A Literary Life, Perused
Jeff called and told me to get in the van and come to Rhode Island. He was at a professor’s house in the Providence suburbs digging through a massive collection of fiction, film, and philosophy paperbacks. He sells rare books and was only interested in the high-end stuff, but a few thousand paperbacks were just what we needed.
Our bookstore had been open for a little over a month, and already one of the four partners had quit and the store’s future was in jeopardy. The day after a falling-out that involved me swinging at him after he smashed a chair on our checkout desk, he removed his books—about a third of the store’s total—from our already-thin shelves.
I spent the next week in a panic, scrambling to fill the gaps and keep the shop open as my other two partners and I looked for a replacement. The day before Jeff called, we’d found Troy, a local artist, former bookstore clerk, and jack-of-all-trades, the one person both qualified and reckless enough to join our sinking ship.
So it was, with empty shelves and in the midst of financial and personal calamity, that my new partner Troy and I cleaned out our Econoline van and drove to Providence.
A little after noon we pulled up to a humble, paint-chipped two-storey, close to the highway but deeply ensconced in suburban gloom. A radio murmured classic rock as a team of fratty-looking young guys sat on the porch drinking beer. My hello was met with nods and grunts and no one seemed capable of eye contact or full sentences. Eventually one of them, the head mover, introduced himself and led us inside.
Though Jeff had promised good literature and philosophy—“From where I’m standing, I can see about a dozen Nabokovs and Foucaults and maybe a half-dozen Murakamis and Derridas, plus just about every imaginable film book you could want”—we weren’t prepared for what we found. The space, which showed signs of having been a living room, was now just a large book depository. Shelves lined most of the walls, blocking half the windows and stacks of books took up the entirety of the floor. The air was stuffy, saturated with paperback dust. There was no electricity and though it was midday, the gray November sky and the bookshelf-obscured windows made for very little light. The overall effect was disquieting, as if the books were an infestation, the physical symptoms of a disease which may have proven fatal. And there we were, with boxes in place of mops and surgical gloves, the experts who’d been called in to clean up.
I’d seen worse: a cat lady’s apartment in Crown Heights where I spent the day in a gas mask, gagging and trying not to vomit; a veritable mountain of books to climb, burrow into and slide down in a Dumbo warehouse; and a moldy New Jersey basement where the owner accidently locked me inside, threatening an Amalfataldo-esque demise with little oxygen and lots of bad pulp romance. But never before had the most daunting thing about a purchase been its sheer number of absolute treasures. A surface glance revealed hundreds of hip, esoteric film books: Czech and Taiwanese New Wave, studies of Russian films from the Khrushchev thaw, and extremely rare stuff on Hungarian cinema. All the heavyweight philosophers were represented: Adorno, Benjamin, Deleuze, Lacan, Wittgenstein, etc., and for fiction, along with the perennial classics there was also a fortune of obscure Eastern European and South American titles in translation.
Though most of the books were in good condition, some had suffered from unloved years on bottom shelves and showed signs of mold or water damage. The majority were free from markings and underlines, but almost every book was inscribed in impeccable cursive on the title page with “perused” or “read,” with “perused” accounting for about 95 percent of the notes. There was a tragic honesty in these two words that made me sad not for the mostly unread books and their mostly unread authors, but for their former owner and for everyone with a book collection in which the perused outnumber the read. All the markings were in pencil and a few labeled “read” had traces of an erased “perused” underneath.
Initially, our work was like that of children left alone in a candy store. Fun but inefficient, and after hours of shifting some piles, making new ones and toppling many others, we both acknowledged that we were a bit dizzy. And still we’d barely made a dent.
Though we’d brought our rent money—both the business’s and our personal money—and were ready and willing to spend it all to save the bookstore, we firmly intended to low-ball the mover. Obviously, it would be prudent to keep a lid on our enthusiasm, but as we dug through the stacks unearthing gem after gem, we couldn’t help but emit a few squeals. Often we’d call for the other’s attention and with a guilty, devious smile hold up a rare copy of Guattari’s solo work, or Gombrowitz’s diaries.
