The book life

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by Emilio DeGrazia | March 2, 2009 • We all know the resignation that descends when someone gingerly approaches with a face full of bad news. Am I aware of what happened last night? My little used bookshop in Lanesboro, a charmed town nestled in the lovely hill country of southeastern Minnesota, was destroyed by fire. All my books there, 6000 or so, went up in smoke.

Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona. All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.

I try to roll with fate’s sucker punches into the grassy lap of the long view. My books in Lanesboro were no match for the libraries torched in Alexandria or Constantinople. The earth is unmoved by my loss, will continue to circulate. And, truthfully, there were many zero days––not one single book sold. My mother was also dying at the time. There is only one mother. There are millions of books.

The fire had a certain entertainment value, eventually. It seems that a Lanesboro police officer had a need to rescue damsels in distress. The particular damsel this time lived in an apartment above the little bookstore, and she apparently had developed a dislike for her cop. What better way for him to win her back than to set a little fire in the rear of the store, respond immediately to the alarms, and carry her to safety in his strong, loving arms?

I am not making this up. The police officer, now safely tucked away in a prison cell, did. I wonder: Had he, like the convict in Faulkner’s wonderful story “Old Man,” performed a copycat crime? I doubt it. If he had read Faulkner he would have known that some criminals go out of their way to get caught. It’s likely this cop’s inspiration came from TV. If he had Faulkner under his belt I would visit him in prison because we would have a lot to talk about. Though he never dropped a note of apology in the mail, I doubt there’s even a touch of Hemingway’s strong silent type in him,

My insurance company begrudged me $250 for my loss. That’s eight cents per book, along with a warning that my premium would increase if I made another claim.

One wonders what books are worth. Some months ago Google, Internet Spiderman of the Worldwide Web, began putting the entire library holdings of a couple major universities on-line; it has ambitions to digitize almost all published books. From the ashes of my little Lanesboro fire a huge digital phoenix rises, available to the mouses of strangers staring at bright-eyed monitors everywhere in the world.

Again one wonders what real books are worth––the ones people bury their noses in while they sit comfortably in living rooms, stand on subways in Paris and New York, or balance in one hand as a child squirms on a mother’s lap. There’s no need to insist on the obvious: Since 1950 television and its precocious child the computer are in, and the book, after 500 years of lording it over a continuous stream of spoken words stretching back to prehistory, is out.

This is a hard fact for book-lovers to swallow whole. As a book lover myself I look back nostalgically at how we––that is, books and I––romanced each other. Even before I was old enough to feel any tremor of philosophic eros, books were attractive in part because they were scarce. I grew up in an immigrant household full of talk, not books. The only books in this household was a set of Compton’s Picture Encyclopedia. Book longing started with that set, in a pre-television era. I see myself in a romantic light, a boy sitting alone turning page after page, my eyes widening with my sense of the world’s wonders. The impressions that set of books left on me were lasting and deep. I looked at pictures mainly, even after I learned to read, and I still have good recall of the full-page photos of evil mushrooming over Nagasaki and of the B-52 that dropped the Bomb. I’ll also never get over a smaller photo that caught Hitler doing a little jig following the fall of Belgium. I still have that encyclopedia set, still use it now and then.

The schools fed me much softer pap. Dick, Jane and Spot lived somewhere else, in neighborhoods where moms spoke English all day, dads wore business suits, and bombs never fell. I remember the pictures well, their colors reminding me of lipstick. But no Dick and Jane story has stayed with me. Somehow a big paperback called Philosophy Made Simple ended up in my hands. I was, I think, fourteen at the time, suddenly turned loose into the labyrinth of the mind where materialism and metaphysical idealism waged their own cold wars and where words like epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics began rattling against the doors of my mind. I see myself clearly again: A boy dribbling a basketball one-handed the whole mile to Hemlock Park, a copy of Philosophy Made Simple under the other arm. There was always time between pick-up games for a long time out, always a place under a giant cottonwood for me to be alone with my Philosophy Made Simple. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That line was on page one.

Then came high school, a pale soft-spoken and now nameless English teacher who commanded us to read Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. My sweetheart at the time, perhaps history’s first female student council president, clued me in: The whitewashed walls in Beret’s sod hut were symbolic walls. They had something to do with sex. Huh? Duh? Suddenly books said more than they said. I didn’t really know how to read. I had to read more to get unconfused.

Where could I turn? There was always plenty of talk at home, lots of it passionate and loud, but it usually left me confused and wondering. There were teachers and coaches, all of them wise in their ways, but their talk came and went with their busy days, leaving me with nothing but bits and pieces to give shape to an ignorance that kept swelling as I grew up to it. And there were preachers and priests of all sorts, their explanations twisting themselves into nestfuls of theological snakes that kept squirming away to a dark cave in the mind where intellectual dishonesty and belief live unhappily together in sin. Philosophy Made Simple had created large empty chambers in my mind. I needed to fill them up with more than hit and miss bits. I longed for context and continuity. I needed narrative.

