Like many of you reading this magazine, I view work primarily as a distraction from reading.
In this, I consider myself relatively lucky; as a teacher, much of my work consists of reading, and although this reading – papers mostly, with some student fiction mixed in – isn’t always what I’d choose to read in my spare time, it’s a whole lot better than being asked to evaluate something dry and bureaucratic: manuals for outdated AV equipment, maybe, or a prospectus on public health.
In fact, I’m doubly lucky, because once a week my job shifts from the classroom to the nearby library archives, where I work in data entry, processing very old books. I’m not lucky because of the work itself, per se, which is rote; after nine hours (minus lunch) of scanning bar codes and typing in author, title, and publication history my brain feels both mechanical and somewhat foggy: a kind of drunken robot. I’m lucky because the rote nature of the work allows me to listen to books on tape.
I say allows, but I could just as easily say requires, since without the distraction these books provide I might be unable to finish my tasks at all.
(Here is where I will refrain from speaking at length of the distant sadness contained in a stack of micro-run poetry chapbooks from the 1970s: the men with mutton chops in quilted jackets, seated on the hood of a rusty car, and who thank said car in the acknowledgments; the practicing nuns with highly sexual poems regarding Jesus and the potency of wayward bulls.)
At its best, the book on tape leads the listener into a kind of reverie. By shifting the locus of linguistic labor onto the reader’s voice, the listener receives the vision of the story directly. I can think of nothing closer to the model of what John Gardner called “a vivid and continuous dream.” Your mind can wander, while you work. You type in this world. You live in another.
I know I shouldn’t use the term “book on tape.” It’s doubly anachronistic; tapes have long since been replaced by CDs, and CDs, in turn, by the seeming purity of a digital file, recorded in a studio somewhere and then uploaded to a central database where a listener can access it when needed: in the cold, dry basement of library storage, pressed up against a cinderblock wall, ears wrapped up in cushy, noise-canceling headphones.
But I can’t help holding on to the term. It reminds me of physical history, of which I was once a part. At twenty-nine, I’m just old enough to remember the time when, entering the public library in the small city of Bridgeton – a slowly dwindling farm-supply and lumber outpost in rural South Jersey – my mother and I would be confronted by a wide, tall shelf labelled “Books on Tape,” which, unlike the library’s books, were limited to one rental at a time. They were big, bulky plastic packages, much thicker than video boxes, sometimes containing up to eight tapes, and, if the book was especially long, composed of two packages, held together at the spine.
I don’t know who their target audience was, other than bookish ten-year-olds like myself, who enjoyed the experience of being read to, but I like to imagine it spanned all class and age brackets; a soybean farmer listening to Raymond Chandler while piloting his combine through an autumn field, or an aging tax attorney listening to Dickens while picking his kids up from some springtime soccer game.
I used the tapes primarily to fall asleep. As a small child I was terrified of the dark, and although for various reasons (divorce, other distractions) my parents had given up reading to me, a voice in the night remained a source of comfort. On a bad night – or if the book was especially riveting – I’d stay awake for the whole story, as I once did for The Hound of the Baskervilles.
(A giant howling dog, its snout outlined in phosphorus – not highly recommended as a nightmare cure.)
On a good night I was asleep before the warning came – end of side one – and the tape shuttled to a stop.
Thus I have an imperfect recollection of much of the most popular authors offered by my small-town public library: Dickens, Poe, Austen. Some chains, a raven, several weddings of dubious provenance.
I also came to the terrible misconception – misled, I think, by the subtitle Read by the Author, which I came to believe was common to every package – that the person reading was invariably the person who’d written the book: a mistake I blame for my wicked tendency to conflate author and narrator, Holden and Salinger, Wormwood and C.S. Lewis.
In those days I had very vivid dreams. I assume everyone’s dreams are more vivid in childhood – but I sometimes wonder, flattering myself shamelessly, if mine weren’t more vivid than most, falling asleep with someone else’s world playing into my ear.
Nowadays I face a problem: how to get access to books-on-tape, down in the archives? The library basement has no tape or CD player, and the computer I use is old and slow. Moreover, I don’t want to spend any money; paying for distractions in order to accomplish paid labor seems a little outrageous to me, or maybe it’s the fault of Bridgeton Public Library, for hooking me on the concept of free media, years ahead of the curve.
