The time of lists is upon us, when popular media narrow down the year’s artistic output to a manageable form. I do it myself, composing a Top Ten album list, or responding to inquiries about the best books I’ve read this year, even though some of them might have been from years gone by (Origin of the Brunists, Lit) and some from this year (The Flamethrowers, Tenth of December). But when I think about books, although they’ve been my constant companions since I was child, my papery insulation against despair, I can’t say for sure that I have favorites, or that any of them, as so often claimed by others, changed my life.
What I remember most about the books I’ve read is not the individual stories themselves, but the intensity of the conversations I was having with the authors of those books. Reading a book really is like a torrid love affair. A relationship, however fleeting. Not only did reading Infinite Jest wring me out emotionally, it also tested me physically, as I lugged that ten-pound blue brick of a hardcover from place to place and squinted to read the footnotes. While reading The Secret History, I almost stepped off a curb into traffic on a busy DC street. By the end of Ulysses, I had drunk with Stephen and Leopold and was screwing Molly in a Dublin bed. After reading Netherland, I started what would become a lifelong love affair with cricket. When I was a kid, The Great Brian series by John D. Fitzgerald gave me hope that a smart kid could be popular, and on family car trips, Albert Camus’ A Happy Death kept me morbid company, pouting in the backseat alongside me as I played the license plate game.
Now I’m trying to decide if I should start The Goldfinch, The Murder of Christ, John Barleycorn, Sixty Stories, or simply finish Our Story Begins and decide later. Who will carry me through the holidays, into the eternal promise of the new year? These are important decisions. Resolutions can wait.
Books saved my life, are saving my life every single day. Not the words inside them, although that’s true as well and would be the subject of a much longer essay. I’m talking about the physical objects themselves, the paper and twine and glue, that are bought and sold as commodities in the real world. Without the buying and selling of physical books, I would be dead. I would not have been able to make a living, to feed and clothe both myself and my family, all these years. From my first job working at a Waldenbooks at the Fairmount Fair Mall in Syracuse, New York, and although I have held many, many other jobs throughout my life, books have always been the vital means by which I support myself. As a writer, I know how mind-numbingly hard it is to make one’s living from putting words on paper. But if it weren’t for all those writers who struggled and did just that, I wouldn’t be able to eat. Yes, there is a special relationship between writers and readers. But there is an equally special, and just as necessary, relationship between writers and booksellers. Of all the jobs I’ve held, the one I’m proudest of is bookseller. In fact, I’m still one today. I sell textbooks at a small liberal arts college in Maine. And although I’m frequently cast as the bad guy because I either rip off the students at the beginning of the semester by charging them too much for their books, or ripping them off at the end of the semester for not paying them enough to buy them back, I still take great pride in what I do. And sometimes, very rarely but sometimes, a graduating senior will tell me how helpful and kind I’ve been to them over the past four years. It’s a small consolation, but then I realize that the world of books is one of relationships, between writers and printers and binders and sellers and readers. All woven together.
Sadly, those relationships are frayed and in some cases altogether severed. With the Twitterfication of the world, humans today, especially young humans, seem much more interested in the message and not so much in the delivery mechanism. The whole idea of books as objects to be treasured, not just for the words they contain, but for their very existence, is increasingly being lost. Kids today just want to know how the story ends. Ebooks aren’t really books at all, just a license to read something for a set amount of time. They smell of fuel oil and burning silicon. In my opinion, the road to Hell will be paved with broken Kindles.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended a lecture and book signing with one of my favorite writers, Allegra Goodman. After her talk, I asked her to sign the copy of Kaaterskill Falls I had brought along, a novel I treasure. She cheerfully complied and we chatted a bit about the Catskills and Olana, and swimming, and the water flow of the falls based on the rainfall and snowmelt that year. I have that copy with me now, as well as my signed copies of Satanic Verses, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Wonder Boys, and The Secret History. Each signature inside each of these books represent a definite time and place in my life, and ones that Jeff Bezos can’t take away. I’m eternally thankful to all the books out there that I’ve been able to read, to have signed, and to have sold. I feel lucky that books have lasted as long as they have, and that years ago I didn’t decide instead to become a Betamax salesman. But really. I was an English major. What else could I do? And how else could I have met the fierce, brilliant Christopher Hitchens, who signed the copy of Notes To A Young Contrarian you see above? Now, sadly, Hitch is nothing but scattered bones and dust. But his words, like his name scrawled in black Sharpie on the paper of this volume, a volume I will never part with, will never die. Our time together was brief, a few minutes at best, but by the mark of his own hand, he remains with me forever.
Try that with a Nook.
