until exhuming a pecan, buried the winter prior. A cluster of skateboarders, spotting each other relay-style through the intersection, reached at no small speed thanks to the incline of 16th Avenue. We perch Halloween masks in the upper corners to dissuade pigeons from nesting above our heads. I grab the camera and photograph thunderheads, when the sky is right. Audrey typically joins us for a sniff of the summer air, at least until a vehicle honks or squeals brakes, at which point she prefers the indoors.

But for now, Audrey is sun-dumb, barely remembering to eye the nearby branches for potential bird-prey, too drowsy to do much but get scratched. I know how she feels; I can't do much myself, but the scratching. Then I look up. There's Jaime. Seated in her chair, usually surveying the intersection below but right now smiling straight at me. Her eyes are behind sunglasses, but the way her face is shaped, I know that bright look, when she's caught me having a private moment, receded into my own world, chasing some thought or idea, daydreaming. She likes to sneak up on me like that, as it were. Fair being fair, I like to be caught. That's all love has to be, two people catching each other, being caught, in tandem, forever. Well, that's all I need, anyway -- especially when that smile is involved.

After a while, I totally forgot that I was at the dentist, latex fingers holding my mouth open, a drill carving out my tooth, and I began to doze off.

A lot has changed over the past couple-so years, good luck, bad luck, who knows -- but this I know for sure: All of it lead at least this far, to here, this Happier Place. And I am thankful.

It's good to be just plain happy; it's a little better to know that you're happy; but to understand that you're happy, and to know why and how ... and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing; well, that is beyond happiness, that is bliss.
     -- Henry Miller