(I spotted this in my neighborhood recently.) Can’t find a brick? Use some old books to prop up your air conditioner!
"I can show you a sacred book that might interest a man such as yourself" – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Book of Sand” 1. Like many people who love to read, I exist in a paradoxical state of having both far too many books and far too few. I probably don’t have many more than the average literature lover of my age, but I live in a smallish apartment, and it often feels hazardously, almost maniacally overcrowded with books. A precarious obelisk of partially read paperbacks rises from my bedside table, coated in a thin film of dust. My shelves are all two rows deep, stuffed with a Tetris-like emphasis on space-optimization, and pretty much every horizontal surface holds some or other type of reading material. I haven’t read nearly all of these books (many of them I haven’t even made a serious attempt to get started on) but that doesn’t stop me from accumulating more at a rate that neither my income nor my living space can reasonably be expected to sustain. This is, on occasion, a source of mild tension between my wife and me. She’s a reader too, and likes having a lot of books about the place, but she also likes to have space for all those other objects that you need to have around if you want your home to look like a home, and not a drastically mismanaged second-hand bookshop. Every time I come through the door with a couple of new purchases, or carefully rip open a padded envelope from Amazon, I can’t help being aware that I am engaging in a small act of domestic colonization, claiming another few cubic inches in the name of the printed page, in the struggle of Lesensraum against Lebensraum. The situation has been deteriorating for years now and, up until very recently, wasn’t showing any signs of potential resolution. Then a friend gave me a gift of a Kindle, slyly mentioning that he was doing so, at least in part, as a benevolent intervention into my shelf space situation. I’m not sure I would necessarily have chosen to buy an e-reader myself. I am more or less your typical bibliophile, in that I have always loved books almost as much for their physical properties as for their intellectual ones. I like the way a well-made paperback flops open in the hand, the briskly authoritative slap of its pages as it closes. I enjoy the feel of a hardback, its solidity and self-enclosure, its sober weight, the whispering creak of its stretching spine. I like the way they smell, too: the slightly chemical tang of new books and the soft, woody scent of old ones. (If you’re picturing me crouched in a corner of your local bookstore like some sort of mental case, a Library of America edition of Pale Fire pressed to my face, you can stop right there: it’s an incidental pleasure, not something I pursue with any kind of monomaniacal intensity). My point is that I, like a lot of other people, enjoy books as objects. Despite the difficulties that can arise from their accumulation, I like that they occupy physical as well as mental space. In fact, I quietly entertained the futile hope that the whole idea of e-books and e-readers would prove to be a transitory fad, that everyone would just somehow forget that books were cumbersome and comparatively expensive to produce and not especially good for the environment and that they could very easily be replaced by small clusters of electronic data that could be beamed across the world in seconds without ever taking up any actual space. I did not want what happened to CDs to happen to books. But then I took this small, smoothly utilitarian rectangle of grey plastic out of its box and fired it up. Within minutes, I was beginning to understand its crazy potential. In no time at all, I had downloaded a small library of free, out-of copyright classics. There is, obviously, something to be said for being able to walk around with the complete works of Tolstoy on your person at all times without fear of collapsed vertebrae or public ridicule. There is also, just as obviously, something to be said for having immediate access to a vast, intangible warehouse of books from which you can choose, on a whim, to purchase anything and begin reading it straight away. It occurred to me that Borges would have been thrilled and horrified in equal measure by the Kindle. In fact, in a weird way, he sort of invented it (in the same way that Leonardo “invented” the helicopter and various other gadgets). 