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The Pleasure and Pain of Owning Books

“My books (which do not know that I exist)
Are as much a part of me as this visage
With its gray hair at the temples and gray eyes
That I look for vainly in glass surfaces
And wonderingly run my curved hand over.
And not without some logical bitterness
It occurs to me that the essential words
That most express me are not in my own writings
But in those books that don’t know who I am.
Better that way. The voices of the dead
Will utter me forever.”
–Jorge Luis Borges

There should be a word for that particular kind of stress associated with moving. Some -itis or -enia or -obia. Packing up cardboard boxes full of your random shit and displacing it across the state, one rental to another. The last few days, having U-Hauled myself from Livingston to Helena, I’ve been unpacking my books. Puzzled by the new surroundings, my dog can’t stop shadowing me room to room, nosing at my hip as I sit alphabetizing titles. Now and then I’ll show him a spine. “Dostoyevsky. That’s a pretty good one.” If moving is an illness, moving paperbacks must be a kind of cancer. Merck Manual symptomology includes sore lower back and melancholia, bleary-eyes and red wine hangovers. Patient complains of angst and anomie. The doctor behind his clipboard raises a surprised eyebrow. “So you’re a reader?” Indeed, and brother, we’re a dying breed. Another generation or two, me and thee will have gone the way of the dodo. They’ll be putting us in museums.

What I’m concerned about now, however (two glasses into a bottle of seven dollar merlot) is, for god’s sake, why? Why do I have all these goddamned books? Why does anybody? They’re expensive, they weigh you down, they’re cumbersome. Writing them, reading them, treasuring them. This day and age, it feels antiquated. Quaint. Especially now, with all the information in the world a click and a digital beep-boop-bop away, why all these ponderous rows of bound paper? What’s the illness, and what’s the cure?

I should start with sentimentality. I’ve had some of these books as long as I’ve had my birthmarks. They’re a part of me, and I couldn’t bear to part with them. A tattered row of paperbacks that, collectively, first made me want to become a writer. Maybe they will again. Slipping them back into their new slots, I keep looking for some slight residue of magic. In second grade I discovered Louis L’amour, and I still have The First Fast Draw. I cannot begin to describe the fantastic thrill I felt as I first watched the hero (his name is irrelevant, all L’amour’s heroes are interchangeable) file the metal tang off his pistol barrel on his way to becoming the world’s first pistolero. “Try to steal my woman will you.” Next to the westerns there’s a row of fantasy novels, Le Guin to Tolkien, and further down, a predictable line of Stephen Kings. Dragons to demons, these are books of utter imagination, pure sorcery. Anything – absolutely anything – could happen. Good guys are good and bad guys are bad and everybody gets what they deserve. For a bookish, nine or ten year old boy, there is no notion more satisfying than the thought that there is indeed justice in the world and that you, naturally (as the unavoidable hero of your own ongoing narrative), might be just the guy to mete it out.

After sentimentality, there’s utility. There are books that serve a real purpose. Despite their heft, these are the books I don’t mind moving at all. My Webster’s Dictionary, 10th Edition, for instance. I’ve never been sure why more people don’t read dictionaries for fun. All these unfamiliar words. All these tiny little doors opened into previously unimagined possibilities. Another word for navel, for instance, is omphalos. Who’d have guessed? It’s circled in red ink. And to defenestrate (circled in blue) is to throw out the window. Apophasis is an allusion to something by denying its mention. “Don’t even talk to me about my last job.” Shelved next to my dictionary is my Shakespeare, also good for browsing, especially if your professional ego’s feeling slightly inflated, if you’ve been a little high on your own horse. You think you know how to write? Hah! Try reading Hamlet again, buster. It’s always kind of tickled me that the best writing in the English language fits under one cover, one name. Next to Shakespeare, the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (too academic for my tastes, but still useful) and then the unavoidable thesaurus which honestly, I haven’t used in years, eons, ages, generations, a coon’s age.

