Growing up, I was surrounded by books; my Dad was something of a collector. I spent a lot of time around him in used and new bookstores.
The walls of every free room in our house we lined with bookshelves, room after room of them. When those filled up they’d start to pile on the tables, and we’d have arguments about keeping the free space clean. He was partial to French authors, English authors, Russian authors, and authors contemporary to him (not necessarily me). Our houses were wallpapered with them, and when we did spring cleaning, throwing out the chaff was a major part of it.
One of the first books I read was called The Dinosaur Heresies. It was a groundbreaking book which first proposed the idea the dinosaurs were warm blooded, for a popular audience. It went off like a bang in the literary weeklies, became a bestseller, and thoroughly sold me. I bought that at Waldenbooks (or something like it), which, back then, was just about my only choice.
I grew up into other books, and moved increasingly in the direction of fiction. There was a renaissance in the early 90’s in translations, and I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations of the Dostoevsky when they came out; they were great. It became a Thing for me, tackling these block-sized translations.
The last one for me was In Search of Lost Time, or as it is also known, Remembrance of Things Past. It took me years to work through it, but I’ve never read a book that had such a complete sense of a person’s life, from childhood to old age – that, in the people around them.
For instance, in the beginning, the Princess Oriane de Guermantes is a kind of social star. She is generous with her time and mixes with people and artists of many classes, even many that her peers consider beneath her. It’s almost like a proto-treatise on celebrity, on the ways in which social status is subtly communicated, built up, pushed down again, renewed and transformed. By the end of the book, she has been doing it for so long that her origins have been forgotten; she’s become an old patroness who hobnobs with artist, and her history, her life, her contributions, are forgotten. It’s not that it’s particularly sad or tragic; it’s just life, how things are.
Lost Time communicates it better than any other book I can name.
Her milieu is also a time of cultural sophistication that, without snobbishness, is almost unimaginable to us. Epic artistic projects are a regular topic of dinner table conversation among friends. Even ‘dumb’ people appreciate the arts and dabble in music and painting, at a level that, for us, would border on professional. We tend to think of culture as linearly progressing, but it’s a sharp reminder that our era is not the best in every way.
I’ve been surrounded by books for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of lying on a couch on a lazy afternoon, reading something I’d picked off a shelf; we had a wide selection, so I was free to be choosy and throw back what I didn’t want, after reading the first page. I may have been too selective, actually. I remember going to my first megabookstore (which was born, lived into middle age, and apparently now has died, in my lifetime) and thinking, now, at last, I can find the books I really want.
But this isn’t going to be an uncomplicated hymn about how I love books, though I do, or respect writing, which I’m doing now. In some ways, as much as I still use and treasure them, I have mixed feelings about books.
There’s still no substitute for their larger contributions; you can create mental world and relive the experience is that others have had to your own eyes.
But on the other hand…
I’ve become more skeptical of thinking that everything I need to know can be learned from a book. More than that, I think I’ve become wary of collections – a kind of excess wealth that includes many books that will never be read.
I dislike that feeling of a backlog, the way it weighs you down. If you are a collector of books, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll accrue a backlog several years long. W live in an age now where the average middle class person can accumulate books much faster than they can read them, and can, in fact, without much difficulty, stock more books on hand than they will be able to read in the rest of their life. It was my first real experience, almost, of excess, of having more than you can possibly use.
It can be a weighty feeling, that feeling of Too Much. Enough is enough; I don’t require more.