I had some minor surgery last Friday, so I took this past weekend to recuperate. While I was flat on my back, gazing out the window at the sun-dappled leaves and listening to the birds singing, I was able to start and finish five books. They are: The Happiest Man in the World by Alec Wilkinson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Into the Wild by John Krakauer, Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. All highly recommended. I can’t wait to fully recover so that I can get back on my mountain bike and resume my search for the perfect swimming hole. I’ve lived in Bath now for almost ten years and I’m just now really starting to appreciate the diversity of the landscape. The Kennebec can look foul one day, and as beautiful as the Seine the next. I might take a hiatus from this blog for awhile, too. It’s too beautiful outside to spend time at a computer. I hope you all can find your own private Eden this summer, too. Cheers! – henry
I baked two loaves of bread the other day. This might not seem like such a radical thing. People have been baking bread for centuries. I got the idea from the book I’ve been reading, The Freedom Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson. In it, he says “if you can make bread, you can do anything. It’s amazing how much confidence baking bread gives you.” My family and I have been eating this bread, which is so much more substantial that supermarket bread, for three days now, enjoying it with our dinners or toasting it for breakfast. It’s a gratifying sight to see your three-year-old son eating the bread you baked. I’ve cooked many meals for my family but for some reason making bread has been the most fulfilling cooking I’ve ever done. And it’s thrifty. Another of Mr. Hodgkinson’s mantras is to “reject waste, embrace thrift.” He advises us to throw out the telly and stop buying magazines. These devices just entice us to buy things we don’t need. Ride a bicycle, the thriftiest invention ever! I just saw an ad on television for Lowe’s, a chain of home improvement stores. Spring is here, and so now we must start our “outdoor projects” Gene Hackman, their paid spokesperson tells us. We are forever working, even during our leisure time. “Let’s build something together” Mr. Hackman exhorts. More like “Spend a lot of money at Lowe’s, using your Lowe’s credit card, and then go home because now you’re on your own, friend.” Commercials never tells us that spring is here and now it’s time to lay in the grass, do nothing, and watch the clouds pass overhead. For the stores, there’s no money to be made in promoting idleness. But it feels so much better to be thrifty than to shop. Shopping will never gratify us. That’s why we keep doing it. If we were ever really gratified, we’d stop shopping tomorrow. But that’s not in the stores’ best interest. To always keep us wanting for more is their philosophy. But what a sweet victory thrift is over waste! For example, I found a free book in a donation bin a few days ago, a guide to identifying trees of North America. It’s one of these old fashioned Golden guides, with colorful drawings instead of photographs. I didn’t pay a cent for it, and yet my children and I have been enjoying looking at trees and trying to find them in the book so as to name them. We found out that the tree in our front yard is (probably) a Norway maple. We’ve lived in our house for almost ten years and never knew that. For the longest time the tree in our front yard was just named “tree.” But now it has a name. And just yesterday my son said that when he got out of preschool he wanted to “look for trees.” Now that’s much better than television.
I’ve just started reading The Freedom Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson. His earlier book, How to be Idle, has been a major influence on my life. Like Linji’s business person, Hodgkinson is a great proponent of lounging, napping, drinking, playing music, bicycle riding, putting on parties, and basically saying “bollocks” to consumer society in general. He is also the editor of The Idler magazine (see the link on my sidebar) in the UK. I could probably quote the entire book here if I’m not careful, and since I suggest you read it at your earliest convenicne, I won’t do that. But let me just quote you a brief passage from the first chapter. Talking about the ways we might alleviate the anxiety that modern society produces in us, he says: “I have managed to cut down to one newspaper a week, which leaves a lot more time to concentrate on the important things in life, like drinking and music.”
A good first step…
This past week, I had the occasion to come across a small book that I found in a used book shop while on holiday with my family in Portsmouth, NH . It is entitled A Record of Awakening by David Smith. The subtitle is Practice and Insight on the Buddhist Path. Written in his own hand, this self-described “ordinary chap”, a gardener from England, tells of his deep awakening while practicing the Way at a Threravada Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka. I won’t be a plot-spoiler, but suffice to say that if you are sincerely interested in the Dharma, this may be quite an eye-opening book for you. It was extremely inspirational to me, an ordinary chap myself, to read the story of the enlightenment experience of someone who had no advanced education or special knowledge, just a sincere desire to awaken. At the end of his account, he gives a few words of final advice, and one of his phrases resounded very deeply with me. He says, “Immerse yourself in the Dharma, dive into it like you would a pool of cool water on a hot summer’s day, but never get out!” This past weekend I also had the occasion to experience a brief illustration of why it is so important to practice. I was at my in-laws’ house and as I was pouring red wine into a glass, it spilled all over the countertop. As I attempted to clean up the mess, I knocked over the wine glass and it almost shattered. I swore out loud, anger flashing. My daughter was right behind me, and heard me. She wanted to know what the matter was. In that instant I realized how foolish I must have looked, getting so upset over some spilled wine. That ever-present Me was wronged once again, by these mindless, inanimate objects. Upon reflection, I saw the folly of thinking that we can somehow control every situation we find ourselves in. Shouldn’t we expect that if we open the bottle carefully, and slowly tip it towards the glass, that the wine will flow smoothly? But no. Despite our best plans, the wine spills or our car refuses to start or we lock ourselves out of our house or we lose our eyeglasses. But just who is it that gets so angry? I think practicing the Dharma can show us that there’s no one here to even get upset. Or maybe that I shouldn’t be drinking wine.