I hope I am gone from this earth when someone first says, “Remember books, the kind that you could hold in your hand and the words were printed with ink, on paper? Books were cool.”
I was talking with my son Macklin today about lost books, specifically my hardcover copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, which he had read and I hadn’t. In a moment of altruism I donated it to an auction to benefit a visiting writer series at the last university I taught at. Many times since then I have wished to have that book back, and I wish so now, too. And so it is with almost every book I with which I have parted.
I let David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion go before I moved to Alaska. What was I thinking? I suppose I was thinking that I was keeping my unread copy of Infinite Jest and that as much as I admire DFW, the only work of his I seem to actually read is his nonfiction in Another Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. All of this DFW guilt was brought painfully to bear when he committed suicide in the fall of 2008. I am sure he had no idea how widespread the heartbreak his death would engender among strangers. This week his permanent work in progress, The Pale King, is published to much attention. Our hearts break all over again.
And here’s another. I was in a seminar with Gary Snyder’s publisher, Jack Shoemaker, who had originally founded the much-admired North Point Press and he said the book he admired most that he had published but which had never found its rightful audience was Ross Feld’s Only Shorter. I was living in California at the time and remembered that I had once owned, but not read, that book, and in fact it had been one of the few I had sold back in Salt Lake City before moving to Davis. The next time I was in SLC, I retrieved the book from the shame shop to which I had sold it, paying for it more than I had received for the whole carton of books I had let go. I have not yet read it.
Oh, and Shoemaker? He read my novel manuscript and took the time to say, “This book would be twice as good if it were half as long.” He’s probably about half right, of course, but I respond in my best Jeff Bridges’ Lebowski voice, “That’s just your opinion, man.”
So, when I moved up here from Illinois, I got rid of about twenty boxes of books. Oblivion was one. I also mailed up here in five boxes the books that were most valuable to me, mostly as a test of the US Post Office, to see if this was a viable method of transporting books thousands of miles. (It’s not.) What happened was, only four of the five boxes arrived. Then a few weeks later the fifth box arrived, torn open with about half its contents missing. I soon determined that the missing books were American Alpine Journals, a yearly journal of which I own about fifty volumes. I have been an editor there at the AAJ since about 1995, so the books’ value was also personal. I have been slowly recollecting the missing volumes. I picked up 1998 just this week.
The creepy thing is that I’m pretty sure that my missing books were sold to Title Wave, the great used bookstore here in Anchorage. I search their copies of my missing books for any personal signs—bookmarks, marginalia, my name (which I generally don’t put in books). I find none. And yet, I don’t let go of this barely rational hunch, this sense that I’m buying books which I already rightfully own.
There is the not irrational fear that fewer and fewer books will become physical objects in the world and we will miss them before they even appear. I am certain that the language will live on, that narrative, and poetry will survive. It’s just the print book as they call it now that I worry about. They may just be a delivery system, but to me they remain sacred objects.
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