2. At the beginning of his story “The Book of Sand,” the unnamed bibliophile narrator — like Borges himself, a retired librarian at the Argentine National Library — hears a knock on the door of his apartment. At the door is a Scottish Bible salesman. When the narrator informs him, somewhat superciliously, that he has more than enough Bibles to be getting on with, and in more than enough rare editions, the salesman replies that he is also in possession of a strange volume he bought for a few rupees and a Bible from an illiterate untouchable in Bombay (“people could not so much as step on his shadow,” we are informed, “without being defiled”). He shows the narrator this clothbound octavo volume and, as he examines it, “the unusual heft of it” surprises him. The Bible salesman tells the narrator that the illiterate from whom he bought the volume “told me his book was called the Book of Sand because neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end.” The narrator then tries to find the book’s first page, and quickly realizes that this is impossible, because it is as though the pages “grew from the very book.” He encounters the same problem in trying to find its final page, and stammers his disbelief at the impossible object he holds in his hands: “It can’t be, yet it is,” the Bible peddler said, his voice little more than a whisper. “The number of pages in this book is literally infinite. No page is the first page; no page is the last.” The narrator realizes that he has to have the book, and offers the salesman the entirety of his pension along with an extremely rare edition of Wyclif’s black-letter Bible (thus repeating the salesman’s previous symbolic exchange of holy scripture for this impossible text that seems at once to encompass and to blaspheme against the natural, Godly order). The Book of Sand now in his possession, the narrator spends his days and nights in contemplation of its mysteries, gorging himself at its inexhaustible font of texts. Before long, he begins to realize that the book itself is “monstrous,” and that his possession of it — and its possession of him — has made him somehow monstrous too. “I felt it was a nightmare thing,” he tells us, “an obscene thing, and that it defiled and corrupted reality.” He considers burning it, but fears that “the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.” He decides that “the best place to hide a leaf is in the forest,” and the story ends with his discarding the Book of Sand on a shelf of damp periodicals in the basement of the library, taking care not to take note of where he’s hidden it so that it is effectively lost to him and, he hopes, the world. I’m very fond of my Kindle. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I think it’s an ingenious little gadget. But in my more hysterically Borgesian moments, I also think that there is something obscene about it, something that defiles and corrupts a reality I don’t want to see defiled and corrupted. It’s a tiny thing, really — smaller, in fact, than my paperback Penguin Classics edition of The Book of Sand. And yet the number of pages it contains is, if not quite “literally infinite,” at least potentially infinite. No page is its first page; no page is its last. If I place it on one of my shelves, if I slip it between, say, two creased and dog-eared volumes of Borges’ stories, it sits there unobtrusively, slimmer than any of the books around it. And yet it has the uncanny, shape-shifting potential to encompass all of them, to embody them all both individually and as a whole. Unsettlingly, it makes all those other books appear suddenly unnecessary, superfluous, seeming to haunt them with the imminent prospect of their own redundancy. It’s an elegant coincidence that the microprocessors that facilitate its mysterious magic are made from silicon, which is extracted from the silica contained in sand. The Kindle is therefore, in an oddly literal sense, a book of sand. What I think gives Borges the jitters about his Book of Sand is the way in which it — like the Aleph in his earlier story “The Aleph” — paradoxically contains an infinity within a finite space. Like so many of the uncanny objects in his work, it exerts a terrible, transformative pressure on reality. And the Kindle exerts its own transformative pressure, albeit in a more banal fashion. I don’t mean to imply that e-readers frighten me, because they don’t. They are no more monstrous or evil than any other example of a new technology replacing an old one (and the book itself is, after all, a piece of technology: a gadget of ink and paper and glue). But their ascendency does make me a little sad, because I know when I use my Kindle that, even though there are important ways in which it can’t even hope to compete with civilization's greatest invention, there are equally important ways in which it effortlessly surpasses it, and that these are the reasons why the e-reader will end up replacing the bound book. 3. This was brought home to me recently when I received a copy of Adam Levin’s colossal debut novel The Instructions, which I recklessly agreed to review for a newspaper. The thing is over a thousand pages and is, in its hardback edition, considerably larger and heavier than any other book I currently possess (including a Norton Complete Shakespeare that, until The Instructions arrived, did bestride its narrow shelf like a Colossus, and ruled it with an iron fist). By way of illustrating the physical magnitude of Levin’s novel, let me make the following peculiar admission: during a moment of whimsical distraction one day last week, I discovered that it was possible to insert into the generous space between the book’s spine and its inner binding not one but two standard-sized