It makes sense that books-on-tape would be expensive. There’s the matter of copyright, and then there’s the matter of finding an actor to read for long stretches at a time. As any listener knows, the reader matters; I’ll never forget the aesthetic experience of hearing Basil Rathbone read “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe’s already purple prose brought to the maximum pitch of ridiculousness, or the nearly unpronouncable vocabulary of H.P. Lovecraft, forced through the gravelly larynx of underappreciated voice actor Wayne June.
It’s hard work to talk for an entire day.
Such actors add a level of subtlety and clarity to the experience – but are they necessary? When I think of the books-on-tape from my childhood, it isn’t the professional sheen I remember, but the sense of intimacy, of one voice speaking directly to the listener. Listening to a book-on-tape is always, in some sense, nostalgic; one remembers the primal experience of being read to as a child – and most of us weren’t lucky enough to have trained actors as parents.
Which is why I’ve become so enamored with the website Librivox, which bills itself, tongue-twistingly, as the “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.” Essentially, it’s a database of books that are out of copyright, read by volunteers, and available for free.
Amateurism is part of the purpose here, but it has its drawbacks. Speaking charitably, one has to admit that the readers vary widely in their performance styles; as their website puts it, “[w]e’ll accept you no matter what you sound like.” The breadth of titles is fairly impressive, however, and not all that different from the stuff I once found in the library: classics, mostly, with a few odd treasures thrown in: Japanese ghost stories, sea-faring yarns, early pulp sci-fi.
Most impressive, however, is the amount of reading labor these people are willing to volunteer for free. Several weeks ago I spent my entire workday listening to a recording of Heart of Darkness made by Kristin LeMoine, a mother of two who has somehow found the time to record nearly a hundred full-length audiobooks, including works by H.G. Wells, Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott, and whose pleasant, straightforward, and clear reading style helped cool down some of Conrad’s more overheated descriptions. I’d trust her with Ivanhoe, if I ever have the time to listen to the whole thing.
How can I adequately thank Kristin LeMoine for her work? I suppose a short note on the LibriVox forums might do, but it couldn’t do justice to the odd intimacy of living with a stranger’s voice for the entirety of a working day, hearing the pops of their home microphone and the sudden sharp edits that show when they got up to go to the bathroom, or to feed their children.
So what makes a good reader? My youthful confusions aside, having written a book doesn’t always make you a good candidate for reading one, as evidenced by the poor performance of many of the authors featured in “X reads Y” podcasts. Perhaps this should be self-evidence from experience with fiction readings. Most writers overvalue the work of words on the page, and undervalue the excitement of rhythm and cadence. Or maybe they’re simply shy.
(Though this disillusionment doesn’t stop me from conjuring up writer/reader combinations made impossible by time and language: Woolf/Proust, Williams/Stein, and – my personal favorite – Beckett reading Flann O’Brien’s absurdist masterpiece The Third Policeman with the same lilting familiarity he brought to his own work.)
I suppose I have high standards for reading aloud. My father, once an aspiring actor, was an eager reader when it came to children’s books: a parent who could “do the voices,” as the kids like to say. I still remember sitting in our living room, watching the sun setting over the marshland in the window behind his head, while he read to us from Brian Jacques’s Redwall:
He intoned the second sentence, which repeated later in the chapter, like an ominous refrain, in a voice I remember as a basso profondo.
(Actually, my father is a baritone. These things deepen over time.)
Not all the readers at Librivox live up to this lofty example. Some recordings are ruined by a reader’s mumbling, others have poor fidelity, and others are simply ill-suited to the material; after all, everyone has their own preference when it comes to accents. Kristin Lemoine aside (who is, as far as I can tell, an American), I prefer the English and Irish readers. Maybe it’s simple exoticism, but I prefer the rolling cadence of the UK to the flat affect of the U.S. readership, especially when the work itself is English or Irish in origin.
