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The Hardy Boys Need No Eulogy

Danger on Vampire Trail. This was the first Hardy Boys book I ever read. I believe I was in second grade when my next-door neighbor and I each decided to read one of the blue-spined mysteries that sat on his older brother’s shelf. The books were remnants of the older brother’s grade-school reading, I suppose, which he had never bothered to remove from his walls and pile into boxes in the basement (or sell for a dime apiece at a garage sale, or foist off on Goodwill, or trade in for Tom Clancy novels at the used book store), being altogether too engrossed in programming his Atari 800 computer, and other important high school things that would certainly never involve the brothers Hardy. He had apparently never become terribly interested in Frank and Joe, even in his pre-Atari days; he had only five or six Hardy Boys books and—embarrassingly—a few assorted Bobbsey Twins adventures. I could never understand why he had these facile, yellow-spined things with unarresting titles like “Mystery at the Seaside” or “The Missing Pony.” In fact, I could not fathom who would be at all interested in the series, which seemed to be merely the Hardy Boys, Jr., a concept which had no place in the cosmos occupied by both the Hardy brothers and Nancy Drew. The Hardys were for boys, Nancy for girls; for whom were the Bobbseys meant? Preschoolers? Maybe. But unsurprisingly, the name of the “author” of this doomed series escapes my memory, while the names Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene come promptly to mind.

These authors’ names relate to an important benchmark in any Hardy or Drew fan’s reading life. It took me four years or so before I finally admitted to myself that neither Mr. Dixon nor Ms. Keene were real people, that in fact the eighty or so adventures of Bayport’s finest (eighty death-defying adventures crammed impossibly into Frank and Joe’s high school years) were not all written by the same person. The single-author theory seemed entirely plausible at first, when my experience with the Boys encompassed only a few books which, though somewhat dated, still contained copyright dates in the 1960s. Mr. Dixon, then, was an aging but still prolific man, who perhaps got up early every morning at his home on the east coast (yes, that seemed right—he should be able to look out at the ocean while orchestrating Frank and Joe’s escape from an elaborate death trap in Egypt, a locked magician’s box in Scotland, a tiger in India) to write five chapters or so. My faith began to crumble, however, as I checked out older editions of the books from my grade school resource room, editions with yellowing paper, which lacked the familiar blue spines and were bound instead in beige covers with brown lettering and, on the front cover, an iconic silhouette of two Hardy Boy-ish figures crouching with flashlights, a sad substitute for the exciting, customized illustrations that graced the newer editions. These editions contained even more outdated language than the blue-spines, using passé terms for African Americans that seemed to place the stories in the 1930s. Indeed, a glance at the copyright page confirmed this estimation.

The single-F. W. Dixon theory was seeming less likely. Even if he had begun writing the mysteries at the age of 20, the secretive (there was never an “about the author” at the end of the books) Dixon would still be in his seventies, much too old to be writing at the rate at which the Hardy novels were churned out. Finally, I came to the uneasy conclusion that there may have once been a real Dixon in the ’20s or ’30s, but he had since passed away, and his series had been edited, updated, and continued by a panel of ghostwriters at Simon & Schuster (I threw out theories which included a single ghostwriter or a Franklin Jr. carrying on his father’s tradition) who used the pseudonym for any number of reasons: to preserve the continuity of the series for youngsters who would be wary of a Hardy Boys tale told by Brian Reynolds or Suresh Desai, or to ensure that all Hardy Boys books would be shelved together in both library and bookstore, rather than scattered about by zealous alphabetizers.

