I've been acquiring a lot of books of late. This is nothing new, but I'm aware that my habit has, in recent months/years, tilted manic. It's is not a concern. Books aren't laced with fentanyl and there is no underlying crisis to bring to account. It's just something I'm keen to acknowledge, and to more or less embrace.
Schopenhauer said we buy books because we tell ourselves that we are buying the time to read them. I’ve settled on a more a more grounded delusion. I tell myself – as I tell others who ask – that I’m going to open a used bookshop one of these days. That’s how I justify the horde. That’s how I rationalize my reflex purchases – sale bin or eBay – which include, fuck me, duplicates of many books that I already own. “It’ll make for a modest seed,” I say. “For one of these days” when some idealized young-version-of-me customer will enter my idealized tobacco- and pulp-scented corner shop to be properly gobsmacked by floor-to-ceiling barrister cases teeming with near-mint Mylar-protected Grove Press obscurities, many of which, I’ll coyly regret-explain when queried at the checkout, “I never got around to reading.” Alas.
I suppose the “future bookstore” excuse is at least more ambitious, if arguably less honest, than calling them “lending copies.” That was my prior fallback excuse.
If I try to tunnel beneath such excuses that I repeat on cue, I settle nearest the notion that it’s something to do with wistful memory. Isn't there a core concept in psychology – something from Maslow, maybe? – that describes a habitual tendency to try to recreate some retro-idyllic experience from one's past? Something like Freud's “repetition compulsion” but where the recurrent tic is centered on a nostalgic fixation rather than trauma? Regardless, I have tactile memories of the ones that hooked me in my youth, and I can almost capture something of the full sensory-cerebral experience that once attended every rarefied deadwood discovery that I wouldn’t then have imagined to be trite.
I remember the ones I loaned out that were never returned, and I still have the spine-creased and dog-eared firsts that I scold myself for not having treated with better care. I don’t delude myself that I am buying time, but I do understand the sham version of time travel that we are permitted, or tempted by. I can’t go home I’ll go home, to brutalize Beckett. And when the fix doesn’t take, spin the wheel again.
In the meantime, I chip away at the lot. I read.
I read for a couple of hours in bed most nights. I’m told this helps with insomnia, which I have. The problem is that books tend to keep me awake. It’s still a tough call, though, because I have noticed, at least with certain shades of fiction, that once the cover is closed and the lights are out, I will dwell on afterimages and narrative loops that can indeed be conducive to a dreamy descent. Could be that's the real trick. More research is needed.
I never read at work, not even over my lunch break. I’ve tried. It feels like borrowed time. It sets me on edge.
I seldom read books while watching television. Magazines, but not books.
I used to read while walking. I lost that habit when I moved to a more heavily trafficked area. It’s dangerous, anyway, right?
I don’t read ebooks. If I have to read on a screen, such as I do when I edit, I prefer backlit PDF files or InDesign spreads. I’m convinced that physical books, apart from their sentimental attraction, represent a plateau in a long process of socially evolved technology. Electronic books remind me of pan-and-scan video transfers, fucking up the mise en scène. Please do not argue with my religion.
Without question, and I mean to stress this, I do my best reading at a quiet neighborhood bar after work. It's nice there. Cozy, intensely air-conditioned, low-lit. The decor is wine-red and the after-work patrons are a motley mix of ruined alcoholics, AARP-eligible homosexuals, lawyers, and slumming hipsters (with some inevitable overlap). Mostly regulars. They leave me alone.
Just as often, I'll be the only one there.
I’ll walk at around 5:45 and before my pupils have adjusted to the stark change from harsh sunlight to interior shade, the bartender – she’s good – will serve up my first beer. Miller Lite, thanks. Call me a simpleton, but I prefer the consistent and understated champagne-water-pop familiarity of factory-produced domestic pilsner to whatever hoppy distraction is sold for more a few doors down. Beer as white noise, please. And after a desultory sip or short glug, I’ll set up shop at my preferred padded booth where the cheap swag light pools best. (If my preferred booth is occupied, which it almost never is, I’ll muffle a fit of pique. Then I’ll take the next best booth and irritably wait for the invaders to abscond.)
And there I’ll be – in my best booth (as I insist for this account), with give-or-take three, four, five books in my bag. I’ll just dump them on the red Formica tabletop and eenie-meenie my way into a deep dive until the world outside dissolves. If I’m not deeply engrossed in a particular text, I’ll toggle from one book to the next, changes cued by chapter breaks or bland instinct. (My rule is one novel at a time, but I juggle nonfiction by the stack.)
After I finish a few beers and reach a natural stop, I’ll step outside to smoke a pipe by the Dumpster behind the bar. On better days, I will then think in fluid detail of what I've been reading. These are often very good moments. In the best such moments, I feel open to connections, velleities, the occasional epiphany leads somewhere.
(I do recommend trying this on for yourself, by the way. You’ll need a rutting day job from which to escape. You’ll need a neighborhood tavern as sanctuary. And you’ll need a bag of books, preferably plucked from a massive bedside tower. I'm sure this will make you a better person. Just don’t take up my goddamn booth.)
The fuck-of-it idea, then, is to bleed something from a precious lazy clockwork ritual that’s otherwise out-of-frame. Here I should admit the itch probably came as I was editing Anita Dalton’s infectiously book-obsessed anthology, TL;DR – The Best of Odd Things Considered (which I emphatically recommend). Anita’s groove is uniquely her own, but somewhere in the process of reading her studious yet freewheeling deep-dive meditations on so many books, I found myself privately annotating or arguing with my own prior thoughts on various titles in our overlapping checklist. And, having largely abandoned the long-form blogging project to which this space was once loosely and clumsily dedicated, I figured I might try keeping things afloat by recording my own relatively short-form thoughts on some books, and maybe some films, that have interested me.
It’ll be books, mostly, if I follow through – drive-by, diaristic notations on books. Not for posterity so much as to see if I can layer habit with habit and tame it into a sustainable background hobby. I’ve written detailed book reviews for publication and have found the process to be utterly miserable. As much as I would like to affect a spirit of buoyant enthusiasm or a tenor of incisive critique, I always end up laboring over an ungainly thicket of words before settling on some wince-inducing stack of contrivances past deadline. I could never be a writer and wouldn’t want an audience. This won’t be that.
I don’t do marginalia, but I have steno pads full of notes. There are few if any genuine insights to be found in my bookside jots. A lot of the notes are trivial reminders to look up words like silla or louche. Others are inscrutable, or worse, illegible. But once in a while I will thumb through the mess and descry some half-formed thought in my own beerdrunk shorthand that jogs a lingering chord.
Like for example my scribble on how Nicholson Baker’s nonfiction stunt novel Substitute begs comparison to Andy Warhol’s delirious stunt anti-novel A. No one seems to have run with that thread, so I figure maybe it’s a good enough trick to circle back on.
Or like how no one is still talking about The Incest Diary and tsking David Aaronovitch for straying from supercilious horrorstruck form. There's a history to this sort of thing that seems to have slipped from the cultural radar.
Or: Have you read How to Judge People By What They Look Like? The title alone tickles my funnybone. Physiognomy is not phrenology, said the joker to the thief.
Or: Am I the only one who ever read Soul on Ice in tandem with Race, Evolution and Behavior? My oh my, it was like discovering a drug.
That sort of thing, then. I do hope and intend to report back.