And yet – part of the beauty of a site like Librivox is the sense of personal attachment evident in all these volunteers, professionalism be damned, and sometimes a less traditional voice lends an extra dimension to a story. Certainly gender is not an obstacle to good interpretation; if anything, women reading men (and vice versa) can adds depth to an episode, as when the aforementioned Kristin LeMoine narrates Marlowe’s visit to Kurtz’s former fiancee at the end of Heart of Darkness – a man might have succumbed to the temptation to turn the fiancee into a fool, but LeMoine renders her sympathetically, which only makes the tragic irony more painful.
Some of my most satisfying Librivox experiences have been episodes of productive disjunction; I have heard no greater depth of feeling than in the voice of Southern woman reading Thomas Hardy, and this reminds me of the original potential of books to bring you other states of mind, and to make connections.
I myself am not a Victorian Englishman, yet I feel a deep attachment to Hardy’s Wessex and its language. Why should I be so hypocritical, then, as to expect his words in an English accent?
Perhaps I’m too attached to reading aloud: to both being read to and reading to others. It’s an iron rule in my marriage, for instance, that I am not allowed to read passages in the book I’m currently devouring out loud to my wife, especially when she is in the middle of a book of her own. There is something mean-spirited and arrogant about the impulse to continually narrate. One can’t simply stand in the middle of a train platform, reciting Whitman in a basso profondo, without risking a police escort. There must be limits.
That being said, there are precious few opportunities in life to read and be read to, and there is something utopian to me about the creation of a site like Librivox, which – unlike Goodreads, which is slowly but surely evolving into yet another marketing arm of Amazon – operates solely on people’s inexhaustible appetite for reading and listening. It seems like a triumph of the old conception of the internet, which promised you access to thousands of other people who were willing to share their dreams and passions with total strangers: a conception which is increasingly being crowded out by more market-driven forces.
It is hard to explain, now that the internet has effectively annexed small towns such as the one in which I grew up, how important it was to me to go every week to the public library and pull those bulky plastic cases off of the shelves, one at a time, to take home. When I imagine the other people who walked through its Neoclassical facade and lingered a while at the same shelf, I can’t help but overlay my own experience onto them, and imagine they also used them a sort of portal into alternate lives: riding a steamboat down an African river as they ferried their children to basketball practice, or fretting over the foolish marriages of aristocratic Englishwomen as they double-checked the finances of their farm.
Time marches on, and there’s no use being nostalgic about old media. If I still lived near Bridgeton, I could get all the free audiobooks I wanted; the local library now provides free downloads to those who hold a library card.
But I am more interested in the way sites like Librivox have flipped the script on our conception of the audiobook; it has made us actors, once again. It used to be we went to library to hear stars of stage and screen intone the classics. It’s a delightfully democratic development that now, when we get a day off from work, we can settle down in front of our computers with a glass of water, turn on our microphones, and return the favor.
Image via Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com/Flickr
“In one of his last columns, published in March 1966, Flann O’Brien looked back on his catechism, compiled more than twenty years earlier, and described it as ‘an exegetic survey of the English language in its extremity of logo-daedalate poliomyelitis, anaemic prostration and the paralysis of incoherence.’ One month after writing that, he was dead, and yet within a year a remarkable renaissance was taking place, with the long-delayed publication of his great comic fantasy The Third Policeman and, soon afterwards, the first of many anthologies of the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ columns, this one entitled The Best of Myles.” (Related: our own Mark O’Connell on the humor in O’Brien’s work.)
I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that
The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
And I’ve read it maybe five or six times at this point: first as a teenager, then again as an undergraduate when I was supposed to be reading other much less funny things, and then again another couple of times while writing a Masters thesis – a terrific wheeze of a Borges/O’Brien comparative reading. And I’ve just now revisited it afresh, partly to reassure myself before writing this piece that it is just as funny as I remember it being. (It is, albeit with the slight caveat that it’s possibly even funnier.) The first time I read it, I was in school, and I remember being confounded by two facts: 1) That it was originally published in 1941 and 2) That it first appeared in Irish as An Béal Bocht. And if there was one thing that was less funny than anything written before, say, 1975, it was anything that was written in Irish.
