Books are sacred objects. Books are garbage. Between, the books with badly bent covers on the parsons tables of Midas Muffler and orthopedists’ waiting rooms. Books bought by the yard to complement the colors in the redecorated den. The tumbled remainders of remainders on the dollar store shelf, Geoff Dyer next to Christian fiction. The gorgeously designed new releases presented on the tabletops of independent bookstores as if they were hand-painted confections in a vitrine at Teuscher. Then there is the final stop, where some books are no longer figurative garbage. They are actual trash. I no longer go to church, since here in the Catskills we have the dump. Ours is the purest iteration of the cathedral: on a windswept rise under a ceiling of sky, the enclosing mountains the choir waiting silently to begin. Beneath the metal eaves of a soaring peaked roof, mortal leavings gather. The dump’s offering plate is a discarded sideboard on which parishioners jettison belongings someone else might yet find useful. Old plates. Used mugs. Videotapes (Sylvester Stallone in his salad days, Jane Fonda in very small workout wear, cartoon features once prized by children). Stuffed animals. Inscrutable decorations for such holidays as the Festooning of the Kitchen with Inspirational Adages on Little Faux Chalkboards. Books. Boxes and boxes of books, soaking up the ambient humidity and anything that might have spilled on its way to interment in the great roll-off sepulchers that swallow couches, wheels that will never roll again, and black plastic bags in their hundreds. Books that are no longer wanted, because—Long-ago read? Owners moved, downsizing, died? Gifts from now-despised givers? Here is where a book reaches the bottom of the narrative ladder that, as in Black Beauty, describes life’s trajectory ever downward, unless, at the end sudden redemption plucks the unfortunate from final doom. I root through piles of superannuated World Book Encyclopedias and Ultimate Grill cookbooks and find what I am looking for but did not know I was. More than occasionally slightly mildewed, but that’s not always a disqualifier. These are the definition of a gift. They stir the rescuer’s impulse; they recall past happy lives spent in narrow aisles of the Strand, sitting on the floor at the old used-textbook annex of the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, book barns and yard sales and stoop sales. Not that I’ve never offloaded books myself. A library fair finally received the collection of philosophy and Middle English works I realized, after boxing and unboxing them through the course of several moves, would never be cracked again. I don’t like to get rid of books, though I do—they tell a personal history, I imagine with obvious false hope, my grandchildren will one day be fascinated to trace. Never at the dump, though. I use the dump for retrieval only. Today the gems do not hide. They are in their open box. Today’s trash is the complete Emily Dickinson in hardcover, with dust jacket. Today’s detritus is an unread Penguin Classics Don Quixote. Today’s undesirable is Of Human Bondage in a Modern Library edition. The sight of a virgin Penguin is alluring enough. But it’s the running torchbearer on the cover of a Modern Library that rouses an atavistic urge sharp as hunger. The Modern Library editions my parents collected when they were in college were the backdrop against which the cinema of life unreeled. Of course I would collect them myself as soon as I was on my own. I was the reader envisioned by Boni & Liveright in 1917 when they conceived the Modern Library imprint: eager to attain culture in the form of immortal literature, but short-pocketed. I begin reading that night. Philip, the misplaced orphan, who is like a book and also like Maugham himself, finds lost volumes on a shelf. Philip’s severe guardian bought books reflexively but did not read much: “he forgot the odd lots he had bought at one time and another because they were cheap.” And so, among the dry dust of pedagogy, Philip finds some real “old-fashioned novels.” As he read, he forgot “the life about him” and “formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.” How had I missed Maugham before? What you had forgotten, the dump remembers. It addresses all manner of grave omissions and gaps. That is what I want to believe, and at my place of worship I believe anything I wish. Whatever led these books to have been discarded sometime close to my Friday 11 a.m. visit? I don’t know. Happenstance is a meaningless miracle with no origin. The dump and what you find there, or don’t, is just one of those things. I open the cover and see this was a book meant for the long haul, for possession and the permanent shelf. The original owner had affixed a bookplate. These delightful claims on the posterity of one’s books have fallen into disuse. Because the idea of building a library—a lasting monument to character—has itself fallen into disuse in days when it is a moral superiority to get rid of the “unuseful.” The plate is an atmospheric woodcut depicting two figures (or perhaps the same one in a time-lapse portrayal of hope), one defeated and one who has risen to gesture aspiringly at the night sky. Ad Astra reads its legend—To the Stars. In another two weeks my own garbage has piled up warningly, predictable as few things are anymore. The lids on the recycling bins are askew, plastic and tin looking to make their escape. So I load the truck again. I don’t permit myself to look at the old sideboard until I’ve finished my final task: a walk down the hill to the scrap metal mountain, there to toss with a clang the Christmas tree holder that’s outlived its usefulness. Then I head back up and into the nave, eye searching for the telltale heap of cardboard boxes that signals ripe pickings. No such luck. There is only one small box on the ground; I fear an old Thermos or, worse, pot holders. Instead—and this I swear, for only a sociopath lies in church—there are only two books. I am suddenly struck, or struck back to the moment where you get born again. As if one begat the other, the two are stacked, bound together by the design of serendipity. What I see is a message. What I see is The Anatomy of Revolution arising from The Nature of Prejudice. I have been an atheist for decades, but I have also long bent to collect pennies from the dirt, believing them portents of luck. The dump embraces both aspects of an inexplicable persistence. It is a place of generosity. It is an oracle. Today I think I was right about the church part. Maybe only god can help us now. But first, I look well at what is found by chance at the same time it is put right in my hands. Image Credit: Maxpixel.