With this decision (this all took place long before the current era in which one can merely Google Dixon’s name and learn that he was never anything but a pseudonym) I passed into a more mature appreciation of the series. I recognized that I was in some way being deceived, but I accepted the deception, as the theater-goer accepts the deception that what he or she sees on stage is real; I knew that there was no wizened Hardy patriarch writing the books somewhere on a misty coast; I knew they were most likely written by some guy in a suit and tie in a cubicle in a glass office tower, or maybe by a team of such people, brainstorming about where the next book should be set, about what should be stolen or who should be kidnapped. I knew this, but it didn’t really matter, and I didn’t think about it too often, aside from the occasional reverie about what it would be like to write Hardy Boys novels myself (and never getting credit for it). It might not be that bad as a career. Though creativity would be somewhat stifled by the formulas that must be employed in writing the books, it would still be rewarding to see my own episodes sitting in a line with all of the others (I could look at a shelf in the bookstore and say, “I wrote numbers 27, 45, and 78”) and think that maybe at least one of them was the personal favorite of some avid young Hardy reader.

I must say, however, that Danger on Vampire Trail would not be included in my list of personal favorites. I remember nearly nothing of the book, except that it involved vampire bats (though these were not central to the plot; in fact, I think I remember feeling vaguely exploited by Mr. Dixon, who obviously chose an exotic title to invite readership of a book which was in actuality not at all fantastic) and a camping area full of recreational vehicles. This seemed to be the trend among the first set of Hardy Boys novels: exciting titles, intriguing cover art, the promise of an exotic location and the threat of death (clearly an idle threat: I do not recall anyone dying in those blue-spined Hardy adventures, not even villains; though the Hardys may be locked in a trunk in the basement of a burning building, their survival is never in doubt, no matter how many chapters end with “We’re trapped!”)—all designed to lure readers to rather boring, outdated stories probably written several decades earlier (though with this disclaimer on the copyright page: “In this new story, based on the original of the same title, Mr. Dixon has incorporated the most up-to-date methods used by police and private detectives.” But what did that mean? Perhaps a few glaring anachronisms eliminated, or an added chapter in which Frank and Joe dust for fingerprints or reconstruct a suspect’s face using their very own police sketch kit).

To be fair, the trend does not really start until around the tenth installment of the first set of Hardy books. Witness some titles from those first ten: The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff, The Shore Road Mystery, The Secret of the Caves. Nothing to falsely arouse a youngster here. These early titles matter-of-factly relate what the story is about; they are not advertisements.

This matter-of-factness disappears with the tenth Hardy mystery. It assails the potential purchaser with the irresistible question of What Happened at Midnight. Like a science fiction novel that propels the reader through 600 closely-printed pages by the promise of a spectacular revelation at the end, #10 impels the reader to purchase or borrow the book to find out what indeed happened at the witching hour. And thus began the titillating tease of the blue-spines. I myself was taken in by #11, While the Clock Ticked, and by its terrifying cover, which depicted the teenaged detectives bound and gagged in a dimly-lit room, straining frantically, sweaty-faced, looking wide-eyed at an insane, white-haired man—presumably their captor—emerging from a secret room behind a grandfather clock. The book was not carried in my local B. Dalton; I ordered it, and my anticipation was almost unbearable the day the store called to tell me it had arrived. Though I finished the book in two days, the normal period required to polish off those unfailingly 170-page-long volumes, it left me disappointed. The details of the story escape me, but the routine was all too familiar: the brothers track down a criminal in Bayport, are placed by the criminal in an unnecessarily elaborate death-trap, but they manage to escape in Chapter XX, just in time for an amusing epilogue and a look ahead to their next case, conveniently plugged like so: “The boys laughed, and gazed up at the huge clock. Silently, they wondered when another case might come their way. Sooner than they expected, they were to find out, when Frank and Joe spotted strange footprints under the window.”

Though I must have read 30 or 40 of the original blue-spined books, not one retains a bright spot in my memory. F. W. Dixon tried his best to innovate and add new elements to the tales. He sent his protagonists to exotic ports-of-call—war-torn Central America in The Mark on the Door, Scotland in The Secret Agent on Flight 101, India in The Bombay Boomerang, Africa in The Mysterious Caravan, and the depths of the Yucatan in The Jungle Pyramid. But no matter where the Hardy siblings traveled, I found their adventures invariably lackluster. Though they may have engaged a pre-teenage boy in the late 1960s or early ’70s, they were hopelessly insufficient to leave me any permanent pleasant memories. I would never stay up until one in the morning reading The Mysterious Caravan.