To fully understand this, I think you would probably need to have some first-hand experience of the Irish educational system. This is a country in which every student between the ages of five and eighteen is taught Irish for several hours a week, and yet it is also, mysteriously, a country in which relatively few adults are capable of holding a conversation in the language in anything but the most stilted, self-consciously ironic pidgin. (After almost a decade and a half of daily instruction in the spoken and written forms of what is officially my country’s first language, just about the only complete Irish sentence I myself can now speak translates as follows: “May I please have permission to go to the toilet, Teacher?” I don’t think I’m especially unusual in this regard, although I’m aware my ability to forget things I’ve learned is exceptional.) I don’t want to get into this too deeply here, except to say that part of this has to do with a kind of morbid cultural circularity: the reason so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms is because so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms, and that there would therefore be few people to speak it to if they did. Also, very little literature gets written in Irish, partly because (for the reasons outlined above), relatively few people are capable of writing it, and also because, if they did, the readership for it would be correspondingly small. And so the stuff that gets taught in schools tends to be a combination of (as I remember it) unremarkable contemporary poetry and psychotropically dull peasant memoir.
The great canonical presence in the latter genre is a book called Peig, the autobiography of an outstandingly ancient Blasket island woman named Peig Sayers, which was dictated to a Dublin schoolteacher and published in 1936. Successive generations of Irish students were forced not just to read this exegesis of poverty and misfortune – over and over and over – but to memorize large chunks of it, later to be disgorged and explicated at the intellectual gun-point of state examination. The memoir begins with Peig outlining what a rigorously shitty time she had of it growing up in rural Ireland in the late 19th century, and this unhappy existence is narrated with a signature flatness of tone that is maintained throughout the whole grim exercise:
My people had little property: all the land they possessed was the grass of two cows. They hadn’t much pleasure out of life: there was always some misfortune down on them that kept them low. I had a pair of brothers who lived — Sean and Pádraig; there was also my sister Máire.
As a result of never-ending flailing of misfortune my father and mother moved from the parish of Ventry to Dunquin; for them this proved to be a case of going from bad to worse, for they didn’t prosper in Dunquin no more than they did in Ventry.
For a teenager, of course, the only appropriate reaction to this stuff is the most inappropriate one, somewhere between stupefaction and manic amusement. As real and as comparatively recent as the history of grinding poverty and oppression in Ireland is, it’s still hard to read this with a straight face – particularly if, as a youth, you had to commit great thick blocks of it to memory. There’s something about the improbable combination of sober causality and delirious wretchedness (“As a result of the never-ending flailing of misfortune”; “a case of going from bad to worse”) that comes on like an outright petition for heartless juvenile ridicule. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” as Nell puts it in Beckett’s Endgame. We should take this point seriously, coming as it does from an old woman who has no legs and lives in a dustbin.
Beckett’s contemporary Flann O’Brien understood this, too: unhappiness is the comic goldmine from which he extracts The Poor Mouth’s raw material. He is parodying Irish language books like Peig and, in particular, Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s memoir An t-Oileánach (The Islander); but in a broader sense, he’s ridiculing the forces of cultural nationalism that promoted these books as exemplars of an idealized and essentialized form of Irishness: rural, uneducated, poor, priest-fearing, and truly, superbly Gaelic.
O’Brien’s narrator, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, is not so much a person as a humanoid suffering-receptacle, a cruel reductio ad absurdium of the “noble savage” ideal of rural Irishness promoted by Yeats and the largely Anglo-Irish and Dublin-based literary revival movement. A lot of the book’s funniness comes from its absurdly stiff language (which reflects an equally stiff original Irish), but that language is a perfect means of conveying a drastically overdetermined determinism – a sort of hysterical stoicism which seems characteristically and paradoxically Irish. The book’s comedic logic is roughly as follows: to be Irish is to be poor and miserable, and so anything but the most extreme poverty and misery falls short of authentic Irish experience. The hardship into which Bonaparte is born, out on the desperate western edge of Europe, is seen as neither more nor less than the regrettable but unavoidable condition of Irishness, an accepted fate of boiled potatoes and perpetual rainfall. “It has,” as he puts it, “always been the destiny of the true Gaels (if the books be credible) to live in a small, lime-white house in the corner of the glen as you go eastwards along the road and that must be the explanation that when I reached this life there was no good habitation for me but the reverse in all truth.”
