Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Books do furnish a life

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The dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore

When I was growing up in Castro Valley, California, one of the high points of any year was our annual library book sale. My local library was located conveniently across the street from my church, so on one magical weekend, I’d enter the parish hall to find row after row of folding tables stacked with discards and donations. In many ways, it was my first real taste of the joys of browsing: there wasn’t a good used bookstore in town, and I was still a few years away from taking the train up to Berkeley to dive into the stacks at Moe’s and Shakespeare and Company. Instead, I found countless treasures on those tables, and because each book cost just a few dollars, it encouraged exploration, risk, and serendipitous discoveries. Best of all was the final day, in which enterprising buyers could fill a shopping bag of books—a whole bag!—for just a couple of bucks. If you’re a certain kind of book lover, you know that this can be the best feeling in the world, and I still occasionally have dreams at night of making a similar haul at the perfect used bookshop.

Over time, though, the books I picked up were slowly dispersed, usually by a series of moves, so that only a few have followed me from California to Chicago. (Looking around my shelves now, the only books I can positively identify as having come from one of those sales are Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction and my complete set of Great Books of the Western World, which certainly counts as my greatest find—I vividly remember camping out in a corner to guard the volumes until the time came to drag them away.) It’s a cycle that has recurred repeatedly through my life, as I stumble across a new source of abundant cheap books, buy scores of them in a series of impulsive trips, then find myself faced with some hard choices at my next move. Over the course of seven years in New York, I probably spent several thousand dollars at the Strand, much of it in the legendary dollar bin, and when I moved, I donated twelve boxes to Goodwill, coming to maybe five hundred books that had briefly enriched my life before moving on. As Buckminster Fuller wrote about his own body:

I am not a thing—a noun. At eighty-five, I have taken in over a thousand tons of air, food, and water, which temporarily became my flesh and which progressively disassociated from me. You and I seem to be verbs—evolutionary processes.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

A library, I’ve found, is a sort of organic being of its own, growing along with its user, taking in raw materials, retaining some while getting rid of others, and progressing ever closer to an ideal shape that changes, like the body, over time. It’s even more accurate to see a library as the result of a kind of editorial process. The bags of books I picked up when I was in my teens were like a first draft, ragged, messy, but a source of essential clay for the work to come. More drafts followed with every change of address, with the books that no longer spoke to me—or whose purpose had been filled in providing a few happy hours of browsing—standing aside to make room for others. A library moves asymptotically, like a novel, toward its finished form, and in the end, it starts to look like a portrait of the author. To mix analogies, it’s like a sculpture, or a collage, that finds its shape both through accretion and removal. I never could have assembled the library I have now through first principles: it’s the product of time, shifting interests, the urge in my programming to buy more books, and the constraints imposed by mobility and shelving. And although the result may puzzle others, to me, it feels like home.

Not surprisingly, I’ve become increasingly picky, even eccentric, when it comes to the books I buy. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gone to a number of book sales—at the Printers Row Lit Fest and the Open Books store in Chicago—that previously would have left me with several bags to bring home. Instead, I’ve emerged after hours of browsing with a handful of books whose titles bewilder even me: Hidden Images, Design With Climate, The Divining Rod, Ship Models. If I’m drawn increasingly to odd little books, it’s due in part to the fact that I’ve already filled up the shelves in my office, so I tend to favor books that I don’t think I’ll be able to find at my local library. Really, though, it’s because the books I buy now are devoted to filling existing gaps, like a draft of a novel in which the choices I can make are influenced by a long train of earlier decisions. It’s starting to feel like my life’s work, and I treat it accordingly. Every now and then, I’ll cast an eye over my shelves, and if a book doesn’t make me actively happy to see it there, off it goes. Each one that remains carries a reside of meaning or history, if only by capturing a memory of a day spent deep in the stacks. And unlike my other works, it won’t ever be complete, because on the day it’s finished, I will be, too.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2014 at 9:24 am

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