If you go home with a guy and he doesn’t have books, don’t fuck him.
That’s the meme, anyway, attributed to John Waters and vectored by Roger Ebert via Twitter and passed along again by some guy you met once who friended you on Facebook. Like most things, the truth is reduced to a platitude.
I’m smitten with my Kindle app, the free books, the portability, the readability. Without ever stepping foot into a building, I can download ebooks from the Boston Public Library. There are no overdue fines. Or parking tickets. When the books are due, they disappear. If I want to keep reading, I simply download them again.
It’s like Amazon without a credit card. Almost.
In his profile photo, he’s standing in front of a bookshelf full of beautiful books, most of them hardcover, histories, biographies, non-fiction, but also a few novels, D.H. Lawrence and James, not Henry, but P.D. And not one of her oh-so-eligible Adam Dalgliesh tales (imagine HIS OkCupid profile!) but rather her post-apocalyptic cultural critique. This is one serious dude!
And there, right behind his head, only visible in the enlarged version of his photo, is the book I’m currently reading. The book that makes me laugh out loud on the train. The book that sends me to the dictionary. The book that makes me re-read sections for the pure pleasure of hearing the voice on the page, of enjoying the syntax, the tango of words and ideas. The author is dead, recently passed, so I want to reach out to the guy on the profile, if only to talk about the book.
(I wrote him, of course. Never heard back.)
His profile says he travels frequently: Venezuela, Vietnam, Vesuvius, a whole alphabet of NPR vacation spots, places to which he says he brought clean water, justice, and poetry. Okay, I’m just kidding about that last because in the Maslow scheme of things, poetry’s just not that urgent. It makes me wonder if I’ve wasted my life. It’s tough to say, yeah, I brought art to the starving. I healed the sick with words. I’m no Jesus but, in a way, I’m jealous. While I’ve been writing, making art for a teeny tiny sliver of the masses, he’s been giving himself to the less fortunate, saving small nations one free election at a time.
Could I have done more with my life?
What was it Stephen Dunn wrote about enlarging his life through literature? Something about Liza Minnelli and basketball? Something about the truth?
What was it?
That Facebook meme begins with “we need to make books cool again,” as if that’s possible. If you think books are cool, nothing I say is going to change your mind. If you don’t, nothing can undo stupid. But if books become an accoutrement, like Buddy Holly glasses or skinny jeans, what does that say about ideas?
Hey, cool, you’re wearing Hawthorne today: “Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.”
I’ve had it as long as I can remember and kept it through 22 moves. It’s called a lawyer’s bookcase. Dark wood, glass doors that open and close, old. It comes apart in six sections: a top, a bottom, and four shelves. Between California and grad school, I set it up in an antique New Englander (where the radiators made music) and filled it with Russian novels, histories, American literatures heavy on Hawthorne and Faulkner, but also philosophies and religions, Nietzsches and a single church hymnal. There was Swift and Shelley and Shakespeare, and, yes, Chaucer, for the bawdy. The selections have expanded since then, way more poetry and essays, but I can still remember the tone of her voice.
“These are from college? Are you ever going to read them again?”
Her house was bigger than mine. Cleaner. Her education better, if you put any stock in the Ivy League. She didn’t have a job but she had a rich husband. She was at my house while our children played blocks on the linoleum floor.
Yes, of course I’m going to read them again. I didn’t say it but I should have shouted it. I should have said I’ve been collecting these since I was eleven years old but instead I was stunned into silence by my first brush with technological utilitarianism, the arrogance of banality.
I’ve searched that bookcase countless times over the years. I’ve reread books. Consulted them. Given them to friends and children, who then assume they own the books. (It is a certain sort of inheritance.) There are times when I see the books across the room and feel warm and comforted just looking them, the patterns the spines make, the colors, and I’m reminded of the move when I was pregnant, where my mother, thinking she was helping, arranged all my carefully sorted books by color, thereby making any particular book almost impossible to find. But the shelves represent the eclectic expression of what it means to be a book, and what it means to own books. I’ve felt comfort in their presence. But even if I hadn’t, I could have done all those things. The books are there. They are mine with no question of copyright or data corruption.
For me, that’s enough.