Over the course of more than a dozen works of nonfiction, Rebecca Solnit has built a singular vehicle that traverses the poetics of place, and by “place” we mean everything. She writes, with cerebral ferocity, about photography, human culture, literature, walking and wandering, politics, environment. In her latest, The Faraway Nearby, she writes about herself: that is to say, about the stories that comprise autobiography (the notion in general and hers specifically), literature, myth, fairytale, and the act of writing. By which we mean, again, everything. “People disappear into their stories all the time,” she writes, inviting us to disappear into hers. We gladly do, since every careful sentence, every judicious image comprising chapters that take the reader forward and back into the nature of storytelling, is plenty alluring. It is her contention that making stories — something we are, anyway, helpless not to do — is an act both of creation and deception, of the self and of others (“I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you”; “We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind”). Solnit deploys several themes she manages, with a pickpocket’s skill, to remove from one place and insert into another: a visit to Iceland, her mother’s decline into the losses (and gains) of dementia, her own cancer surgery, and narcissism as personality disorder as well as literary construct, among others. Along the way, her erudition acts as a seine net wide enough to catch at once Frankenstein, Road Runner cartoons, Che Guevara, the Duino Elegies, Dutch vanitas paintings, and arctic terns. Improbably they all come together just so, and it’s a tour de force of logic and writing (done well, the latter is impossible without the former). In the award-winning River of Shadows, Solnit’s project was to show how photographer Eadweard Muybridge, by inventing moving pictures, invented modern culture through giving rise to the California of Hollywood and Silicon Valley (near her home, another frequent subject) that has become our imaginative center; in the canny A Paradise Built in Hell, it was to explore the flip side of mass psychology and posit the contrary notion that it is in severe crisis that humans experience the bliss of ideal society, helpful and compassionate. Of course, this is the high-concept sell: they are no more “about” their ostensible subjects than a Cézanne still-life is about fruit. To truly describe her work, nonfiction in name only, it would be necessary to reproduce it in its seamless entirety; it is prose poetry, and cultural criticism, and polemic, and...just itself, sui generis. Her latest? Even more so. The title is taken from the correspondence of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe who, after she had moved from New York to New Mexico, signed off “from the faraway nearby.” It summarizes Solnit’s primary thesis on the role of storytelling in our lives: that it displays an interplay of advance and retreat simultaneously bringing us close to a narrative’s meaning and distancing us from it. (And so a frequent theme of all her work, geography, here becomes metaphoric.) The whole book is an intricate working model of the idea. The progression of Alzheimer’s, which afflicts her mother and is a story that begins and ends the book and enfolds all that comes between, also causes a return to childhood; “time runs backward,” just as it does in varying accounts of “the mother who eats her children,” an Inuit woman who reputedly cannibalized her family during a weather-induced famine. (By association, Solnit also implicates her own mother, the selfishly bereft type “who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.”) The book itself is structured so that it goes forward, meets a mirror, whereupon it runs backward: the table of contents forms a chiastic concrete poem, Apricots, Mirrors, Ice, Flight, Breath, Wound, Knot, Unwound, Breath, Flight, Ice, Mirrors, Apricots. A common theme of late in literary theory is the unreliable narrator. You’d think one of our foremost cultural critics, in a book about making stories, would be driven to have the last word in that debate. And so she does, firmly, but only by not mentioning it. Her model of the story is one of lineage, of begetting and begat, of dialectic. By writing, “You can have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.” Underneath every story there is another one, and another below that, descending into the infinite basement of the past which is attained, temporally, by ascending into the future. Then she makes this assertion literal: beneath the stories on every page runs a single italicized line from yet another, and we can choose how to read them, continuously, like a subterranean stream, or as poem fragments intercepting the whole. (The one on page 6, by accident or even more incredibly by design, appears to give the reading instructions: “...like a ballad of one line or a history compressed down to its barest essentials...”) The tale of Scheherazade, naturally, recurs in this symphony of recurrences. It distills the idea that telling stories keeps us alive. Solnit makes clear that it has saved her, again and again. In reading her story, we forestall the death of its ending, though “there is always more to tell; one thread is tangled up with all the others; even when it stops, other threads carry the story onward, beyond the horizon.” The Faraway Nearby is a work of literary origami, amazing in its construction. Perfect, even. If pricked, though, I suspect it would bleed ice water, that which surrounded her in the art installation in which she took her Icelandic residency: it was called the Library of Water. Like I said, perfect.