For the first few hours we were too enthralled by the collection to give much thought to its owner. Jeff had told us it belonged to a professor. He’d mentioned film and philosophy, so aside from speculating that the guy must have taught film and/or philosophy at Brown, or perhaps RISD, we didn’t think much more about it.
I had no interest in making small talk with the movers. They spent the hours drinking, eating chips, and toying with the radio on the porch. At one point they played wiffle-ball and occasionally we heard them throwing things into the dumpster out front. It was Troy who finally broke the silence, stopping the head mover as he walked by with a toaster oven slated for the dumpster and asked him why they were clearing out the house.
“The old lady had to go to a nursing home.”
“Old lady?” we asked in unison. Hadn’t Jeff used the male pronoun? Or was the collection just so good that we, being sexist males, decided it must belong to a man?
“No, the old lady had to go to a home, but the books are her son’s.”
As someone who prides himself on his ability to read people by their book collections, the brief confusion about the professor’s gender startled me.
At parties, or when visiting a new friend’s apartment, I forego the awkward introductions and small talk and beeline for the bookshelf. Not only is it a good place for a socially awkward person to hide while appearing engaged and intelligent, it’s also—as any good sleuth knows—the best place in a person’s apartment to suss her out as a potential friend, lover, stalker, or bore. A cursory glance suggests her interests and tastes, but an informed investigation of a bookshelf is often more revealing than talking.
Is the spine cracked on her copy of Joyce’s Ulysses? If yes, you’re dealing with a serious reader and/or masochist, and if no, she’s someone who aspires towards high intellectualism but doesn’t have the follow-through. Carlos Castaneda? One book might be an experiment or unfortunate stage, all of them and you have an unrepentant hippie. Ways of Seeing next to a textbook on Renaissance art? Probably not an artist himself, but you can put money on an art history minor. The presence of David Sedaris doesn’t say everything, but couple him with Everything is Illuminated and the Obama biography on the same small Ikea bookshelf and it’s a safe bet that you’re in the apartment of someone who works in an office or classroom, watches the Daily Show and shops at Trader Joe’s. Ayn Rand? Again, one or two, and she might just be interested in knowing the enemy. Three or more? Turn and run out the door.
I like to think of bookshelves as tables of contents to the biographies of their owner’s lives. Those tattered Lonely Planet guides next to a small marked up Spanish language section and books on Patagonian geology? They place him in South America in the late ’80s while the collection of punk zines point to a Bay Area residence in the early ’90s. Even if he’s removed most traces of his Buddhist phase, the few heavily marked classics still prove it existed during his later years in Northern California. And those obscure pulp sci-fi books that haven’t been touched in years? One can infer a bittersweet nostalgia for a lonely, trekky youth.
As we get older (mid-life crises excluded), our bookshelves go through fewer renovations. While the number of books may grow, their subject matter generally has less range. Even serious readers are more likely to stick to their subjects: pop-sociology, Irish history, Greek tragedy, or whatever it may be. Most fellow, jaded booksellers I know complain of being unable to read anything but crime fiction. To make room for our growing collection of stories about alcoholic detectives and murder, we say fair-thee-well to the old Siddharthas, Cuckoo’s Nests, and Letters to a Young Poets.
When it comes time to purge books, it’s best to do so quickly with as little thought as plucking wilted lettuce from the bottom of a refrigerator. To stop and consider the significance of abandoning those books is, nearly always, to confront our forfeited ambitions. Like giving away the guitar we never learned to play, the stethoscope from the aborted career in medicine, or the tennis racket after our knees have given out, getting rid of books is like closing doors. With the exception of a quixotic few for whom trimming a collection could be a step toward recovery from bibliophilia, allowing the used bookseller to come raid the shelf is surrender, a resignation that we’ll never again find inspiration, solace or even escape in those pages.
As we dug, the books began to fill in and color the professor’s life in bold chiaroscuro. Along with the film, philosophy, and literature there was a vintage Hardy Boys collection from his youth, an array of art books, mostly Impressionists and Surrealists, and a massive collection of 1960s Playboys. There were language tutorials from nearly every major language on the planet: Thai, Urdu, Swahili, Cantonese, Basque, etc., with multiple dictionaries for each of the more common romance languages as well.