Happily, however, the executives at Simon & Schuster must have realized the dwindling audience for F. W. Dixon’s original series, and with #59 the Hardy Boys entered a new era. The last of the fifties—Night of the Werewolf—launched the brothers onto a more exciting trajectory. The post-58 bunch, written in the late 1970s and early ’80s, satisfied my desire for a more contemporary thrill, and I soon devoured the entire set. The covers presented Frank and Joe in modern coiffure and wardrobe, though they continued to change their features after each adventure (perhaps to avoid recognition by paroled crooks from past episodes): in #63 the boys appear as trim, intellectual sweater-wearers, while in #64 they wear tight short-sleeved shirts, are shaggy-headed with a hint of hair on their slightly exposed chests; still stranger, in #77 they seem to be neat yuppies out on a company picnic (though an out-of-place tiger growls menacingly from a rock behind them). Perhaps Simon & Schuster hoped to appeal to a wide range of white males and changed the Hardys’ appearances to approximate those of their readers. (I myself had a more definite resemblance: the first name of the elder Hardy sibling.)

Despite the variability of the boys’ appearance, their adventures became consistently entertaining. I still fondly recall such gems as Mystery of Smugglers Cove (#64), which took the Hardys into the backwaters of the Everglades after being wrongly accused of stealing a valuable painting. In the seventy-third Hardy adventure, strange happenings at a local Bayport theater combine with a plot to hold the president of the United States for a Billion Dollar Ransom. Who could forget the snowy intrigue and danger of #78, plainly entitled Cave-In, with a cover depicting the brothers hanging perilously from a cable over a snowy Lake Tahoe slope, a Sno-Cat creeping menacingly towards them? The Four-Headed Dragon actually did keep me up until one in the morning, with its gripping tale of a mysterious mansion in the woods surrounding Bayport, of criminals bent on using a newly-developed laser gun to sever the Alaskan pipeline.

Unlike their predecessors, these new adventures always lived up to the thrills promised by their titles. The Demon’s Den delivered a devilish plot hidden in the placid Canadian timberlands—a diabolical scientist (see the terrifying illustration on page 190) bent on creating a race of supermen to compete in the Olympics for an unnamed eastern European country. These ubermensch, named “Alpha,” “Beta,” and “Omega,” allude to history and literature both: the eugenic schemes of Hitler and the fancies of Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Clearly the ghostwriters at Simon & Schuster were getting more ambitious. Even titles like The Roaring River Mystery concealed, behind their bland covers, compelling tales of bank robberies and foul play on the white-water rapids of Maine.

But the zenith of the Hardy middle period (for we have not yet come to the final incarnation of the adventures, the sexy “Hardy Boys Casefiles”) came in my favorite of the books: Revenge of the Desert Phantom. Though abnormally brief—only 157 pages and 15 chapters—this book packed in all of the elements which later made the Casefiles so appealing: foreign countries (France, along with a fictional African nation called Zebwa), beautiful foreign heroines (Niki—the daughter of the assassinated leader of Zebwa), villains who had committed murder and were prepared to do it again (previous bad guys, though always vowing, “I’ll get you, Hardys,” never seemed quite serious about it), technology (the book puts the Hardys at the helm of an armored car, called the Rhino, which can also float), and Agatha Christie-like plot twists and surprises (the real assassin turns out to be Akutu, the leader of the loyalist forces). However, at the end of this book we can see the ridiculous direction in which the series is headed; from Chief Collig of the Bayport police the boys receive a van which they will soon equip with surveillance equipment and other gadgetry inappropriate even for the far-fetched Hardy series. The Hardys could never be the Scooby-Doo gang with its Mystery Machine, nor have a Hardymobile in which to pursue criminals. These developments surely offended other Hardy purists as much as they offended me; as the old series wandered off into outer space (literally; in #85, The Skyfire Puzzle, Frank and Joe man a space shuttle flight), a new beginning was clearly needed; the slate needed to be wiped clean.

