I think a home without books gives off an upsetting vibe somewhere between nomad and serial-killer—the gaps in the bookshelves make everything else look slightly uprooted.
I try to avoid betraying how uprooted I often feel, but in the early months of my move to New York City the absence of the books I had dutifully lugged from California to my college dorm room to my first and second apartments made me feel worse than anything else. When I had guests over I prominently displayed The City Room and The Day Kennedy Was Shot and River Town by my bed, and always apologized, like the lone shortstack of books was a character flaw.
Last week Ben sent me the penultimate box of books I left sitting on his shelves in Chicago, and finally my bookshelves are full. Every time he sends some books he has to chose which ones he thinks are most important to me.
This month it was:
The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow
Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Grammar
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Wind-Up bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
New and Collected Poems of Czelsaw Milosz
The Completed Poetry of Cesar Vallejo
Real Live Nude Girl by Carol Queen
Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel
He also sent me a letter. I’ve been thinking a little about the value of letters because I just got my first Letter in the Mail from The Rumpus this week, written by the hilariously insightful Margaret Cho. To have an address, and see it used, is a new comfort to me.
Ben used to write me sweet notes on index cards to accompany holiday presents and anniversaries. This time the letter came handwritten on a lose sheet of notebook paper he cribbed from one of the half-dozen “Evidence” reporter’s notebooks I have in circulation. It says:
Sheets of reporter’s notebook paper are the new index cards, dontcha know? In any event, here is a box of books for you. When I was making it—trying to figure out which of the volumes remaining in the smaller-but-still-bigger-than-I-feel-like-it-has-any-right-to-be-at-this-point pile you would most appreciate, I came across The Book of Daniel, and remembered first-year Ben in a now non existent Border’s, agonizing over what to get this bright young thing who cared about social justice and good writing. Things have changed so much since then, since we gushed back and forth at each other about Hamlet, Ulysses, Godot, but that first shared love remains, even if there’s never enough time anymore. I know we’ll share it in the future too, whether on dates to the theater or rolling awake lazily on a weekend morning to find you reading something you can’t wait to share with me. I hope this box finds you well. See you soon.
The street was lined with spectators and I could hear the wave of surprise as I passed; they were talking excitedly and exclaiming with amazement …
And I thought: Not today. If you’re looking for people who are out of their country, out of place, out of step, out of shape, awkward, clumsy; if that’s what you’re looking for, look back there. Look for the ones who started too fast, or the men who have smoked too many Magnificent Sound cigarettes, or the people who are wearing too many clothes and are choking with heat and sweat. Don’t look at me—I’ve been doing this for many years in many places, and always it has been exactly the same. There are no referees, no language barriers, no complicated rules of etiquette. All you do is run.
A book a week. For pleasure. Was an idea the University of Chicago had all but beaten out of me by the time I graduated—using Wealth of Nations and the Peloponnesian Wars, thousand-page tomes which, I can say with the certainty of someone who lives clumsily and dangerously, hurt on impact.
But I did it! For the first time in years. I have my new A-train subway commute to thank.
In Chicago we have this little thing called network coverage on all of our subway trains, even underground. This means I could conduct a phone interview for work while riding the Red Line north to Lake View, or catch up with my parents. Maybe New York City has yet to hear about this exciting invention, or is too cheap to pay for it, or its citizens really love that feeling of being trapped underground, pushing against 60-some of your closest neighbors, minutes after fleeing equally cramped apartments, with no one to call or text in distress.
But now I’m wondering if we Chicagoans just haven’t caught up with the New Yorkers, who cleverly realize that the sensory-deprivation tank of a subway car (noise-canceling headphones? Check. Breathing through mouth instead of nose? Done.) might be an ideal place to get some reading done.
Relax, the squeaking car rails say. I’m taking you where you need to go (with maybe 1 or 5 delays), so it’s okay to lean back and give yourself a neck cramp with that 500-page novel. Or straddle a pole in the middle of the car, juggling backpacks and lunch-bags and trying not to bump the crotches and buttocks besides you.
Last week I was reading a collection of essays by folk-rock musician Alina Simone, called You Must Go and Win. I bought it after reading her clever essay on a historic NYC boat tour. This week will be Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze —one of only four books I brought with me to NYC, in anticipation of having no time outside of classes at Columbia to read. I’m wondering what else would make appropriate subway reading (criteria include: paperback, lightweight, with a cover that could potential be soiled and still look the same).
Every month, it seems, some reporter drops by my office to request a leave of absence to write a book. I patiently explain that book-writing is agony — slow, lonely, frustrating work that, unless you are a very rare exception, gets a lukewarm review (if any), reaches a few thousand people and lands on a remaindered shelf at Barnes & Noble. I recount my own experience as a book failure — two incompletes, and I’m still paying back a sizable advance with a yearly check to Simon & Schuster that I think of not as a burden but as bail.
I’ve learned interesting things from the books of my staffers. I learned that I employed a financial writer who got himself so deep in debt he couldn’t make his mortgage payments, a media columnist who had been a crack addict and a restaurant critic with a history of eating disorders. (To those who found these cases problematic, I replied that there is no better qualification for writing about life in all its complexity than having lived it.)