Monday, May 22, 2017

Mortality and My Library

It is the first day of summer, at least according to my own personal academic calendar. The college’s commencement was this past Saturday. My official duties have been discharged for the year. Too many writing obligations loom for the summer; so, of course, I’m procrastinating. The piles and piles of books on the floor beside our bed somehow became stacks in our youngest son’s bedroom. But he has now returned from college. So those piles were dumped in my office while I was out of town, barring the way to my desk. This is a welcome distraction.  I “have” to look for shelf space for all these books in order to get down to work. 

The piles have a kind of archaeological quality: they are like the strata of my attention and fancies over the past year, the fits and starts of my curiosity. All the dust on a volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War history indicate that it has been the bedrock of the stack. Tiny volumes like Patti Smith’s Auguries of Innocence got lost in the layers of larger tomes. It now sits on the stairs to be returned to my bedside, along with A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. After all, these are the sorts of books that summers are for. 

Some of these volumes look at me with stern judgment, signals of failure: my bookmark indicates I only made it halfway through Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, though the dog-ears and pencil notations indicate some vested interest. Issue of Paris Review and n+1 are half-read, displaced by the next issue. 

i recall fondly my second readings of George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Adam Haslett’s collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, as I prepped for their novels, which were both excellent.  

The nonfiction layers are curious to me now: Catching Fire, an evolutionary history of cooking sits not far from Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy—which brings to mind a delightful visit to Powell’s in Portland. Indeed, handling each book comes with a whiff of its provenance—in Pasadena and Asheville, a gift from a friend, a book review assignment. 

And as I try to find room for all of these on shelves already burgeoning and lined two rows deep, I’m returning books alongside others unread. Despite all the Julian Barnes I read this year, there are still books on the shelf I’ve not made it to yet. There’s volume 3 of Foote’s civil war Narrative glaring at me unread. I put Colson Whitehead on the shelf and am reminded that Richard Wright is still waiting for me. As are volumes of Updike and Edith Wharton. I find a place for Hitchens’ Arguably only to be reminded that I have all these treasures from Alfred Kazin waiting to be read. 

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right? 

A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?

At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I.   Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.