Weeks Without Books

I pruned my library during a move last year, dumping about 25 percent of what I had. It was the first time I’d ever disposed of so many books at once, and it still doesn’t sit well with my collector tendencies. Most of what I dumped was of little merit. Considering that I held on to a couple atrocious Milan Kundera books, I couldn’t imagine that I’d miss anything that didn’t meet the bar. (I was wrong: I have wanted to loan James Wood’s The Book Against God to a friend, and I will write about it soon.) But the process was still painful enough that I’ve generally avoided purchasing things since then that I didn’t think I had a reasonable chance of wanting to hold on to for a long time. Very few books fall into this category, so the acquisition rate has dropped drastically. The New York libraries have more than picked up the slack.

(The New York Research Library in the humanities, in midtown, doesn’t allow checkouts. You fill out a form, submit it, wait for the book to be brought from the unseen stygian depths to a window, and you sit down with it until the library closes.)

I’ve just spent three weeks in hotel rooms far away from my apartment. No libraries, and only a handful of books that I packed into my suitcase over the laptop. Long-term hotels don’t provide bookshelves, only refrigerators, stoves, and DSL, and the white stucco walls (a California staple) easily overpower the low-key furniture.

So it was off to the bookstores to acquire, just for the sake of having a baseline of literature to think about and read, only to find that it all seemed so out of place in suburban California. There are those who sustain their life in literature when all around them is antiseptic and staid. Not me. I fell into the homogeneous world of strip malls and chain stores and haven’t yet extricated myself. The books were missives from another universe entirely; they may as well have been the Voynich manuscript. The numbing drive up and down El Camino Real, full of identical strip malls that passed by like a looped background from The Flintstones, limited my own vocabulary. There are no hapax legomena in Silicon Valley.

Lars at Spurious writes of weariness in Kafka’s The Castle. (His observation that the castle is “co-extensive with the village” is spot-on.) K. in The Castle may be wearier and suffer more set-backs than Josef K. in The Trial, but he moves. It is the horrible stasis of The Trial, in which two chapters were swapped without incident for decades, that I find more disturbing. K. of The Castle is on the move, and the world moves and shifts with/against him.

So it’s good to be back amongst the shelves with the irregular colors and contours of book spines, the chill of winter weather, the sense of a worthy opposing force internally and exernally. Normal posts to resume shortly….

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