I am afraid that my library will lose its animation no later than its owner. I am uniquely familiar not only with the contents, more or less, of these particular volumes, but with their meaning and history, what tale each tells of my taste and the history of the times. A box of old books is among the most valueless of objects. Yet, during its use, like one’s wardrobe, one’s pantry, or one’s bank records, the library sets forth the little that can remain of an individual consciousness in concrete form behind; it is like other human constructions, a precise and rich vein of data.
Traces of my library’s beginnings remain – but, wait, it has as well a prehistory, though for this earliest era the artifacts are oral, lost, or legendary. As a child I patronized libraries, and I remember to this day the nook where Walter R. Brooks’ Freddy the Pig books stood in the Sioux City library. Perhaps showing off a bit, I brought Herbert Zim’s child’s book of reptiles to kindergarten and described it as “my favorite book.” Natural history and Indian “lore” (as it was then called) were my favorite subjects apart from fiction. Calling myself a curator, I set up a little museum just inside my dormer window with every available exhibit carefully labeled: arrowhead, petrified wood, turtle shell, British penny. By later elementary school I had developed a taste for science fiction, particularly Judith Merrill’s annual anthologies and a good many less imaginative trips to Mars. (One work I encountered then and relished again only a few years ago is Karel Capek’s War with the Newts.) Detective fiction had its day as well, and I read a certain amount of popular fiction like Auntie Mame and On the Beach, but by my middle school years, my library consisted largely of collections of comics. I must have at one time owned twenty-five Pogo volumes. (This predilection ran smoothly into a collection of Jules Feiffer books starting with Sick, Sick, Sick.)
These have all been long discarded (though I continue to think Feiffer and, especially, Kelly are first-rate artists). My Pocket Library Poe (25¢) lingered until two years ago when I found a handsome Library of America Poe at a library used book sale and dumped the yellowed volume from which I had so relished “Hopfrog” and “The Masque of the Red Death.” Long gone was the Henrik Willem van Loon Story of Mankind (with his own odd line drawings) and the collection of American short stories that included Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde.” I must have discarded at some point the Signet edition of Joseph Gaer’s How the Great Religions Began from which I learned enough to decide to depict the legendary meeting of Lao Tzu and Confucius inside a shoebox when my sixth-grade teacher asked each student to picture a historic event.
Am I alone is thinking that, while I could discard either a few of my books or nearly all, I would find it very difficult to accept any loss between? Though I moved about a good deal, especially in my younger years, I often moved nothing but books and artworks, along with a few brooms and some old clothes. The only time I sacrificed a significant quantity of books was when heading to Nigeria to teach thirty years ago. At that time I shed not only the greater share of my library (including many books whose loss I later lamented) but also periodicals: Poetry magazine, Evergreen Reviews, a complete set of the first five years of the New York Review of Books. I am wise enough to confess that with Shakespeare and Homer and Chaucer and perhaps a copy of Middlemarch one could be worthily occupied for a good while. Though free of the wish to accumulate other possessions, I have not rid myself of the wish to read everything.
My voracity may have given my good parents pause during my teen years. Though quite frugal about most everything – I never saw the inside of a motel room until I was in high school as we always camped on vacation – they were extraordinarily permissive about books. My mother was a teacher and set a high value on education; my father, a businessman trained as a lawyer, understood, and my brother and I were given credit cards for Kroch’s and Brentano’s which then billed itself as “the world’s largest bookstore” but which went of business during the 90s. There the left half of spacious basement floor was devoted to quality paperbacks.
It was the golden age of literary paperbacks. As far as I was concerned, that basement held the glories of world culture. There were the Signets with splashy art and poor glue, the more substantial Anchor books with the marvelously well-designed covers (including some by Gorey), Alvin Lustig’s avant-garde black and white designs for New Directions. The habitual reader came to love as well the understatement of the old Penguins with their color-coded border that trusted to the title and a small and simple black and white image. (The same trust in their materials appeared in the Dolphins with the recognizable swoop of understated color and minimal art or the even sparer Scribner’s with only author and title.)
With every visit to Kroch’s I would return home with a stack to place at the head of my WWII surplus bunk bed. I often read simply from the top to the bottom of the stack. My habits have changed but little. Because I found them at the library book sale during a few days ago, the last three books I have read are Disraeli’s Sybil, Kafka’s Amerika, and Auden’s Forewords and Afterwords. (I have since picked Liu Hsieh’s The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons off my shelf where it had sat untouched for a decade, but that was chasing after a particular strain of information.) So my reading, like my life, has been desultory, a matter of blind reckoning, as I once termed it, and I can only make the most of it. I have almost never purchased new works, least of all abstruse works, always impossibly expensive. The topics that I studied most intently I know only from library volumes, but I know them none the less for that.
I promised the reader a few curiosities. Far from being a collector, I have very rarely bought new books at all. Limiting oneself not only to used but to cheap used imposes a salutary discipline on the reader, just as shopping for shirts in the Salvation Army, the buyer’s currency is not cash but taste. To wade through the heaps and keep vision fresh for the attractive is a skill.
Though no bibliophile I have happened on a few rarities, for the most part in thrift stores and emporia offering any book for a buck. I have all five of Paul Carroll’s Big Table journals, beginning with the one featuring Kerouac, Burroughs, and Dahlberg that was banned by the University of Chicago and their Review. (At one time these appeared now and then in Chicago used book stores and I used to buy them up and give them to people who would appreciate their art and historical importance.) I have a copy of Robert Creeley’s Jargon 33 chapbook A Form of Women (1959) in which the poet was generous enough to inscribe some kind words some decades after I had paid 75¢ for the book with the haunting cover. I have also the 1937 New Directions annual which I spotted in the Champaign-Urbana Salvation Army in 1965. It stood next to the 1938 edition, but my friend and fellow-writer Al Davis had his hands on that one. In a dusty Chicago shop, I spotted Kenneth Patchen’s An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air in a fine 1945 Untide Press limited edition and still it consorts with half a dozen or so of his books in the black and white New Directions covers. One of the few books that came to me new since childhood is the very fine Trianon Press facsimile of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. For Christmas of 1966 my parents asked what book they might buy me and this was my choice and I still protect it in the mailing box addressed to my student apartment.
What would even these curiosae mean to a new owner? They would undergo some metempsychosis, I suppose, as they did indeed when they arrived in my hands, some bearing among their leaves traces of earlier lives. And a wealth of palpable books! Their implications end not even in sleep.