Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where Are All These Books Going, Where Have They Been?

We have moved. And as my older daughter said, Wow, it feels like we're living in a hotel! Well, sure, if it's the kind of hotel that has exposed lathing in the walls, plaster dust on the floor, and no doors on any of the rooms! I did not say. Don't get me wrong. It's not that I wouldn't want to stay in a hotel like that. It's just that I've never seen one like that.

Really, the thing is that we still have a lot of things in boxes. And at this point in time, the majority of boxes still unpacked contain all of our books.

Now a bunch of years ago, a guy named Bill Gates (famous only around here due to a distant cousin who murdered his entire family) made some very nice built-in bookshelves for our office. Then we moved and Bill Gates built us more bookshelves. And Bill Gates, if you’re reading this, sometime soon we’re going to need some new bookshelves at our new, um, hotel.

But back when we had those beautiful shelves, we put all our books on them and then spent lots of time admiring them. The books were arranged mostly alphabetically by author, which surprised many visitors to our office. I can’t believe you actually alphabetize your books! people would say, as though we did something completely unheard of. Sometimes my husband would explain that he had really wanted to arrange them by their Library of Congress numbers (true), but sometimes he would not.

And yet the way they were mostly alphabetical is that we had a whole bunch of books that we had no idea how to arrange and so they took up their own shelves: books about beer, travel books, books about building bat houses and tapping maple syrup and raising chickens and making your own soap, etc. And then we had a bunch of shelves devoted to literary journals, which once we read during a brief window of our lives.

And now they’re all packed up in numbered boxes (naturally) and I have to say that I don’t exactly miss them. And I wonder why we have so many of them. I mean, it’s a nice thing to look at all the books you’ve read, books by a favorite author, say, or a book you might have completely forgotten about, until you happen to notice it on a shelf. But in another way, since I don’t tend to reread books all that often, those particular books aren’t really being used anymore. It’s not like our records (also boxed up in numbered boxes), which get used over and over again. The books are there, I suppose, for our kids to read someday, and for our friends to borrow. And to admire, as I do sometimes, since they really do look so pretty on those shelves. I suppose you can think of them like photographs (also boxed up, but who knows where) that capture a moment in time, the moment in your life that you were reading the book.

It took my older daughter some time to understand that books are printed in editions, so that a book we had that was first published in 1922 was not the actual book that was printed in 1922. And maybe it both is and isn’t important to have the exact copy of the book you read. But just seeing that span of books on the shelves, mostly alphabetical, and extremely patient, makes you remember your reading life. So that is probably a good enough reason to keep building bookshelves. And putting your books back up on them.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Just as you should never really judge a book by its cover (though of course we all do) you should also never judge a book by its title (though again: of course). I do know for a fact that there is a book out that discusses the original titles of books before they were changed into famous book titles, such as Trimalchio in West Egg being the original title for The Great Gatsby. How I know this is that the author of this book was a guest on that public radio show in New York City I once worked for. This was at a time when books like this really were able to be published with ease. And the book actually had a publicity team behind it.

Anyway. One of the absolute best titles of a book I can think of (which is also an excellent book) is Alice Mattison's book of intersecting stories called Men Giving Money, Women Yelling. I mean, jeez, you practically don't even have to read the book. You can buy it and just admire that title every single time you look at the cover. Some titles, like Infinite Jest, for example, sound cool and seem important. Or then there are titles like Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and even Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which are wordy and evocative. In that category there is, of course, Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet Please?, which is a title that is very pleasing to say.

I find that one-word book titles don't really say enough, even though for bands that seems to be a fine way to go. The following are all good books, but they sound so ordinary: Jazz, Away, Intuition, Middlesex. The exception to this is Mary Roach's Stiff, a hilarious book about human cadavers.

There may actually be books that I have not read simply due to their titles, but I can't come up with any now. Well, here's one: Thermodynamics and an Introduction to Thermostatistics.

Whenever I think about writing a book, I actually like to think about the title most of all. I mean, then you’d just have to write the book, right? I’ve come up with Someone Else’s Weekend (there's nothing wrong with using a song lyric as a title, right, Brett Easton Ellis?), but as of yet I have not written that particular book. Somehow the title is almost too good for what I've been planning to write. It's getting me way too distracted. As far as I’m concerned, that particular title is up for grabs.

* The original title of Catch-22