Quick reminder: I’ll be at the Bombay Beach Lit Fest this Saturday April 1 at 3pm with Rob Roberge and Patrick O’Neil. Then in a little less than two weeks I’ll be celebrating Make It Stop in San Diego at The Book Catapult on April 11 at 7pm with Patrick Coleman and in Los Angeles at Skylight Books on April 15 at 5pm with Bucky Sinister.
It’s been a long time coming but I finally did it. I purged my bookshelves. Or at least some of them.
In our condo we have thirteen bookshelves, which is a lot for such a small space. All of the shelves are stuffed with books and many have more books resting horizontally on top of the shelved books and even more books double stacked in the space in front of them.
I thought of the double stacking as a temporary solution to the problem of more books coming into the house than there are leaving, but there’s nothing temporary about this situation. There are always more books coming than going. The books accumulate on the shelves like barnacles on the hull of a ship.
The main offender are the four shelves that dominate the living room. These are the shelves I look at every day. It also doesn’t help that the chair where I do a fair amount of reading and writing and where I’m sitting right now sits next to these shelves so guess where all the books I’m reading go?
Barnacles on top of barnacles.
Nuvia has been asking me to do something about it for—checks notes—a long time. Since I just finished a draft of a new book and have some traveling coming up for Make It Stop, it was time to face the music.
The problem is I love my books and when I start going through them it’s like a going through a photo album of cherished memories and what kind of monster gets rid of cherished memories?
Not you. Not me.
There’s also the problem of being a purpose-driven reader with many projects, some of which have been on the backburner for years and even decades. The older I get the more normal this behavior seems. Artists dwell on a set of themes / interests / obsessions that they return to over and over again. Some of mine include Irish history, nautical adventure, film noir, bare knuckle boxing, Joan of Arc, horror movies, James Joyce, German Naval operations during WWII, Roberto Bolaño, punk rock, Thomas Pynchon, weird crime, and so on. Any book that falls into these categories stays because I might need it for something someday.
I realize “might need it for something someday” is a pretty vague hill to die on but to put it another way if you took all of my books away except for these categories I could live out my days a happy and content reader.
When all was said and done I culled about six feet of books from my shelves. So here are some of the criteria I used for the latest purge:
ARCs aka Advance Review Copies: I get sent a lot of ARCs most of which end up in the recycling bin. They are not meant for the general public because typically they are produced before final copy edits, which can be significant. But there are always a few that I hang on to in the hopes that I’ll get to them and then the months and years go by and you know how that goes. Sometimes the ARC becomes a treasured object, like the ARC for Night Boat to Tangier, which I read in Barcelona. I was trying to decide if I should part with my copy of Joyce Carol Oates’s What I Lived For, a harrowing novel of infidelity that I loved when I read it in grad school, when I realized it’s an uncorrected proof. I’ve got another ARC from Dalkey Archive Press that’s a translation of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa that’s been sitting on my shelf since 2011. It’s time for all of these quasi-books to go!
Lost to the Fog of Memory: While digging through the back of the bottom of my shelves I found some books I hadn’t seen in years. I definitely read them but could remember very little about them other than that they were just okay. These are books Do I really want to be dealing with these books ten, fifteen, twenty years into the future when I have so little recollection of them now? Hell no. Off they go…
Unloved & Unread: Sometimes I acquire and hold on to a book because I think I should have already read it. Maybe I picked it up cheap at a thrift store or library sale. Maybe I was guilted into buying it. Maybe it was a gift. Some of these books I’ve been carrying around for years. Most of them are cheap paperbacks. For instance, I have a water damaged copy of José Saramago’s Blindness that I’ve been meaning to read for half my life but haven’t gotten around to it. Because of the author’s stature, I won’t have any trouble finding it again if I’m moved to read it. But until then, adios José…
What will happen to these books? Some I’ll donate to the San Diego public library, some I’ll put in the little free library in Coronado, some I’ll give to Strange Daze Books—the new book stall below my studio in Barrio Logan. Rest assured, they will go to a good home. Also, a very select few are being repatriated to my studio. Baby steps… baby steps…. Still, I’m happy with the results:
During the de-barnacling process I also “found” a few books buried in the back of the shelves that I forgot I had.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemingway. I don’t know how I came to own a first edition of Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish War, but I do. (It’s not in very good condition and is missing the jacket copy.) I’ve never been a big Hemingway fan. In a perfect world, John Dos Passos, another American who worked in the ambulance corps during the Spanish Civil War, would be as famous as Hemingway and American letters would have been spared a legion of artless imitators like Raymond Carver.
Ocean Almanac: Being a Copious Compendium on Sea Creatures, Nautical Lore & Legend, Master Mariners, Naval Disasters and Myriad Mysteries of the Deep by Robert Hendrickson. I fucking love this book. Every time I open this book I learn something new. For instance, yesterday I opened it to a random page and learned the term Hobsonize, which means to kiss. Apparently there was a young naval officer named Hobson who was a hero of the Spanish-American War. Hobson was so handsome that women would throw themselves at him and the term came into use and just as quickly went out. The almanac is full of stories of nautical disasters, survival at sea, devastating weather phenomena, you name it. The perfect companion for armchair sailors.
My Life in Baseball by Ty Cobb with Al Stump. Opening day is tomorrow so maybe I’ll finally get around to reading this book, which apparently is packed with falsehoods and is responsible for Cobb’s reputation as a racist when he was actually fairly forward thinking. (He was for integration.) I’ll probably hang on to this very beat-up edition because it was given to me by Raymond Pettibon when I went to interview him at his studio in Manhattan for reasons that will always be mysterious to me.
The process of letting go and clearing space has been an affirming one. I’ll continue to shuffle books around my various shelves as more books come into the house. (The books in the photo above are in alphabetical order; the books on the other shelves are not.) Now, if someone would organize the bookshelves in my office for me…
Next week I’ll be sending the first of many dispatches in the coming months from the road. Take care and be safe out there. I’m thinking of a world where there are fewer Ernest Hemingway novels and more Metallica records with Cliff Burton.
The Dos Passos call out made my rainy SoCal morning today! I had a high school English teacher recommend the USA trilogy.... so, so amazing!
I used to keep a lot of books that were aspirational (for lack of a better term). Books on subjects I wanted to learn, adventures I wanted to take, etc. It took me a long time to move past that. Moving a few times certainly helped nudge me along.