Similarly useful, albeit in not such a Calvinist, baldly utilitarian sense, are the artful novels, the influences, the books I can’t stop reading. There are pages of my Vintage Paperback edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for instance, that I’ve read forty or fifty times. Such an extraordinary accomplishment, that book. “And so these parties divided upon that midnight plain, each passing back the way the other had come, pursuing as all travelers must inversions without end upon other men’s journeys.” Michael Ondaatje occasionally hits the same resonances (prosody married to profundity) and James Salter is a master at Hemingway-esque compression and oblique suggestion. His short stories are models of the form. Paul Auster and Cynthia Ozick and Tom McGuane. Joan Didion and Kafka and Annie Dillard. Every writer has his or her deities. It’s a shameful secret of the trade that every full sentence you put down has already been influenced a hundred different ways, cobbled together out of a mishmash of other books and authorial voices, a hobo’s stewpot of roiling melancholy and mawkishness, sentence structure and cynicism. I could no more give up these books than I could give up both kidneys.

Then there are the books that I haven’t read but should. You keep thinking, next weekend. Procrastination, it seems, is its own art form. Most of these books I’ve bought out of a vague notion of self-improvement. More in the Stephen Hawking sense than the Dr. Phil sense. Writers should know a little bit about everything, right? I’ve always been weak in the sciences. Ergo, here comes a history of light. Next to it, a history of DNA. Further down the row, books of anthropology and ecology, something about fossil hunting; another one about the NSA and eavesdropping.

Sentimentality, utility, procrastination. Then there’s simple ego. I have shelves full of my own titles, multiple copies and editions. My novel, Last Year’s River, in hardcover and paperback. One of these days, by god, I’ll publish another one. Both editions of my treatise on the ethics of hunting, A Quiet Place of Violence. People still seem to dig it, and somebody should probably reissue it in paperback. Rows of the books I’ve edited over the years. The Big Sky Reader; The Best of Big Sky Journal Fly-Fishing, The Best of Montana’s Short Fiction (hardcover and paperback). It’s a kind of exhibitionism, I suppose. Here’s my ego on display. Really, I should probably box them away. Maybe tomorrow.

On the shelf above my own books are the titles and editions that will, or should, survive me. As painful as it is to imagine, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, most of these treasured pieces of my personality would be tossed out with the wooden tennis rackets. (Does anyone else really need a paperback edition of The Two Towers with the cover missing?) I’m too penurious to be a true collector. If given a choice between a new hardcover for twenty-five dollars and a used paperback for twenty-five cents, there is no choice. I’m interested less in the physical artifact of the book than I am in the content. Nevertheless, over the years I’ve picked up a handful of gems that might eventually make their way onto E-Bay. Signed firsts of Rick Bass’s The Watch (still the best thing he’s ever written), Annie Proulx’s Close Range and Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky. Others, less valuable but just as meaningful. A tattered hardcover of Robert Frost’s collected poems that has made its way down to me through the family ladder. A hardcover, late edition of Hemingway’s short stories. Then there are the breakup books, those titles that came my way via old girlfriends. In the getting to know you stage, you always pass along movies, music and books. “You’ve just got to read this.” Then after the inevitable bad scene of tears and accusations, the strongest reminders of the good times are the titles. At least I got Pam Houston out of the deal.

At the end of the day, and despite my own self-recriminations (all this money, all this effort, and to what end?), perhaps a personal library needs no justification. What’s the alternative, after all? Outside these book lined walls, there’s nothing but confusion. The culture at large has set itself directly against the slow, contemplative rigors and pleasures of reading. The self-involved cynicism of a David Spade and the cocky self-righteousness of a Dick Cheney. We’re still running out of oil and the ice caps are still melting, carbon in the atmosphere and a moron in the whitehouse. I’ve got my Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, and so, at least for the moment, can ignore the fact that there are those in the world so obtuse as to actually stop and think about Pat Robertson. The FCC and the pope are tramping up and down in quaint little footraces of irrelevancy, arbiters of profanity and birth control; meanwhile, there’s still AIDS and SARS and bird flu and Ron Jeremy peddling penis enlargements on late night television. The world keeps spinning like a top, denying entropy and inertia to, yes, pick up speed. It’s only a matter of time until we hit terminal velocity, until we are each and all flung out to the void like toddlers off a Satanic, high-geared carousel.

Finally, I have to agree with Don Delillo, that writing (and, by extension, reading) is a form of personal freedom. “It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.” I have to give credence to the words of C.S. Lewis who wrote that literature is a series of windows, even of doors. “Good reading can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it.’ We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs….even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved…Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality…In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.”

