Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Uncullables: Buechner & Dostoevsky

My mother opened the door and let my friends in. “It's nice of you boys to help my son move out,” she said. “I'm afraid most of what you'll be lifting is books. He's probably got too many for his apartment.”

“You can't have too many books,” my university friend assured her.

“Well,” said my mother, not exactly persuaded, “just be careful when you're lifting those steamers.”

My friend looked at me. “You filled a steamer with books?”

“'Steamers,'” I corrected. “Plural.”

I don't know why he didn't turn around and flee the scene. Some years later I helped another friend who was finishing his PhD. in English Literature. Now there was a guy with an abundance of books. Even so, he assured me his collection had been culled with ruthless integrity. “I don't keep a book if I'm not confident I'll be reading it again,” he said.

I was surprised to hear this, and began to reevaluate my own standard for keeping a book around. Up until then my rule of thumb had been to find a place in the shelf for anything I liked the look of. These days I teeter between the Doctor's prescription and my early “books as silent companions” motif. I suppose I inform the latter with the former: if there's no chance of me ever even wanting to read the book in question, it disappears (goodbye, Doris Lessing).

This is my paperback fiction shelf — one of three in this house. I looked at it the other night and thought, “If a magical tornado were to suck up this shelf and take it away from me forever, there are only a half-dozen items I would truly miss.” (aside from the photo albums, of course)

Some of these are books I've started and enjoyed but haven't got round to finishing yet. Frederick Buechner's The Book Of Bebb is just one example. It's four short novels collected in one large edition. I read the first novel, Lion Country, during our first year of marriage. I loved the way Buechner equated the Christian faith with Bebb's unabashed gluttony for all things sensual — quite the paradigm shift for me, at that time. Not that such a paradigm was in any way unprecedented: Buechner's portrait just happened to be the one that sank in through many years of calcified thinking on the matter.

Leo Bebb had granted me my interview that afternoon in a lunchroom between Third and Lexington in the Forties someplace, all tiled walls and floor like a men's room with fluorescent lights that turned our lips blue. I had ordered tea, Bebb chocolate milk which he sweetened with sugar... Bebb followed his chocolate milk with a wheel of Danish, and it was when he finished that that he got down to what I rapidly concluded must have been his chief purpose in being there with me at all.

He said, “Antonio, I'm commencing to get the feel of you a little. You've had me doing most of the talking, but I've been watching your face and your eyes and they've told me many things ... more things than maybe you'd ever dream of telling me yourself.” Whereupon I had the eerie sensation for a moment that I who was there to expose him was on the point of being exposed myself as being there under pretenses so false as to border on the supernatural.

There's the pretext of Lion Country in a nutshell: Antonio is a cranky and unfulfilled man in his mid-thirties who is on the verge of becoming deeply embittered. Hoping to expose Bebb as a Gantry-type fraud, Antonio discovers instead that Bebb might in fact have the inside track on him. This is by no means a sure deal, of course, and Bebb quickly outs himself as a bit of a buffoon (or “boob”). Still, he has a way of surprising even the reader. Throw in Bebb's adopted daughter who (va-va-voom!!) takes in the rusty Antonio and shakes him up but good, and the book becomes a novel exploration of religious possibilities.

The Book of Bebb didn't get much of a print run, however, and is consequently somewhat difficult to find. If I were to lose this book, I'd have to get it through ABE, which isn't the end of the world. But I'm sentimentally attached to this physical copy, and I'd hate to lose it.

Speaking of sentimental attachments, here's a book I keep around even though I will in all likelihood never read it again: The Karamazov Brothers.

If you zoom in on the bookshelf picture you'll see this Oxford Edition, translated by Ignat Avsey, sits beside the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of Crime & Punishment. The latter team has become the toast of the literati: Pope James Wood is especially excited by their work. If a reader is going to spend a lot of time with Dostoevsky and his hysterics, I suppose the difference in notation takes on significant weight. I've read both books, though, and I greatly prefer the fluidity of Avsey's prose to P&V's (I assume) faithfully choppy utterances.

These two novels have more than sated my curiosity of Dostoevsky. I'm grateful I read them, though — especially Brothers, most of which I devoured during two long international flights, and some during my first visit to my parents' California home. In fact, there's an SFMOMA admission ticket (another keepsake!) bookmarking the translator's endnotes.