Like many of the best comedians of prose, O’Brien is a master of studied repetition. Again and again, unhappy situations are met with total resignation, with a fatalism so extreme that it invariably proceeds directly to its ultimate conclusion: death. Early on, Bonaparte tells us about a seemingly intractable situation whereby his family’s pig Ambrose, with whom they shared their tiny hovel, developed some disease or other that caused him to emit an intolerable stench, while at the same time growing so fat that he couldn’t be got out the door. His mother’s reaction to this situation is simply to accept that they’re all going to die from the stench, and that they therefore might as well get on with it. “If that’s the way it is,” she says, “then ‘tis that way and it is hard to get away from what’s in store for us.”
Individual hardships or injustices are never seen as distinct problems to be considered with a view to their potential solution; they are always aspects of a living damnation, mere epiphenomena of “the fate of the Gaels.” It’s a mindset that’s both profoundly anti-individualist and cosmically submissive. The cause of suffering isn’t British colonialism: it’s destiny. On Bonaparte’s first day of school, his teacher beats him senseless with an oar for not being able to speak English, and to impress upon him the fact that his name is no longer Bonaparte O’Coonnassa, but “Jams O’Donnell” – a generically anglicized title the same schoolmaster gives to every single child under his tutelage. When Bonaparte takes the matter up with his mother later that day, she explains that this is simply the way of things. The justice or injustice of the situation doesn’t come into it:
Don’t you understand that it’s Gaels that live in this side of the country and that they can’t escape from fate? It was always said and written that every Gaelic youngster is hit on his first school day because he doesn’t understand English and the foreign form of his name and that no one has any respect for him because he’s Gaelic to the marrow. There’s no other business going on in school that day but punishment and revenge and the same fooling about Jams O’Donnell. Alas! I don’t think that there’ll ever be any good settlement for the Gaels but only hardship for them always.
The assumption that nothing can be done about it, though, doesn’t mean that ceaseless meditation and talk about the suffering of the Gaels is not absolutely central to the proper business of Gaelicism. True Irishness is to be found in the constant reflection on the condition of Irishness. (This is still very much a characteristic of contemporary Irish culture, by the way, but that’s probably another day’s work.) O’Brien’s characters think and talk about little else. Bonaparte, at one point, recalls an afternoon when he was “reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them)” when his grandfather comes in looking even more decrepit and disheveled than usual.
– Welcome, my good man! I said gently, and also may health and longevity be yours! I’ve just been thinking of the pitiable situation of the Gaels at present and also that they’re not all in the same state; I perceive that you yourself are in a worse situation than any Gael since the commencement of Gaelicism. It appears that you’re bereft of vigour?
– I am, said he.
– You’re worried?
– I am.
– And is it the way, said I, that new hardships and new calamities are in store for the Gaels and a new overthrow is destined for the little green country which is the native land of both of us?
O’Brien uses the term “Gael” and its various derivatives so frequently throughout the book that the very idea of “Gaelicism” quickly begins to look like the absurdity it is. This reaches a bizarre culmination in the book’s central comic set-piece, where Bonaparte recalls a Feis (festival of Gaelic language and culture) organized by his grandfather to raise money for an Irish-speaking university. The festival is, naturally, an exhaustively miserable affair, characterized by extremes of hunger and incredibly shit weather. (“The morning of the feis,” Bonaparte recalls, “was cold and stormy without halt or respite from the nocturnal downpour. We had all arisen at cockcrow and had partaken of potatoes before daybreak.”) Some random Gael is elected President of the Feis, and opens the whole wretched observance with a speech of near perfectly insular Gaelicism:
If we’re truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.
This is followed by more speeches of equal or greater Gaelicism, to the point where a number of Gaels “collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening while one fellow died most Gaelically in the midst of the assembly.” From a combination of malnutrition and exhaustion, several more lives are lost in the dancing that follows.