mouth organs that happened to be lying on my desk as I read it. Whatever obscure advantage might be gained from being able to secrete two wind instruments inside the binding of a book, any object of that size is going to be difficult to carry around (with or without mouth organs). And if you’re reading a 1,030 page novel to a reviewing deadline, you’re faced with a tricky conflict of practicalities: in order to get it read, you want to be able to take it with you if you have to leave the house, but lugging the thing around on a train or a bus is no joke, given that its volume and weight are roughly comparable to that of a hotel minibar. So I did the obvious thing, and decided to see whether I could download The Instructions from the Kindle Store. When I found that the e-book version wasn’t yet available, I was briefly seized by that most contemporary (and stupid) of irritations: that of being denied a convenience that didn’t even exist until very recently. Granted, Levin’s novel is an extreme example, but it got me thinking about the unassuageable forces that the book as an object, as a cultural artifact, is up against. The history of what we call progress is a catalogue of ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern. As I’ve said already (and perhaps even overstated to a suspicious degree), I love books, and I would rather not live in a world where they might end up as little more than interior décor affectations or, like vinyl records, fetish objects for a small but dedicated coterie of analogue cultists. E-books are not perfect, and the experience of reading them is, I think, still inferior enough to that of reading a real book that, all things being equal, I’d almost always choose the former. But the CD, as any audiophile will gladly tell you, is a far superior format to the MP3 in terms of sound quality and fidelity, and when was the last time you bought a CD? When was the last time anyone you know even bought a CD? Even my dad gets his music from iTunes now. I still have a small bookcase filled with CDs, but I haven’t added to it for years at this stage and, because I don’t even have a CD player anymore, they basically just sit there reminding me of a rapidly receding past in which recorded music used to have a physical presence. No matter how badly I want to, I can’t quite imagine a possible future in which ink and paper books might somehow avoid the same fate. The insatiable desire for ever more and ever newer forms of convenience that drives our global economy and our technological culture leaves a scattered trail of obsolescence in its wake. As much as I don’t want my bookshelves to become part of this trail of obsolescence, I can already see early warning signs of my own desire for convenience — for instantly getting what I want, for not having to deal with mere objects in all their cumbersome actuality — beginning to outrank my love of the book as a physical thing. I don’t want my identity as a consumer, as a ruthless pursuer of the most user-friendly and cost-effective option, to supersede my identity as a booklover. I don’t look forward to a future in which my Kindle (or whatever device inevitably succeeds it) is the only book on the shelf. But it’s a future I’m fairly convinced is awaiting us, and it’s one that I, as a consumer, am playing my part in advancing us toward. There are moments when I wish I could follow the lead of Borges’ retired librarian and bury my book of sand on some obscure shelf in a library basement and just forget all about it. But then I realize that the thing is just too useful, too crazily convenient a tool to not embrace. And then I tell myself that it’s not possible, anyway, to shelve the advance of technology, and that history is filled with examples of beautiful things being supplanted by more efficient versions of those things. Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save. Image via the author
Michel De Montaigne owned 900 books, which he kept on shelves arranged in a semi-circle. Immanuel Kant owned about 400 books. Virginia Woolf: 4,000. Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who built the Great Wall, ordered the destruction of all books written before his reign. According to the Han-era historian Sima Qian, the Qin burned only those works held in private libraries, while the court erudites and government archives were permitted to retain and expand their collections. During the Qin era, anyone caught discussing The Classic of Poetry in public would be executed. Under Qin Shi Huang it was a capital offence to discuss the past as being preferable to the present. Many of those books spared by the emperor were destroyed when the warlord Xiang Yu entered the city of Xiangyang, four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and razed the Qin palace and its library to the ground. John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, and adviser to Elizabeth I, kept a collection of 2,337 books and 378 manuscripts in his house on Mortlake-on-Thames. When he died, in 1608, the land around his home was bought by the antiquarian Robert Cotton, who suspected -- correctly -- that Dee had buried a cache of valuable manuscripts in a nearby field. Gustave Flaubert possessed more books by George Sand than any other author. Emily Dickinson owned a copy of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. F. Scott Fitzgerald owned the 1926 edition of The Paris That’s Not in the Guidebooks by Basil Woon. James Joyce owned the guidebook In and About Paris by Sisley Huddleston. Joseph Roth, it appears, possessed very few books. Franz Kafka owned all of Max Brod’s books. In a diary entry from 1911, Kafka writes: “November 11. All afternoon at Max’s. Decided on the sequence of the essays for (Brod’s latest collection) On the Beauty of Ugly Pictures. Not good feeling.” Every few years, Willa Cather re-read her favourite novels. By 1945 she had read Huckleberry Finn 20 times, and Flaubert’s Salammbo 13 times. Socrates said the written word represented “no true wisdom.” He preferred a dialogue. He claimed written words “seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.” In her copy of Emmanuel Mounier’s The Character of Man, Flannery O’Connor underlined the following sentences: “When we say that thought is dialogue, we mean this quite strictly. We never think alone. The unspoken thought is a dialogue with someone who questions, contradicts, or spurs one on.” In chapter seven of Eugene Onegin, the heroine Tatiana visits the country estate of Onegin, where she is let in by the housekeeper. The chapter is framed as a digression by the narrator: Tatiana does not meet Onegin at the villa, instead she encounters his collection of books, and reads his marginalia, and the scrapbook into which he copied his favorite passages. For the first time, Tatiana encounters what she considers to be the real Onegin -- in the marginal notations his mind “declares itself in ways unwitting.” Then what is the true Onegin like? Tatiana begins to see him as a composite of fictional characters from his favorite books. On a page of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World, Mark Twain wrote: "Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?” In the margins of Howards End, Penelope Fitzgerald complains of the author: “He is lecturing us”. Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hermione Lee, finds this observation about Lady Russell in a copy of Persuasion: “A right-feeling but wrong-judging parent, who does as much harm as an unfeeling one.” About Fanny’s mother in Mansfield Park, Fitzgerald writes: “We see relentlessly what a difference some money makes.” About Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice: "She punishes herself too much.” In a copy of Waiting for Godot: “An attempt to show how man bears his own company.” In her copy of The Good Soldier, Fitzgerald writes: “A short enough book to contain 2 suicides, 2 ruined lives, a death, a girl driven insane -- it may seem odd to find that the key note of the book is restraint.” Among Djuna Barnes’s personal library, now kept at the University of Maryland, is the 1963 edition of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. As a young writer, on commission for magazines, Barnes interviewed other novelists, including James Joyce. She herself was never interviewed by The Paris Review. Jeff Buckley owned the book Addiction Recovery for Beginners by David Brizer. Tupac Shakur owned In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker. Katherine Anne Porter’s library comprised 4,000 books -- rounded up by librarians -- now preserved at the University of Maryland. Doris Lessing donated her collection of 3,000 titles to Harare City Library, Zimbabwe. Five years after her death, Iris Murdoch’s books were sold to the Kingston University Library, London, for the sum of £120,000. Her husband John Bayley said: "Her mind seemed to work independently of her precious library, but at the same time she depended for inspiration on the presence of her books, a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her." Late in his career, David Markson wrote novels that he constructed, for the most part, out of hundreds of anecdotes and factoids about writers and other artists. Nested amid these catalogues of biographical facts are brief statements by an unnamed narrator, which relate his or her circumstances or distressed frame of mind. All these components are united by two themes: the life of an artist and death. At a reading of his final novel, titled The Last Novel, Markson introduced the work by stating that his book featured no dramatic scenes, no incidents, no chapters, but was “98.5 per cent -- and that’s not really a guess” composed of anecdotes and quotes sourced from other books. Markson’s novels are enormous collages full of fragments from his private library. After his death in 2010, his collection was donated to The Strand in New York, where, presumably, he bought most of the books that contained the anecdotes and quotes and facts that comprised his novels. As if completing a perfect ritual, Markson’s library was sorted and integrated into the Strand’s floor stock, and sold and dispersed again. Image Credit: Flickr/Michael D Beckwith.