Before revealing (to those unfamiliar with the first of the Hardy Boys Casefiles: Dead on Target) exactly whose slate was wiped clean, a brief note about the supporting cast of the Hardy adventures. First, the Hardy family: famous father Fenton, the brilliant but frequently absent detective-dad; slender and attractive Laura Hardy (whom one can imagine as an older but no less perky and vivacious Laura Petry from The Dick Van Dyke Show), hardy, hearty Hardy mom, undaunted by the many nights of sleeping alone while Fenton solves crimes in New York City; and lovable Aunt Gertrude, “a stern, angular woman,” Fenton’s spinster sister who often stays at the Hardy home. No matter what dangers the Hardys may encounter, they always have this warm trio to support and love them.

But the Hardys are no homebodies; they have plenty of chums. Perhaps their best friend is stout Chet Morton, a “roly-poly youth who preferred eating to danger,” but who often joins in their adventures and provides comic relief by dropping a bowl of batter on his head, sitting on a pin, or merely driving by in his memorable yellow jalopy. Frank and Joe are friends with the jocks as well (and find time between their many cases to play for Bayport High’s baseball team): lanky, rangy Biff Hooper, tackle on the Bayport High football team, whose heavy fists can always be counted on to assist the Hardys should their adversaries get physical. The Hardys’ diverse group of friends has room for “olive-skinned” Tony Prito, whose father owns a construction company and who himself owns a motorboat called the Napoli, and even for Phil Cohen, a quiet Jew, “dark-haired and slender,” who “enjoyed reading as much as sports.”

Finally, no discussion of the Hardys’ social lives can omit their steadies (though it must be difficult to have a maturing relationship when one’s age remains fixed at seventeen or eighteen, as do Joe and Frank’s, respectively). Fortunately, their girlfriends remain similarly stuck in time. Frank’s favorite date is the blonde, brown-eyed Callie Shaw, and Joe finds himself hopelessly devoted to the “vivacious, dark-haired” Iola Morton, slimmer sister of Chet. These girls appear in the early stages of an occasional Hardy adventure, just long enough to participate in a beach party or barbecue, perhaps make an insightful comment or two (blushing as they do so), but infrequently enough to imply anything more than chaste, healthy relationships with the opposite sex.

Nevertheless, powerful emotions are shared between the Hardys and their wholesomely attractive gals. The degree of that power is demonstrated, tragically, in the inaugural volume of the new, sleeker Hardy series. “Get out of my way, Frank!” Joe screams at his brother in the first line of Dead on Target as he hopelessly lunges towards the flaming wreckage of the Hardys’ yellow sedan, the explosion of which the brothers have just witnessed in the parking garage of their local mall. His suicidal struggle towards the burning car is a desperate attempt to save the life of Iola, with whom he had recently quarreled, and who had, with horrendous misfortune, retired to the sedan a few minutes before the explosion. As Callie notes later in the book: “I guess he really did love Iola, in spite of his wandering eye.” In any case, what a beginning for the new series! The violent death of a main character—in the first chapter no less—signaled a dramatic change of direction for Simon & Schuster’s teenage gumshoes. I remember the day after I purchased Dead on Target and Evil, Inc. (the second in the new series). It was April Fool’s Day, so when I told one of my fellow fifth-grade fans that the Hardys had been reincarnated, he refused to believe me and was put out that I would so cruelly toy with his emotions. He soon acknowledged the veracity of my claim, however, and came to love, as I did, the stylishly designed, compact Casefiles, with their titillating titles—Deathgame and Edge of Destruction were later examples—and stories that always made good on the titles’ promises. Under each title was an added bonus: an epigraph which wittily hinted at the thrills to come. “Revenge is always a personal matter,” noted the cover of Dead on Target. Other standouts: “A murder contract is always binding”; “Terror has many faces—all deadly”; “In the cult of the Rajah, death is a way of life.”