O’Brien’s reputation as a novelist rests largely on the postmodern absurdism of The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, with their mind-bending meta-trickery and audacious surrealism. But the essence of his genius was, I think, to be found in his extraordinary mastery of tone, in his skillful manipulation of a kind of uncannily mannered monotony. Repetition and redundancy are absolutely crucial to the comic effect of his prose, and it’s in The Poor Mouth that these effects are most ruthlessly pursued, not least because they are crucial elements of the kind of story he’s parodying here – a life of unswerving and idealized tedium, in which basically the only viable foodstuff is the potato. (Breakfast is memorably referred to as “the time for morning-potatoes.”) There’s a feverish flatness to the narrative tone throughout, a crazed restraint, and a steady accumulation of comic pressure that is like nothing else I’ve ever read. Bonaparte’s recollection of his first experience with alcohol – in the form of poitín, which is of course the potato fermented to the point of near-lethality – is one of the stronger examples of this in the book. It’s also, I think, probably the greatest of O’Brien’s many great comic riffs:
If the bare truth be told, I did not prosper very well. My senses went astray, evidently. Misadventure fell on my misfortune, a further misadventure fell on that misadventure and before long the misadventures were falling thickly on the first misfortune and on myself. Then a shower of misfortunes fell on the misadventures, heavy misadventures fell on the misfortunes after that and finally one great brown misadventure came upon everything, quenching the light and stopping the course of life.
The effort to identify the comic operations of any given piece of writing – what its technology consists of, how its moving parts fit together – is essentially a mug’s game. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for just accepting that something is funny because it makes you laugh. But there’s something about the flawlessness of this passage’s mechanism that makes me want to take it apart and lay out its components. Obviously, repetition is the primary engine here – just the sounds of the words “misadventure” and “misfortune” in such close succession is powerfully amusing. And, as with the spookily O’Brien-esque passage above from Peig, there’s the mix of sober causality and delirious wretchedness. Accumulation and enumeration is, as always with this writer, an irresistible comic force. But I think the real stroke of genius here – the element that really elevates it to the level of the sublime – is how he keeps going well past the point where the joke has done its job. The funniest word here, in other words – the word that always tips me over into literal LOLing whenever I read it – is “Then …”
And maybe this is funny precisely for the least funny of reasons: because misery and misadventure rarely stop at the point where their work is done. Even when misfortune – or life, or history – has already made its irrefutable point, there’s never anything to prevent it taking a quick breath and starting a new sentence: “Then …”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Oh how horrendous it was. Last year I did that thing: I bought and sold a house. As everyone warned, it was a dreadful double-whammy – I’d rather stand up in front of 500 people and share the secrets of my life. When preparing my humble home for sale, a place in which I’d lived for over a decade so it was starting to come undone at the edges, my real-estate agent told me that the two most important rooms in a house are the kitchen and the bathroom. Where I live now, an 1890s worker’s cottage in a regional town in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, it’s not the kitchen and bathroom that means the most to me, no, it’s a small room immediately inside from the front door.
It really is a small room. You could fit a double bed but there wouldn’t be much room to walk around. And there’s only one window, a timber-sash ensemble, which looks into what’s officially the tiniest front garden in the district. And the walls are painted a color that’s a cross between clay and mud, so it feels cave-like, as more than one visitor has commented.
Why is this room my favorite? Because it’s where – at last – I have a library.
On each side of the old Hordern and Son coal-burning fire (I burn wood in it, and despite its age it’s surprisingly efficient, pumping out a sharp, dry heat) are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The bookshelves aren’t old, though they look as if they’d like to be. Also in the room is an upright piano, one from my teenage years. Sometimes, when I’m having a break from working words I sit there and make up simple minor-key tunes that only I and passers-by hear, except I’m sure the passers-by wish they hadn’t. Against the window is a dark green tartan-esque couch that I bought from Vinnies in town for $60. It’s in a surprisingly good condition, although the dog has designs on it.
What’s missing is technology. When I moved in a year ago I decided that the little room at the front of the house would be gadget-free: no PC, no laptop, no phone, no stereo, although the modem does live in the library, because it’s the only option. It wouldn’t be a place to check emails or scroll through Facebook updates, that soulless activity that’s somehow entrapped even a good person like me. There’s no technology in this room because I want it to be about the books on the shelves.
