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Just Another Book Fiend
It was the late singer-songwriter Warren Zevon who once quipped that when we buy books we think we’re buying the time to read them. I know that’s true of me and, I suspect, many other poets and fiction writers. The situation at home is ridiculous. Despite five bookcases in my home office, one in the bedroom and three in the finished basement, books are still piled up in the corners of the bedroom, in front of overstocked bookcases, and, in general, in almost every available nook and cranny. I know what the problem is (aside from a severe case of bibliomania): I still think I’m in grad school. There, and then, it seemed that I had all the time in the world to read all the books I could get my hands on. But of course I didn’t have anything close to disposable income then so most of the books came from the campus libraries, and when I did buy books, I almost always shopped at used bookstores. And I didn’t have a single bookcase. I checked out books, read them and then returned them to the library. I wasn’t married, and as a teaching assistant I had my one or two courses (usually composition) to teach, and the rest of the time I had…well,… time to read.
I also have another problem; I have to finish every book of poetry I start (that’s also true of books of literary criticism but not so true of novels). Even as I plow through a ho-hum book of poems I’m always rooting, hoping, for that one surprise, that one poem that will make the reading worthwhile. In other words, I read the entire book because I don’t want to think I’m just wasting my time. Truth is, however, I sometimes read those books of poetry like I read the newspaper, just scanning for information (in the case of poems, “content”). Since I hate doing that, feeling the pressures of limited time, I have tried, in recent years, to do better, to read each book of poetry slowly, even the ones that don’t seem to grab me. And I have to say, because I do tend to be selective, I have read more good books of poetry than I will ever have the time to celebrate.
It’s comforting to know that there are so many good poets writing good poems even if I know little, if anything, about them or their work. I once met H.L. Hix at a conference and ever since then I try to read his blog, however infrequently, and I’ve read some of his books of poetry. But I’ve also met a lot of poets whose books have been piling up in my bookcases and on the floors for years. Every summer I plow into the pile and start reading many more books of poetry than I can ever read during the school year. Years ago Ann Tardos sent me a nice letter and a copy of her book, I Am You. I read it just last year. When I posted my admiration for it to Facebook I half expected people to respond, “You’re just now getting to that?” No one did, in part, I think, because they understood. They’ve got their own stacks of unread books.
Time—my kingdom for more time. Yes, I now have more responsibilities, more duties, than I had in grad school, but I keep circling back to the private library as also part of the problem. When I was in school I never took out more books than I could read before they were due back. The private library, the disposable income, has encouraged, perhaps even created, the scourge of collection. From childhood I’ve had an almost instinctual revulsion against collection, from the zoo and conservatory to the private library and natural history museum. I don’t mean the actual collection of objects per se—I had a vast record collection, now supplanted by a not-as-large cd collection, thanks to my college gig as a record and concert reviewer—only the accumulation of things for the sake of accumulation. In Marxist terms, I’ve been more interested in the use-value , as opposed to the exchange-value, of things. Even when I had a thousand-plus records I made sure that at least once a year I listened to the entire collection, weeding out those lps that no longer interested me. The key point is that I listened to them all, even the ones about to be discarded. Not so for my poetry books. I can’t even begin to think about weeding them out since I haven’t read all of them. So I just keep adding to the pile, deluding myself that one day, one year, I’ll make or find the time to read them all.
So, aside from preventing a room from sounding like an echo chamber, do those piles and piles of unread books do any good? Do they stand for anything other than a kind of household blight? Are they like the pictures and paintings we hang so carefully and deliberately on our walls and then almost never look at again? It would probably be presumptuous of me to deny that I share any of the spiritualism, if not animism, that suffuses Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library.” Yet, for me, the books, like the private library itself, is an index of my interpellation, my bourgeois tastes, however acquired. That is, like so many academics, I am an incurable introvert, and it is to that aspect of my psychology that the book, a privatizing instrument within the epoch of industrialism, appeals. Because the book, in some essential way, “created” that interiority.
In this regard, lyric poetry has been, for me, a microcosm of the book. It affirms, even as it shapes, that interior realm that seems to be a kind of aesthetic preserve, a realm protected, shielded from, the passage of time, the situatedness of space. If you have ever gotten “lost” in a novel, a play or a poem, you know what I mean. I’ll never forget the summer I read Of Grammatology. I could not, as we say, put it down. At that time, in grad school, I probably didn’t understand a tenth of what I was reading. But the reading itself was as satisfying as any novel or poem I’d read. I think this is why I fell in love with the poetry of the great European poets Miklos Radnoti, Georg Trakl, and, especially, Paul Celan. Reading Celan was like reading Derrida in verse form.
Because more innovative modes of poetry tend to appeal to me on a cognitive level (affective, too, but less so than lyric poetry), I don’t generally experience that same sense of lostness . No doubt I’ve undergone what Wordsworth describes so well in “Tintern Abbey,” that transformation from one consumed by the affective play of childhood and adolescence to one at home among the “thought experiments” of the “philosophical mind” of adulthood. I remember what—but not how–I felt when I read, for instance Rob Halpern’s Music for Porn or Dana Ward’s The Crisis of Infinite Worlds. At the same time I do experience a kind of “Indian summer” of ludic pleasures in the presence of poets with whom I share, let’s say, a racial, if not cultural, history, from the poems of giovanni singleton, Kevin Young, Ronaldo Wilson, Evie Shockley, Elizabeth Alexander, Dawn Lundy Martin, Yusef Komunyakaa, Nathaniel Mackey and many more. Yet, as we know, that kind of presumptive history can seduce one into a kind of laziness, as if one could simply read for “content” because the forms are irrelevant or vice versa.
In short, one can be seduced into treating the books by poets with whom one has that kind of shared history as a collection merely to be admired, looked at, like family photos on a wall. I want to think of their books as part of a public and circulating collection, books I have to actively seek out, read in a timely, attentive fashion, and then return to a public archive for future readers. And all I have to do is turn away from this computer, reach over, and take one of their books from a shelf of my private library.