While a hasty move or messy divorce was a possibility, the professor’s collection most clearly pointed to the grave. The dead—especially those who die alone, or with family who don’t care for literature, which is akin to dying alone—leave behind the best book collections. In the used book business, death is where the money is. Yes, people’s interests change; they move, they get jobs and have kids and give up the dream of being a poet, architect, mime, or physicist and unload their books for money, space, or because those books remind them of their lost ambitions. They pick up drug habits and sell everything for their next fix. They learn enough from their books to live monastically, etc. But despite all of life’s changes, most people hang onto their genuinely rare books, and it’s almost always from their cold dead hands that we booksellers pry our prize finds.
I tried not to think about the professor. Because none of the movers showed any interest in talking to us, and because we both intuitively knew what had become of him, we didn’t ask. Still, knowing he was dead didn’t make me less uneasy about going through his books. In many ways, a bookshelf is more intimate than an underwear drawer or diary, as it shows not who we are, but who we’ve wanted to be. If only a person’s bookshelf really defined him, I would be so much more than a failing writer and used paperback pusher! “Baby, you have no idea the books I’ve read,” never gets us as far as we’d like. Instead, unless we’re published authors or world leaders, and even then unless we’re, say, Shakespeare or Gandhi, our lives will always be dwarfed by our bookshelves. And as these shelves grow, there’s a diametrically inverse relationship between their greatness and our time left to see, feel, and be all they’ve taught us to want.
For this reason I can’t help but feel a degree of pity for the owner of a bookshelf as I browse his titles—either because his shelf is better than he is (self-pity abounds when I look at my own shelf), or because it’s small and bland, a perfect reflection of his life.
Reading a bookshelf becomes even more questionable when its creator isn’t there and, as in the case of the professor, when the books have been removed from their shelves. Had the professor and his mother greeted us at the door with handshakes and cups of tea, the Playboys probably wouldn’t have been the first thing we saw when entering their living room. The feeling that we were intruding was enhanced by the fact that the house still showed signs of life. The few remaining green leaves of a ficus caught the light of the sun coming in through the window; the dust particles—probably as thick as when the professor and his mother were living there—still wafted through the dim afternoon sun. Within hours the plant would be in the trash and the house would be empty. But then one could still imagine that its owner had just gone out for milk.
As the hours passed it grew harder to ignore the fact that the archaeology expedition we’d embarked upon was an extraordinary one. We’d come across a life lived and loved through books, and it was becoming impossible to focus on its components without thinking about the man whose life was symbiotically tied to the library he’d amassed.
Along with an expertise in film and philosophy—an expertise that, given the extensive number of secondary texts, had to be a professional one—there were enough radical history and political books to show a leftist conviction. The literature, which was probably only a hobby, revealed an artistic bent, and the work in translation and tutorials in nearly every major language hinted at all the places and dreams he’d kept with him until the end.
Finally Troy went for it. “What happened to the professor?”
“Jeff didn’t tell you the story? It’s fucked up. He’s not dead. He’s in a home, too. He was walking through the park one day when somebody jumped him and hit him in the head with a hammer. He lived, but after that he was a retard.”
“A retar … ?” Troy began, then stopped, obviously sickened by what had just been said.
“Yeah. Like he can’t read or do anything. Maybe he can feed himself, but basically he’s just like a vegetable, or a zombie.”
“Oh,” we both said with a sigh, and though I’d been covered in sweat, book mold and dust for hours, I felt dirty for the first time all day. “Oh.”
For a man who spent his life in books, his was a fate worse than death. What was it like for him after the attack? What was his relationship, in his debilitated mental state, to his books? Nasty reminders of the life he no longer knew, or simply things for the eyes to see, like trees, walls, or dishes drying on a rack?
It was dusk now and we still had a long way to go. Seeing the books was becoming progressively more difficult and our packing was made harder by the fact that we were completely out of boxes. We’d filled all the bookshelves we could detach from the walls plus a few garbage cans and milk crates, but we needed more containers to transfer the books to the van. The mover directed me to a nearby grocery store where he said I could find boxes. Troy stayed to work and I promised to hurry.
I drove fast, recklessly. I hadn’t eaten all day and though I hadn’t had coffee either, I felt as strung out as if I’d just drunk a pot. Nothing about the story was right. It angered me.