In this day and age it seems almost prehistoric to want to establish a library. It’s as though I’m admitting that I’ve become a fan of riding a donkey down to the shops, or that I’ve discovered how and why things fall to the ground. But I don’t care. How good the books look on their shelves: all those people I’ve met, all those adventures I’ve had. What dangerous situations I’ve been in: birth, hard living, love, loss, betrayal, and, yes, even death.
I like order – to be honest, I’m obsessed with it – so I’ve divided up the library as if expecting the public to visit. To the left of the fire is fiction, and by fiction I mean primarily novels. To the right of the fire is my collection of literary journals I’ve built up over the last two decades, though I did have to do a cull when I moved house, which seemed sacrilegious, but it was simply something I had to do because they’d gotten out of hand, they’d proliferated. Also on this side of the fire is poetry, short-story collections, and writing “how to” books. Amongst this is a handful of my own publications; I’m not sure what I make of those two inches of book spines. Is that really all I’ve produced? Yes, that’s really all I’ve produced.
Back on the left-hand side I’ve divided things up even further. On the top shelf, almost out of reach, are the books I must risk life and limb for if the house is burning down. There’s Eminence by Morris West, Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan, the first volume in Manning Clark’s memoir, The Quest for Grace, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, How Fiction Works by James Wood (recently I concluded this book was so good that it didn’t deserve to wallow on the right-hand side), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Flann O’Brian’s The Third Policeman, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow, which was the first grown-up novel I’d loved, and, of course, Madam Bovary. These books have moved me; the lives between the covers are as real as those of my family and friends. Like the coal-burner fire they radiate with intensity. They will be read again and again.
Beneath the top-shelf stories are books I’ve enjoyed, sometimes very much, but they don’t seem to possess the profundity – life’s sheer heartbreak – of those up high; if there’s a fire and I have a spare arm I’ll grab some of these, but I won’t fret. Further down again are books that haven’t meant much to me, or perhaps I’ve hated them, or I’ve simply not understood, or I’ve understood them but they haven’t stayed with me, they’ve neither lingered nor haunted. Even so I can’t stand to chuck them away; in terms of novels I get rid of next to nothing, it seems inhumane. On the bottom shelves are books that are waiting to be picked up and loved, I hope I’ll love them, and I’m sure they do, too.
What started this library? How did it come into being? In 1994, when against my better judgement I decided to have a crack at writing fiction, a well-read friend came over to my place; he and I had committed to doing a night course in creative writing and he’d offered to give me a lift. He looked around my flat and said, “Where are your books?” I pointed to the one and only shelf in the place, the one above the television. “There,” I said, “I’ve got Cloudstreet.” As if this single Winton tome could offer absolution! I did have some books on biology and ecology and place and landscape, because I’d started my professional life as a landscape architect, but in terms of novels I was up shit-creek.
“Really?” said my friend. “Is that it?”
Yes, that was it. He shook his head. He was incredulous.
And he was right: I wanted to write but I’d not read much, at least not as a young adult – I was too busy navigating the minefield of late-surging hormones and the appalling mess of sexuality that goes along with that. Back in primary and high school I’d read, though I was slow at it, but I had enjoyed the task very much. These days, courtesy of my mother, I’ve re-collected most of the books I’d loved as a kid, such as My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, and The Dingo Summer by Australia’s Ivy Baker (which, according to the inscription, I was awarded for the neatest book in Science, Term Two, 1982; these days my handwriting is so appalling it looks like I’ve had a stroke). I loved The Dingo Summer for its exploration of landscape and loneliness, which are two themes I’ll take to the grave, whether I keep writing about them or not.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the morning after my friend made his painful, embarrassing judgement I resolved to read as much as I wrote, to slowly but surely fill my shelves with books. Novels, short-story collections, poetry even. I’m not a good reader of poetry, but sometimes I do like to try unpicking a few lines before I turn out the light at night, a kind of surreptitious literary dessert. It’s probably taken me longer than most readers and writers to build up a library. I remain frustratingly slow at getting through a book, and these days I’m regularly exhausted – trying to get words in the right order really is an exacting job – so I’m forever falling asleep with pages face down on my chest.