It seems that we should treasure our books if only because the alternative – a life in modernity without the possibility of escape, without reading – is too bleak to contemplate.

About Allen M. Jones

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  1. Absolutely right and perfectly written. Must be some kind of reader/writer dude.

  2. This is a beautifully written piece which certainly struck a chord with me. I suffer from the same wonderful disease. I’d add Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to the list. I’ve read it at least fifty times and it still moves me with the beauty of its prose. My Complete Works of Shakespeare, given to me by my stepmom on my graduation from high school, went with me to Viet Nam. There I read it cover to cover three times. Henry V gained new meaning for me there.
    Thanks for the memories.

  3. They can have my first editon hardcover of Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

    Read on, Allen, read on!

  4. Books!! they are like a heaven for me Too. The latin prose and spanish inquisitions are facinating and intrigueing as well. Nice to hear that we Book collectors have a heart for someting that when electricty fails to be, the book will take us where we want to go, no demanding and always puts a smile on my face to read.Love Non Fiction and the Old West..YEP Come on Slow Lighting Gittup..:)

  5. A scroll bar just doesn’t feel as good as turning a page

  6. Brodie Farquhar

    Best bumper snicker:
    He who dies with the most books wins!
    Having hauled boxes and boxes of books (not to mention 30 years of newspaper clips) around the country, I understand this disease all too well.
    Twain, Dickens, Tolkein, Abbey, Sandburg, Bradbury, Marquez, Steinbeck, Least Heat Moon, Conroy, Dillard, Heller, Vonnegut, …
    So little time, so many books.

  7. Maureen Shaughnessy

    Allen, welcome to Helena — glad to see another writer has joined our wonderful city with his books/library and love of reading. Great article! Like others who have commented above, I, too am infected with the disease of too-many-books and not enough time to read them all as many times over as I’d like. You could be describing my bookshelf except that I long ago gave away all of my Stephen King paperbacks.

    My big tattered annotated Shakespeare is one of my treasures, handed down to me from my father who taught Shakespeare in college before I was born. I love this particular book because it has my own dad’s annotations in the margins and because he read to me from the bard’s plays when I was a little girl.

    My husband and I also have boxes and boxes of books in our tiny one-car garage (we never park there — that building off the back alley is strictly for storage of the non-auto type these days) and dozens of shelves loaded with the books I love best — the ones I refer to many times and the ones I read for pure pleasure, tactile enjoyment and inspiration.

    Why have books in the electronic age when almost every work of reference, fact or fiction is available online? Because the computer might die on me. Because my internet connection might fail. Because theelectricity might be interrupted for who knows how long? Because I like to sit in the garden and read. Because I like to take books with me on our travels. Because I like to touch them, turn the pages, smell the old-paper smell. Nothing can ever substitute for my books.

    Whenever I meet someone new, enter their private home domain, one of the first things I do is tilt my head and browse the titles on their bookshelves. It says alot about a person (as in the Borges quote you included in your article) — books (or the utter lack of books) in someone’s home tell me more about them than any other aspect of their home. When I see someone with stacks of books here and there, on tables, next to beds, on shelves and piled on the floors … then I know I have met a kindred spirit.

  8. Your good piece is amusing for its timing — I spent a better part of my weekend building shelves in my garage in order not to part with the 18 or so boxes of books, still tagged with shipping labels and marked categories (“victorian novels”) that don’t fit in my apartment. Every time I go through them I come face to face with my inability to part with very many of them – and am reminded of why I keep them around.

  9. Allen, (to whom I owe a letter; speaking of procrastination. . .) a great piece, with great comments following. I too suffer from this affliction, dwelling for too long in a house now at the risk of overflowing with books I’ve picked up along the way. I bring home orphan books the way some folks collect strays. . . for all the reasons you mention. Can’t imagine moving at this point.

    I remember after my mother passed away my sister and I dove in and worked our way through a household full of the things left behind a life lived long in the same place. We performed triage on many things, shuffling stuff off to Goodwil and the Salvation Army. Then we divided the furniture. But then it was time to deal with the family library. It was a long task, done with the support of wine and storytelling, each of us bargaining for favorite volumes, or reminiscencing about what different books meant to us. It was by far the most debated task of the estate.