At this point I started going steady with books, having long-term relationships with such charmers as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick, and War and Peace, the latter a month-long affair I had while my real true love was getting rid of me. I entered these books stupidly, struggling to find my way in the new (usually old) worlds they opened to my view. I defied each hundred-page increment that challenged my staying power until I finished the last page, usually with a small feeling of mission accomplished. I finally had the book: It was in me, mine.

At this point I did not know that books had me. They had taken me with Raskolnikov, hatchet hidden inside his coat, up the stairs to the old pawnbroker’s apartment. They had me agreeing with the Karamazov boys, the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus and the Karamazov father too. They took me into the elegant salons of Moscow and abandoned me in the frozen Russian fields during Napoleon’s retreat, where I learned that war is hell without having to stoke the flames with my own participation. They took me to sea with Ahab and Ishmael, in a mad search for justice, meaning, and a mysterious white whale. I read in my bedroom, in the little local library a few blocks away, and under the old cottonwood in Hemlock Park, certain that nothing was poisoning me. My sense of the world grew wider if not deep, and each book I completed sent out a filament feeling its way toward an unread book that might make a connection, help things add up, provide detail, density, depth and design to the world-wide web forming in my mind. So Crime and Punishment required Notes from Underground and The Idiot and The Possessed. War and Peace required Anna Karenina and Resurrection. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy required Turganev and Chekhov. Russian writers required Russian history. And in the late 1950’s, at the height of the Cold War, I subscribed to USSR magazine, an act that immediately made me a national security risk and no doubt still sets off alarm bells in IRS offices every time I drop my income tax returns in the mail.

The power these long narratives had to take me away from where I actually was made an outsider of me. I began feeling I was different from those who didn’t read, and I envied them. They seemed happier, less confused, even as I found myself disagreeing with them about this or that. They were in and I was out, a displaced person feeling most at home in the place where books hung around, the public library. I made it a ritual to spend evenings there, even though the girls I liked never came near the place.

And then my high school home room happened my way, the library at Fordson High School (in Dearborn, Michigan). I like those two words. Home. Room. It was an elegant hall, with high bookshelves and mahogany paneling, Persian tapestries, two vast fireplaces on opposite ends, and etched cathedral windows that showed off the Gothic grandeur of what is still the city’s most beautiful building. Books surrounded me when I walked in each morning to start the day. Here books had stature and dignity; they lived in a high-toned place.

The urge to accumulate books developed, I suspect, from my desire to make a library of my own like the one I left behind when, with high school diploma in hand, I was told to look forward to the future.

I began haunting the used bookstores in downtown Detroit, lugging home Muller’s Sacred Books of the East, complete sets of Hawthorne, Carlyle, Smollet, Cooper, Austin, Dickens, and an occasional steal, a one volume reprint of Byron’s complete works, for example, embossed, with gilt lettering and beautiful illustrations. I went to college, then graduate school, then to my first teaching job, lugging my books with me at first in a car, then in bigger and bigger trailers and trucks. I now own about 50,000 books, and now and then I sell one to a customer I hook like a lonely fish in a vast pond. At night, when I’m half-asleep in my upstairs bedroom and the air is perfectly calm and thick with book dust, I hear the books laughing at me down below, conjugating, it seems, like busy little verbs.

To that heap in my house I’ve added the few volumes I’ve written myself, variations on themes too large for my pipsqueak voice. It takes a certain arrogance to brushstroke the pen across the page and presume that anyone will care. Publishing is a cocky gesture that humbles and humiliates. These days only antiquarian book collectors and teachers in Third World villages value books as scarce. A small press book especially puts you in a crowd of authors so brilliant and dense that authority is hard to find in it. The bookworld now is teeming with millions of lean and hungry-faced orphans wandering lost in a vast marketplace where few come to buy.

The bookworld for me has always been a place––the old cottonwood tree in Hemlock Park, a certain chair next to a window, a dusty bookshop with shelves askew, the home room library, a room of my own. And Room 304 of the library at Ohio State University, where I spent six scarlet and grey years qualifying myself to move from the speech-centered world of my immigrant Italian parents to the prestige and power conferred on me by immersion in English literature. I recall in particular the highest hurdle all recruits had to face: Professor Richard Altick’s notorious and celebrated “Bibliography and Research” seminar. My assignment was to discover a life in libraries, in my case the life of one Edward Arbor, who spent his years cataloguing books before he was run down by a car in 1912. I had ten weeks in which to research and write a biography of my man. I recall one evening just before Christmas standing in the stacks on one of the thirteen floors of the vast library, all the books looking down at me, many of them old, unused for decades, each with its own sense to convey, its point of view, story to tell, almost all for all purposes dead yet strangely alive, ghosts. Thousands, millions of ghosts shelved, and I stood there awed by the mass of human mind these volumes represented. What did I know? What could I ever hope to know? That my college degree would be a passport into an elite professional cult, with all the rights and privileges that accrue to it. That books exercised my mind, gave it flexibility and the strength to endure my growing ignorance. That my questions about life were bottomless but so interesting that I would hate to have lived my life and missed out on them. That the unexamined life is not worth living.

By the way, Edward Arbor, the great cataloguer of books, ended up with a ten-page life, double-spaced. That’s all I could find of him in books.

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