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.