I'll see if I can't dig up some more “keepers” over the next few days.


DarkoV said...

Must be the summer months, when everything in the house radiates heat. I've been camped upstairs on the third floor (your floor, not ours as my lovely spouse hisses at me whenever I climb upstairs to deal with the published goods) trying to cull through the books, especially the paperbacks, that radiate the most flash and minimal sizzle. Some of the old paperbacks have similarly bleached into a rusty off-white thereby making their covers quite similar in color and difficult to ascertain as to title.

Having gone through this process a few times, painful experiences all, I am convinced that, especially with all of the Dearly Faded and soon Departed, that book-burning is not as evil as it seems. There have been too many times where the ever-loving wife finds me out in front late at night after a book-culling session deeply engaged in picking through the garbage cans for paperbacks I had second thoughts about. Better that I had simply fired up the grill with way too old copies of brittle paged books with hopes that the plume of smoking words rise up to join their practitioners somewhere high, high above my humble chateau.

Good luck in your endeavours.

Yahmdallah said...

When I was facing my 3rd post-college move (in as many years) is when I finally dumped my Lit. Degree library. At a used book store. Got about $75. It was taking up 8 huge, heavy boxes, and since my album collection took up 3 boxes about 4 feet in length, I'd had enough of lugging those over 100 lbs. monsters.

However, I never read a book twice. I recall too much of the story, and so I just don't. Thus, letting my books go was no big deal. The only one I ever regretted was my Norton Anthology of Brit. Lit. so when I found it at a used store a few years later, I re-snagged it.

The one exception to "I don't read things twice" so far is the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, since I had read it the first time when I was so young.

The three other exceptions will probably be "A Prayer for Owen Meany" (my fave of all time) and "Infinite Jest" (no. 2 fave of all time), and "The Robots of Dawn" (no. 3). If I make it to retirement, I'll pull those three babies out again.

The only other "forever keepers" I have, besides all those mentioned, are:
- An irreplaceable complete collection of Azimov's robot short stories.
- My hardbound "Hitchhiker's" trilogy.
- "Arctic Dreams" by Barry Lopez, wherein the language is so achingly beautiful, I open it to random pages and read to become inspired to write. (It is the "Madame Bovary" of non-fiction writing in the English language.)

And that is the sum total of the permanent books I have.

prairie mary said...

This past year I've been coming up about fifty dollars short on my bills every month. I had thought that now I was out in the wilds of Montana again, my old trick of selling books to Powells wouldn't work. But just in the nick of deus ex machina time, a bookstore moved to about fifty miles away. (A ten dollar drive.) They like just the kind of books I'm through with: New Age, shamanic arcana, big photo albums about megamammals, and anthologies of New West stories.

After all, as I approach seventy, it becomes clear that if I read a book a week, I'd still never finish up my hoard. These are mostly NOT novels. Many could be read ten times ("The Sense of an Ending" by Frank Kermode or any Gaston Bachelard, some Toulmin) and still be worth keeping. A friend sent me his copy of "Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker -- all marked up and with notes in the margins -- and I added another layer but will probably not pass it on.

Last week I gave away two childhood storybooks to my cousin, who has grandchildren in the house just the right age for reading out loud. The books were given to me by my grandparents during WWII.

They come and they go and sometimes they seem to make up their own minds.

Prairie Mary

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - "your floor"?! Geez, man: you put my book suitcase to shame!

Y-Man - novels where plot reigns supreme usually find their way to the library after I've finished with them. But anything that resurfaces in my consciousness after a month or two has to stay around longer. Usually I'm trying to figure out how I got so deeply "hooked." Something like Stephen King's Bag Of Bones stayed on my shelf for a long time, just because I kept returning to the first half of the book and savoring the intimacy he created with this grieving character who couldn't write anymore, but somehow knew exactly how to piss off the most powerful person in the neighborhood. The final third of the book was a dud, but I still marvel at his patient set-up.

BTW, I've retrieved my dog-eared copy of The Crystal Cave to see if it's as good as I remembered. More anon, I'm sure.

PM - "make up their own minds" -- I like that. Unfortunately, there are times when books, like children need to have their minds made up for them. Hence, my culling ....

Who knows, however, which titles will find their way back to my shelves?

yahmdallah said...

Ooo, I'll look forward to your Crystal Cave rev.