The Hardys had modernized, inside and out. Whereas a beach party was the hippest thing the Hardys and their friends could think to do in the past, they now listened to Led Zeppelin, hung out at diners until well past midnight, and traveled to locales more exotic and exciting than ever before. In trying to avenge Iola’s death, the brothers become involved with a secret government agency called the Network and end up battling international terrorism, represented by an Arab assassin named Al-Rousasa. In Evil, Inc. the brothers go undercover to bust an organized crime ring in France. After reading this pair of adventures, I feverishly anticipated the next installment—Cult of Crime—a excerpt from which had been included at the end of Casefile No. 2.

Cult of Crime. The very title spooked me, calling to mind images of Jonestown, of Satanists who kidnapped children and engaged in midnight acts of bestiality in storm drains. Even the cover of the book exceeded my expectations. Frank and Joe flee from a pack of torch-bearing cultists, one of whom fires a gun in their direction. I was so taken with the image that I even considered getting my hair cut like Joe’s.

The new Franklin W. Dixons (I imagine top management at Simon & Schuster laying off the old stale Dixon crew and bringing in a fresh batch of Franklins, recent graduates of Ivy League schools who were ready to pour their intelligence and energy into making the Casefiles the Hardy books they themselves never had as adolescents. However, S&S must have given the stale Franklin W.’s some severance work, because the middle series perpetuated into further idiocy; clearly all of the publisher’s real energy was thrown into the Casefiles.) were not taking their job that seriously, however. The relative realism of the third installment contrasts sharply with the science fiction of The Lazarus Plot (No. 4), in which the Hardys get their first hope that, impossibly, Iola Morton may still be alive. As it turns out, the Iola the brothers see is only a clone created by a laboratory staffed by “the most diabolical team of scientists ever assembled.” The book was good, though, and the college grads went on to turn out a series of classics, from Edge of Destruction, in which the Hardys traipse through the sewers of New York City to thwart an organized crime boss who threatens to unleash a deadly virus upon the Big Apple, to Hostages of Hate, in which a group of terrorists takes hostages, Callie Shaw among them, on an airplane in Washington, DC. Callie performs admirably under this immense strain and, while on television delivering the terrorists’ demands, sends Frank a secret message using the personal sign language the two have developed to talk to each other during class. Thus Frank, by watching Callie’s blinking patterns, receives messages like “Only two on plane,” and “Bomb real.” Apparently Callie is not the airhead she appeared to be at all those beach parties.

Sadly, the creativity of the new series did not last. After the unexpected dullness of The Borgia Dagger and its successor, No. 14, Too Many Traitors, I lost interest in the series. It is hard to say whether I simply outgrew it or the Ivy League Dixons had burned out. My parting with Frank and Joe was neither bitter nor regretful; we had been tight pals for several years; indeed, I was at least as faithful as Biff, Tony, Phil, or Chet—but we had now grown apart, and I was beginning to move in different circles, spending late nights with the Stephen King-Dean Koontz crowd. The Hardys, as always, moved to the beat of their own drum, however repetitive a pounding it may have been. Inertia kept the long line of Hardy adventures on the top level of my bookshelf until I finally packed them all in a box and packed the box down in the basement, exhumed only when I decided to eulogize the brothers here.

In truth, though, the Hardys need no eulogy; in a used book store I came across Casefile No. 101. I forget the title (it looked unsurprisingly banal), but even the cover was a bore: instead of a drawing which re-imagined Frank and Joe’s appearance and fashion sense, this one featured only a photograph of two 90210-looking males, supposedly the legendary boy-gumshoes, and an enthusiastic note encouraging us all to catch the new Hardy Boys television show. The Hardys and I have clearly parted ways, and while I’m tempted to re-read a few of the old Casefiles for nostalgic value, such a reunion would not be quite valuable enough to spend the time on, so our paths continue to diverge.