I’d estimate that I own 3,000 books. I could be off by a large number because I counted the books on one average shelf and then multiplied. But, like people, books come in all sizes and characters. Even so, I started getting rid of them. The life of Teddy Kennedy. A Dominick Dunne tale…
(Whew. That’s enough for one day.)
It was during halftime of a Patriots game. Billie, Hef, Star, and I were talking when Billie said that her daughter wants a library. A dark room with bookcases filled with old books, like something out of Jane Austen. Hef, who was in charge of the clicker from the sofa, flat on his back with vodka in hand, held up his iPhone, as though pointing at a platonic ideal.
Here’s your effing library, he said, and went back to watching the commercials.
Another guy writes. His email, like his profile, is one jumble of fused sentences interspersed with inane lols. It looks like those old computer readouts, no white space, no distinction between address, paragraphs, sentences. He barely brakes for words, and when he does, he capitalizes the ones he Deems Important, the rules of standard written English be damned. But he says he used to play professional football, or as he calls it, Professional Athletics, and who doesn’t like to talk football?, so I write him back.
Thanks for writing. We’re probably not a match. What position did you play? What teams? I’m aiming for chatty and friendly without insult.
Well, turns out, there’s no way to say no to a man without insult.
He writes me back immediately and attacks my attitude and my boobs, which is, presumably, the reason he wrote me in the first place. He defends his looks (about which I’ve said nothing). So I write him back again – sometimes a girl can’t resist, ya know? – and say, honey, your looks ain’t the problem. It’s the fact that you can’t manage the English language.
He writes again to tell me that he was top 30 in his class at his Big NFL Feeder School, where he majored in English, of all things. I bet youd be surprised, he mangles, but I’m not. I’m saddened. This is more evidence that my beloved sportsindustrial complex has cheapened the ideal of a liberal education. So much for intellectual adventures.
But I’m still thinking about Stephen Dunn, and I want that quote. The exact quote. And although the Google machine yields some cool stuff (try the Dunn quotes at Goodreads), they’re like potato chips compared to real food. As it turns out, this book of Dunn’s isn’t available electronically. And it is out of print. If I didn’t own it – somewhere – I’d be out of luck.
After a doing a mental inventory of places where I might have shelved it, and a quick perusal of the actual shelves (where’d all this dust come from?), I find Walking Light on the third bookcase I check, the one in my bedroom. And the quote is there, upper right corner of a page in the chapter about truth in fiction, just the way I remember it. Dunn asserts that he has “always desired to enlarge [his] life…, only occasionally through deed.” He is expanded by what he reads and writes. I, too, am enlarged.
It feels really good to find his words as expected, unadulterated by the internet.
In hardcopy I trust.
I think of the dark ages, of monks transcribing books, of knowledge kept safe in monasteries. Forgive me if my thoughts drift toward apocalypse but what happens when everything is digitized and the system is corrupted? What about when governments not only read what you wrote but control what you read? What about a personal disaster? A power outage? A blip in the router? A momentary lapse of concentration that ends with a Nexus left on the Red Line train?
And even with all electronics intact, not all books are available digitally. And certainly not all the books I read and want to read. As much as I love them, I’d rather not entrust my access to knowledge to the same people responsible for icanhazcheezeburger. I’d rather not be beholden to Professional Content Producers of the Internet for my intellectual life.
There was that winter I was without power for a week. I stoked the wood stove while reading a year’s worth of New Yorkers. The print version.
Relationships are like this. I trust the people in my life who are there when there are storms, outages, people I can find on a Friday afternoon when the internet is down. They’re the people whose pages I want to touch, whose histories I want to know. They’re the people who surprise me anew with their wit and cleverness, the depth of their wisdom, the way their corners are turned up, their pages worn and torn.
Call me an imperfectionist.
I’m a sucker for the real thing. I love reading a book or two electronically. I’m halfway through Moby-Dick on the Kindle app. I love downloading my favorites, old and new, The Scarlet Letter, Beyond Good and Evil, even Hitch-22, but give me the warmth of a fire, the comfort and reliability of a real book.
And if we ever end up back at your place, don’t show me your Kindle app, no matter how big it is.