As a reporter I paid attention to the books on the shelves of people I interviewed, and still do. Who can resist the cheap psychoanalysis of complete strangers based on their literary taste or its absence? Who knows if the titles were chosen to impress visitors? Who hasn’t purchased a book, or at least displayed one prominently, as an act of vanity? Literary voyeurism pays off in another way: Lists, catalogs and most other human efforts to arrange things are inherently amusing, rich with absurd juxtapositions. The surrealists had nothing on the random workings of everyday people. Roger Boylan posts a photo of books lined up on a table and writes:
“Nice to know how randomly scattered are those with idiosyncratic literary tastes. This is from my friend Stephen Wesson, who recently spent a weekend in a cabin in the mountains of West Virginia and discovered therein this eclectic bookshelf.”
I’ve spent time in West Virginia and don’t recall seeing any of those titles. One is reassured by their eclecticism and utter absence of order despite the lapses in taste. Left to right they are:
Louis Giannetti’s Understanding Movies, unknown, [Robert] Benchley Beside Himself, Boylan’s novel Killoyle, Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, Richard Daniel Altick’s Victorian Studies in Scarlet, Jacob Needleman’s Money and the Meaning of Life, Adrian Room’s The Dictionary of Confusable Words, Leon Edel’s Henry James: The MiddleYears 1882-1895, a volume by Max Apple I’m unable to make out, and a blue volume lost in low-definition murk.
Nothing appalling on the part of our mystery reader though the Bloom is a disappointment, and I’ve not read Altick, Needleman and Apple. A treasure lurks in West Virginia, however. To the left of Understanding Movies stand three books partially obscured by a rusty vase or pencil holder. The first two, left to right, I can’t identify but the third, with “HE” visible on the spine, is an old friend and stands on my table three feet from my fingers as I type these words: Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman (1978). Clearly, Roger’s friend was in the presence of a reader of distinction.
Some bloggers post photos of their bookshelves, which, though often interesting, seem rather boastful. I’d rather hear them talk about the books they’ve read rather than see pictures of those they own. Besides, I don’t know how to use a digital camera, don’t know how to download an image into my computer and wouldn’t know how to post it anyway. Instead of a snapshot, I’ll refer readers to “Constant Rereader’s Bookshelf,” an essay collected in Sissman’s Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70s, published the year before his death in 1976:
“A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign. Since you, the reader, are that hero of modern literature, the existential loner, the smallest denominator of moral force, it behooves you to take counsel, sustenance, and solace from the writers who have been writing about you these hundred or five hundred years, to sequester yourself with their books and read and reread them to get a fix on yourself and a purchase on the world that will, with luck, like the house in the clearing, last you for life.”