● ● ●
“Forty-five?” “Yes, sir, 45 boxes over the original moving estimate.” “How much is that going to cost?” “Well, the revised estimate adds another 1,000 pounds, so $450.” “Jesus.” “But that’s just a weight estimate. It could be a lot less depending on what's in them. They could be filled with pillows for instance. What is in them?” “Not pillows.” Many were filled with books, hundreds of them. And if the mover was to believed, they weighed about half a ton: the approximate weight of my knowledge. I had packed all of the books into two types of freely acquired boxes: those labeled “Adult Brief for Incontinence (Moderate Absorbency),” which my wife brought home from a hospital; and a colorful array picked up at our local liquor store, everything from Ciroc Red Berry to Kinky Blue Liqueur, a versatile concoction which doubles as an aphrodisiac and a window cleaner. I thought about packing thematically, sorting my volumes by intoxicant. The Russians would go with the vodkas, the Irish with the whiskeys, Germans with the beers, the French with the cognacs, and those few authors whom I knew personally, along with William Faulkner, with the beloved bourbons. It would be trickier to decide whom to put in the adult diaper boxes. Definitely the Victorians, fussy as they are, but also those darkly comic authors who would appreciate their absurd fate -- Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Philip Roth. I’d toss Jonathan Franzen in too, just for fun. In the end, laziness prevailed and I freely mixed nationalities and genres in whatever booze or diaper box had room. Looking at the stacked assortment waiting to be hauled north, I wondered how I had backslid so spectacularly. Before my last big move, from California to North Carolina about five years ago, I had unloaded most of my book-hoard -- I prefer this Old English construction to “library” or “collection,” both of which don't quite capture the thrilling chaos of that word-treasure spread over my shelves, coffee tables, floors, bathrooms, and car. Lined up for inspection as I was deciding which volumes to sell, the books stood tall, proudly baring their spines even as their pages must have trembled. My decisions were swift and pitiless; one must be heartless to enter an era of biblio-austerity. But I take heart that of all the books I eventually sold back then, I can remember, and thus regret, only one: C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. For a person who loved books, I was actually relieved to have unburdened myself of them. After the purge, my book-hoard was whittled down to a few boxes to be shipped via media mail. “Now to get the media mail rate there can only be books in here,” explained the suspicious postal clerk as she watched me hoist the boxes onto the counter. “I understand.” “If we open it up and find even a toothbrush, we’ll charge you the full rate.” (Had she divined my scheme to defraud the post office by cheaply shipping dental supplies, or was she bluffing?) “Got it,” I replied, despite the realization that I had actually thrown a non-media mail object in with my Norton anthologies -- not a toothbrush but an armless Hideki Matsui bobblehead doll. (It made it through undetected.) Those several dozen books transported from the West Coast multiplied over the years to fill 45 some-odd boxes, proving that the greatest fiction is that book lovers can reform. I had tried to downsize before this latest move as well. Sure, I granted a reprieve to all my old favorites and recently received Christmas gifts, as well as those books I hadn’t yet cracked open and had no immediate plans to. As recounted by Walter Benjamin, Anatole France was once asked whether he had read all the books in his library. He responded, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” No indeed, and I won’t take my illustrated copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey out of its cover until I’m good and ready. But many books did go into the “sell pile.” First were Finding the Right Words, 101 Ways to Say Thank You and Great Letters for Every Occasion, which my college roommate had sent me as a joke after I admitted that I enjoyed penning “Thank You” notes. Next in were a few Peter Carey paperbacks, John Banville’s Benjamin Black mysteries and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made the cut five years ago, but not this time, and plenty more. On a roll, I even tried to throw in my wife’s pristine and eminently resalable copy of Wild -- twice. She made it clear that if it happened again, Stevenson’s donkey might wander off as well. I took the carful to a used book store, where the clerk instructed me to wait as he sorted the books into two piles -- one he wouldn’t buy and the other he’d buy for a pittance. For a bibliophile, this period is especially