    Ah, books. There is a timelessness to them. While they may seem antiquated, they are vessels which contain so much. While they clutter my home, they take up far less room than my other collecting affliction, old heavy iron woodworking equipment. My wife now shudders when she sees me pull in with the trailer loaded with some treasure. As I keep telling her. . . there are worse things I could be out doing. . . .

  10. Caroline Gregorio

    Dear Allen,

    This is great–thank you. It made me happy to read it. I have “baby brain” and am also not the best writer, so I can’t think of the words of how it made me feel other than to say it made me smile in parts–you can be quite funny–and elevated me out of today’s mundanity of changing diapers, doing the laundry, and vacuuming.

    I hope you’re settling in to Helena and your new job. Hi to Henry from Henry.


  11. What a perfectly timed essay. Still dusty with the efforts of moving, myself, I sat all too often thumbing through long-neglected though not forgotten volumes, reminiscing of the profound differences these words have made in my life. I don’t have the talent to articulate it, but you do, and did. Thank you.

  12. Thank you for a wonderful, meaningful article. When I retired and came back to Wyoming, my son’s had to move my books in a 6 horse trailer! They admit they will argue when I am gone…..over who has to take my books!
    Heidi was my first love, and I have every edition I have been able to find, and still read one of them occasionally.
    Louis L’Amour relaxes me still when I’m worried or upset, I have them all several times over.
    With a book I can go where I want, do what I like, or be who I’d like to be, no matter what century of lacation.
    Thank you for a touching remeinder why I am grateful to be a reader and book lover.

  13. angelo d'andre

    Allen, you nailed it – again. Last year I moved into my condo with a floor to ceiling bookcase sweeping the width of one side of the living room. So cool to have my books in one place near me resting, waiting to called upon, waiting to serve again. I have had the C.S. Lewis quotation up on my wall for years. But this is the first time I have seen it quoted. I feel a certain kinship with you and the others who have responded. Grazie. Ciao.
    Ange D’Andre

  14. Great article and subject, good writing which struck a chord with me. Love my dictionaries, from on line OED to two Websters Unabridged Second Editions.

    Many of my books are so highlighted, tabbed and used that they’re only valuable to me. Others, like the Websters, sit in prominent places in my home. Whenever I go to someone’s house, I first look for the books.

  15. I always know I’m in trouble when whoever is helping me move asks, “Why do you have all these books?” It’s either that or my cowboy boots/clothes. That’s why I prefer to move myself. My first husband suggested that I get rid of them. He shut up when I replied that perhaps he could unload all those archaic pieces of plastic he called record albums as well.
    Those books are my friends, my refuse, my respite, my supreme indulgence. To lose them would be to lose a limb.
    Thank you for knowing.

  16. Well, Allen, you mention “suffering” the affliction which so many of us know so well. Perhaps it would be better to “indulge” the affliction and rid ourselves of the guilt we feel when our dearest friends offer to help us load and unload boxes and boxes of books. If they’re our friends, they understand perfectly.

    Seven years ago my husband’s grandfather died and left his earthly wealth (the kind you can deposit in a bank) to his daughter and son, but neglected to include his two grandchildren in his will. Unshaken by this obvious oversight, we emptied the contents of his house: 150 years of family heirlooms, Civil War letters, WWI War Bonds posters, colonial era china and lace, a spinning wheel brought from England, and……books. About 2,000 of them give or take a couple hundred. What a wonderful trove the library was, and how fortunate that no one else in the family was interested in them. We trucked them across the country from Ohio to Western Colorado, and had the inrivaled pleasure of their company in our home. Some have been given away, others sold, but many are housed in an antique barrister case in our living room. Gilt spines glisten in the morning sunlight, muted shades of leather blend together on the shelves as though they were part of a perfect recipe held dear in Grandmother’s cookbook. We know them better by their choices in books, and we are grateful for this legacy which has far more value to us than anything else we could have inherited.

    As book lovers, we suffer, nay, indulge the affliction of weary backs when we move them, but feel the comfort of those volumes and are never without their company. We have our stacks of “Must Read”s and pray for the power to go out long enough to begin to enjoy them.

  17. I think all this book pride indulgence is abhorrent. And you should be ashamed of reading Stephen King.