My path and that of my neighbor, I believe, first began to diverge as I read Danger on Vampire Trail. While I devoured Danger in a day or two, my reading partner and friend plodded along with his installment, and I don’t think Dave ever finished The Secret of the Lost Tunnel. As I moved ahead, purchasing some of the books, borrowing others from the library, above all reading them, Dave confided to me that he simply didn’t like reading. While I ordered Night of the Werewolf from the Scholastic book order form we were offered at school, Dave stuck to Choose Your Own Adventure books, Hot Dog and Dynamite magazines, and posters of action figures and cute pets. When I moved on to King, Koontz, and Co., Dave concentrated on computer games, reading only what was required for school. Whereas for Dave the Hardys were a passing, boring diversion, for me they became a habit. The Hardys were like training wheels, easy and enjoyable exercises that helped me develop the balance necessary for a lifetime of reading books. Though I probably would have been better off practicing on more classic childhood favorites—Robert Louis Stevenson, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so on—I turn to the third-to-last paragraph of Too Many Traitors, the last Hardy book I ever read, for reassurance:

“It’s okay,” Joe replied. “We met girls, we went swimming, we went boating, we saw a lot of scenery and sights. I’ve had enough vacationing for a lifetime.”

On My Shelves

1.
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.

I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.

As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.

Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.

Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.

2.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.

Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.

What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).

But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.

3.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.

As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.

Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.

In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library.  I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.

4.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.

Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:

But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.

While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.

5.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.

6.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.

After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.

Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.

7.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.

Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.

There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.

I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.

8.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.

Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.

9.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.

Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.

10.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).

This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.

Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.

Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.

[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]