In the neon-lit grocery store people looked at packages of food. Some spoke on cell phones, others to each other. Expressions of frustration, guilt, boredom, hunger. Parents slapped children’s hands away from things they weren’t supposed to touch, and the carts filled with boxes, cans and bottles. I thought about buying something to eat. In a daze, I walked around the store, covering its aisles twice before I realized I wasn’t hungry. I got the boxes and drove back with the lingering fear that I’d be returning to a house aflame.
By the time I returned it was completely dark outside. They’d run an extension cord from a neighbor’s house and rigged up a light, but the towering stacks of books cast shadows throughout the room. The work, which hours earlier could hardly be considered work, now felt like a chore. Troy silently filled boxes, his face coated in book dust while the classic rock channel buzzed from the porch. I felt nauseated from squinting.
When we’d overstuffed the van and it was time to discuss the price, I launched into my usual spiel about how the books weren’t worth much because they were just old paperbacks, many of which were damaged or written in. I offered him a grand and after some negotiation he agreed to take $1100 if we helped him get rid of the rest.
“Deal,” I said looking around the room at the hundreds, if not thousands of books that remained. “What’s the plan?”
He pointed to the dumpster out front. It stared back at us and the books like a bubbling caldron.
We pleaded with him to let us return the next day, but he was adamant that the job had to be done that evening. And while nearly all of the books would be of use to someone, they were mostly obscure, university press publications that would be difficult to sell in the store.
“Are you sure you guys don’t want anything?” Troy asked, hoping to spare some of the books we couldn’t take. They perked up for a moment as if waiting for him to offer drugs, nachos or more money, before quickly losing interest when they realized he was talking about the books. One kid picked up a small collection of van Gogh prints, considered it, then tossed it back into the pile. Another found a DVD, Point Break starring Keanu Reeves. His friend informed him that it was awesome (Troy couldn’t help but enthusiastically agree) and out of all of the books, that was the only thing they chose to keep.
Professor, forgive Troy and I for what we did that last hour. Together with the movers, we took all the good meat from your corpse and discarded the entrails.
When the dumpster filled and the books began to slide over the side, they climbed on top and smashed the shelves and stomped the books. The sound was dull but acute and the image of their silhouettes bouncing on the dark pile of books still haunts me when I think of the professor.
The months that followed were busy. The professor’s collection kept us afloat through the holiday season and the quieter months that followed. We got into a rhythm and there were times when the store felt like a functional, nearly successful business. I left the country for a few months and when I returned the store was still there, in one piece, the books still more or less alphabetized on the shelves. Seasons passed, new disasters, both economic and personal, popped up every couple of months, but at the time of this writing, nearly three years later, the store is still open for business. The professor’s books still come across the checkout desk, though with less and less frequency.
I like to think that his books have found good homes. Many an eager customer has brought a book to the desk with the professor’s trademark inscription, perused written on the title page, and with a furtive, “too good to be true” smile, said “I can’t believe you have this. I’ve been looking for it for years.”
I’ve spent the last weeks trying to find the professor and confirm the mover’s story. There’s an M.I.T. professor who taught mathematics and suffered brain damage after being struck by a motorcycle in Hanoi and a computer science professor at Brown who spent a month in a coma after being hit by a bus in London. But judging by his shelf, I’m confident that neither of these two can be our professor. Perhaps the story is a lie, or just a game of Telephone gone bad. But even if there was no hammer or brain damage, the books were there and the man wasn’t. It’s a story without a happy ending.
For me personally, the professor introduced me to a number of writers, most notably Thomas Bernhard. When our underpriced Bernhard first editions began to fly off the shelves, I asked a customer about the copy of Woodcutters that he was going to buy. For him the find was too good to be true. For when he described its bleakness and anger with guarded but glowing adoration, and explained that Bernhard is perhaps the most bitter, self-hating writer ever, I apologized and told him I couldn’t sell it. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be my favorite book of the year, and what was left of the professor’s Bernhard collection (all with “perused” inscriptions) now sits proudly on my apartment shelf. These books will be there wherever and whenever it is that the used bookseller comes to clear me out. And, if that bookseller has done his homework, they’ll tell him a lot about who I was and who I wanted to be.