But now I have it, my library, at least a library in the making.
I’m also an avid – read: fanatical – collector of music, so I have shelves and shelves of CDs and vinyl records, even some tapes, but I keep all this in a different room to the library, the one the previous owners used as a nursery, which, I think, is rather fitting for a childless man like me. However, even though a day doesn’t go by when I don’t listen to music, listen intensely, more than often I’m moved (I’m not immune to doing air guitar to Sonic Youth or lying in the bath imagining my demise to the miserable strains of The Smiths), it’s my collection of books that means the most to me.
All that ink and paper and cardboard has enriched me in ways that I don’t really understand, not yet, and perhaps I never will – I almost failed the High School Certificate, English was my only reliable subject, and thank Christ for that. All I know is reading has challenged me, it’s changed me, sometimes it’s angered me; sometimes I’ve been so caught up in the text that years later I can still remember the events, minute details. For example, that unexpectedly sensual moment in the water-tank between the boy and the older man in The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. Or in The Quest for Grace when Manning Clark as a child visits a cemetery, feels the terrible weight of his existence, his meaninglessness, so he runs home where he is thankful for the warmth and comfort of a roast dinner.
Part of the allure of reading is finding fictional worlds more interesting than the predictable day-to-day of real life. But books haven’t simply offered escape. They have given me depth, they have given me perspective, the sense that my days and nights have expanded, opened out. The aimless meanderings of my white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-class life have more pulse because I’ve read, because I’ve given Tolstoy a go (The Death of Ivan Ilych is on the top shelf), and Chekhov too (he’s also up there with the best of them, obviously). For the completeness of this record, I should declare that there’s no Shakespeare on my shelves. I could lie and say that I love the guy, but I don’t, I’m with Tolstoy on that front – it just seems so, well, much ado about nothing.
But that’s all by-the-by, isn’t it.
The fact is that at the age of forty-three years and twenty-eight days I have a room that can rightly, justifiably be called a library. It’s a physical thing as much as a brain and heart thing; it’s a space, a place, a room all of my own, in every possible way. It is without question my favorite room in the house, the most important room, as archaic as that sounds, as archaic as it probably is, but I really don’t care. My library is my anchor, it’s my look-out, it’s my lighthouse. And I’m eternally grateful that if ever I’m burgled my books will be safe, because these days no one in their right mind would bother stealing the things. Everything will be alright. As long as there’s no fire.
Image credit: Kelly Schott/Flickr
Christopher Sorrentino’s second novel, Trance, was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award and was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He is also the author of Sound on Sound and American Tempura, a novella.I taught two literature seminars this year, so although I like to believe I’m picking great books to read in class, I’m going to disqualify those thirty or so titles; eliminating from consideration (but not, of course, really) such personal favorites as Light in August, The Power and the Glory, Waiting for the Barbarians, The Third Policeman, and The Confidence-Man. Neatly enough, the two books I read at opposite ends of 2008 certainly stand out among the most interesting: Zachary Lazar’s Sway, a really smart and wonderfully written exploration of pop culture’s limits, limitations, and transformative power, as embodied by the Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger, and Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil, which I read near the beginning of the year; and Lynne Tillman’s American Genius (a re-read, actually), a masterpiece of mannered, circular, and obsessive monologue, issuing from a resident at either MacDowell or a mental hospital — it’s as if Wittgenstein’s Mistress were to combine with one of Bernhardt’s deeply disaffected, monomaniacal narrators.More from A Year in Reading 2008
At GalleyCat, Ron points to a New York Times story – coming four months after the fact – about how a mention of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman boosted book sales. You expect the Times to be a little more on top of things.In a similar “old news” vein, having followed the Google Book Search story pretty closely, I clicked over to Charles Arthur’s story on the topic in the Guardian – which usually has pretty great book coverage – and was disappointed to find it to be a rehash of old news with a healthy dash of scaremongering about how Google could start printing on demand the books they’ve scanned and sell them to customers (oh, please!). Pretty weak stuff. I did however enjoy the story Arthur linked to, Victor Keegan’s account of trying to get some of his writing published by a print on demand publisher, just to see how the process works.