Amazing Grace

A Review of Dave Eggers’ What is the WhatOn paper, Edward P. Jones and Dave Eggers seem to have little in common. The former grew up poor in predominantly African-American Northeast D.C., made his critical reputation with a collection of deceptively understated short stories, and even after a National Book Award nomination, continued to labor in relative penury and obscurity. The latter grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb and found commercial success early, with a memoir that placed the Dave Eggers voice – inventive, flashy, ironic – front and center. And yet this literary season has found the two stars aligning in the literary firmament. First, in August, Eggers penned an appreciative and thoughtful Sunday Times review of Jones’ new collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children – a book which, at least superficially, could not be more different than Eggers’ recent collection How We Are Hungry. Then, two weeks ago, Eggers published a novel embodying the very qualities he praised to in Jones’ work: “its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and [a] steady and unerring” narrative force. And though it may surprise critics of McSweeney’s to hear it, What is the What is the finest American novel I have read since The Known World.The novel is a gently fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a living casualty of the ongoing Sudanese civil war. Having fled from his ruined boyhood village on foot, Deng grew up in U.N.-run camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He settled in Atlanta in 2001, and after a series of setbacks began looking for a writer who might help him tell his story. As stories go, this one is dramatic and wrenching prima facie, and in a two-part article for The Believer, Eggers gave it respectful, even tentative journalistic treatment. But, sensing that this approach placed barriers of “objectivity” between the audience from the material, he decided, boldly and correctly (with apologies to La Kakutani) to recast Deng’s story as first-person fiction.The urgency and earnestness of Deng’s voice seem to have provided the necessary pressure to render Eggers’ prose crystalline:The moon was high when the movement in the grass began and the moon had begun to fall and dim when the shuffling finally stopped. The lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open. It jumped from the grass, knocked a boy from his feet. I could not see this part, my vision obscured by the line of boys in front of me. I heard a brief wail. Then I saw the lion clearly again as it trotted to the other side of the path, the boy neatly in its jaws. The animal and its prey disappeared into the high grass and the wailing stopped in a moment. The first boy’s name was Ariath.This paragraph alone would be an extraordinary act of self-effacement for a writer given to flourishes, and an extraordinary act of trust on the part of Deng. That they sustain this voice for 475 pages is something like a miracle. The writer speaks from inside his narrator – from his heart, from his gut, from his intellect. And the distance between audience and subject narrows until we feel that we, too, are Valentino Achak Deng, in all of his complexity and contradiction.Because imperfect as a human being, he makes a perfect protagonist. He is whip-smart yet perpetually naive, generous and selfish, strong and weak, courageous and timid, full of both faith and doubt. In other words, he is a lot like the Dave Eggers of that other fictionalized autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… not because Eggers has played ventriloquist, but because he has tapped into something universal. In the course of the novel, Achak becomes as real to us as we are to ourselves, and we feel his every loss and triumph as though they were our own.The first half of the book concerns the destruction of the tranquil Dinka homeland in Southern Sudan by agents of the Islamic government in Khartoum and his harrowing walk across the country in the company of thousands of other “Lost Boys.” The novel grounds every historical exigency in the dramatic interactions of rounded characters. If the expectation of a simple story of good vs. evil (and some of the political nuances) gets confounded in the process, we can appreciate more fully the quiet heroism of children who talk each other out of suicide, of young teachers who lead groups of boys through minefields and crocodile-infested rivers, of villagers who risk the disapproval of their elders by sharing their food with these unwanted boys. And though it feels inappropriate to render an aesthetic judgment on Deng’s experience, his quest for safety generates a narrative force to rival anything in Lord of the Rings. The difference is that there are no invisibility cloaks or magic breads here.Things get quieter in the second half, as Deng finds some measure of safety in the refugee camps. But his earlier struggles resonate poignantly in his attempts to contact the father he hasn’t heard from in a decade, and especially in a visit to the relatively prosperous and stable capital city of Kenya. Without ever editorializing, What is the What reminds us of the brutality the world’s millions of impoverished children face daily; how decadent something as simple as a grocery store can look to those who are living on U.N. rice. And calamity continues to bedevil Deng as he waits to be relocated to the U.S. – which will prove to be no promised land.In a rare instance of overt artistic license, Eggers uses the invasion and robbery of Deng’s apartment in Atlanta as a frame for his novel. We return periodically to scenes of Deng being assaulted in his apartment, or filing a police report, or waiting to be treated for his injuries in the ER. His internal monologues – his memories of Africa – are directed at the various characters he meets along the way. For the most part, this device works just fine. We are deprived of the solace of seeing Deng as exotic, someone “over there”; rather, his struggles are ours… and the injustices he faces in America are the ones we perpetrate every day with our impatience, our pettiness, our indifference. And Deng himself is guilty of these human failings. Occasionally, though, Eggers seems to overreach in his transitions between the fictional present and the fictional past, and to milk the robbery too aggressively for suspense. In almost every other particular, however, What is the What’s formal features merge perfectly with its moral authority, until it is impossible to speak of artistic “choices.” It is equally difficult to analyze the rich relationship the reader develops with Mr. Deng. Like The Known World, and like Deng’s life, the book just is. And that’s about the highest praise I can think of.Eggers has been a fixture on the American literary scene for long enough that it’s easy to forget he’s in his mid-thirties. Like his near-contemporaries Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, he has occasionally suffered in his writing from a kind of IQ overload, an analysis-paralysis. His second book (and first novel), You Shall Know Our Velocity was not an unqualified success, and some readers have been rubbed the wrong way by the antic quality of his fiction. They may be tempted to write off What is the What, rather than read it. But its large-heartedness is an antidote to such small-mindedness. It takes us deep inside a person we will never forget and heralds the arrival of a writer who has found himself by looking beyond himself, and who has learned the difference between intelligence and wisdom.(All proceeds from What is the What go to aiding the Sudanese in Sudan and America.)

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