dangerous, akin to an alcoholic trying to dry out in a Kinky Blue Liqueur distillery. If you must browse to pass the time, I recommend confining yourself to the least tempting section, for me “Spirituality” or “Business.” Then plug your ears when the clerk offers you a figure for store credit, which can be twice as high as the cash offer. Always take the cash. The most desirable stuff having been picked clean, I went to another store in the area, selling some of my remaining wares to a less discriminating buyer for $24 in trade. (I know what I just said, but what’s one more hardcover?) I still had a box of unwanted books left, including a copy of David Copperfield with increasingly embarrassing marginalia from the times I had read it in high school, college, and graduate school; some tattered mysteries; a comedic romance with a moose on the cover; Anatomy flashcards; and those three indispensable treatises on writing the perfect “Thank You” note. Over the next couple days I distributed these among a local coffee shop, the library donation bin, and my apartment complex clubhouse, disposing of the dismembered corpus of rejected texts so as to leave no trace of its owner. However, as the moving estimate made clear, I hadn’t really made a dent. And thus, here I am in a new home, resolving once more to reform my book-hoarding ways. Unlikely, especially with Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks, and Capitol Hill Books nearby. Luckily, my movers made my task a little easier. As if sensing that I was a recidivist, they took it upon themselves to smash one of my bookshelves to pieces in transit. Message received. They also blithely informed me that they had broken my writing desk as well, which I chose to take as a sign of their carelessness rather than a pointed criticism of my work. The books, all 45 boxes of them, naturally survived the move unscathed. Image Credit: pixshark.
● ● ●
If you've ever been to a bookshop in the UK (or to one of the few bookstores in the States that imports British books), you've probably noticed that the books on the shelves look stunning compared to their Yankee counterparts. At the bookstore where I worked in LA, I encountered authors who hated their American book covers but adored the British ones. Why the discrepancy? I don't know; I suspect it has to do with the fact that books are marketed by entertainment companies as "entertainment products" here in the US, while elsewhere, books are treated simply as books. To illuminate the differences in book design, I've placed some American books (on the left) side by side with their British versions (on the right). (click on the images to enlarge).Freakonomics by Steven LevittThe American cover looks like an ad for insurance, while the British version is more vivid and features nifty pixel art.Until I Find You by John IrvingThe American version is flat and looks like a promotion for the "John Irving brand," while the British version is slick and sexy.Cloud Atlas by David MitchellUS version: as dull as a textbook. UK Version: so groovy, you want to dive right in.On Beauty by Zadie SmithThe US versions of Zadie Smith's books look nice, but they are quite pale compared to their British counterparts.Slow Man by J. M. CoetzeeThis time the US version gets the better of the British one with mysteriously iconic silhouette of the broken bicycle.If you are interested in book design have a look at my long ago post about superstar book designer Chip Kidd, and you'll also enjoy the book design blog Forward.
For all its many virtues, the fifth edition is not perfect. Its one glaring flaw is an introductory essay written by the chairman of the Usage Panel, Steven Pinker, a Harvard University linguist and cognitive scientist who is also an avowed descriptivist. What's that whirring noise I hear? Is it William Morris, who died in 1994, spinning in his grave?
● ● ●
In January I posted scans of a bunch of fantastic new editions of classic books from Penguin with covers designed by famous comic book artists. I'd heard that another batch was on the way, and I finally got my hands on the images so here they are. They come out this fall:Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Cover by Yoshihiro TatsumiWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Cover by Thomas Ott The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, Cover by JasonLady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Cover by Chester Brown Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Cover by Frank MillerPhilosophy in the Boudoir by Marquis de Sade, Cover by Tomer HanukaSee the full-size pictures hereSome other notes: I first saw some of these covers posted at the Fantagraphics blog. Tomer Hanuka has a really cool post about designing his cover at his blog Tropical Toxic.
● ● ●