Reduced to cardboard boxes sealed with packing tape, a transformation that lends books the inert heft of concrete blocks, one’s library suddenly appears too, too solid and yet, enticingly disposable. Why lug around all this stuff? Except for house and car, I own nothing else so heavy. My books by many factors outweigh my refrigerator. Made anonymous by boxing, books might serve as building material, weaponry or landfill fodder.
“What am I carrying all this lumber around with me for? Into boxes, out of boxes. Why am I breaking my back for them? Throwing away money on removalists, on shelves. Why am I repeating patterns of ownership that have served me only fitfully in the past?”
In the last month, from well-intentioned acquaintances, I’ve received recent volumes devoted to Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams, poets who mean almost nothing to me. Both volumes are overpriced and over-freighted with pseudo-scholarly apparatus. In general, I’m rapidly losing interest in secondary sources. At the public library, as in English departments, critics outnumber their subjects. Off to Half-Price Books go Hart and Bill. This is no time for sentimentality.
“How do you explain to somebody who doesn’t understand that you don’t build a library to read. A library is a resource. Something you go to, for reference, as and when. But also something you look at, because it gives you succor, answers to some idea of who you are or, more to the point, who you would like to be, who you will be once you own every book you need to own.”
Thanks to a review by Elberry at The Dabbler, I’m reading a collection of columns/essays by the English novelist Howard Jacobson, Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It (Bloomsbury, 2012). The title comes from an exchange between Groucho and Chico in A Night at the Opera that reminds me of this song performed by Groucho and Zeppo in Horse Feathers. The passages above are taken from a piece titled “Human Values.” So now I’ve added another book to the heap, one I suspect I’ll reread on occasion. Of course, as Jacobson writes in the same column:
“As always, it’s the feebleness of our language that shows the trouble we’re in. We can’t make a claim for substance without our words drifting away on the wind like the puffball of the dandelion—sugar-bobbies, as we used to call them in the north. Fine spores of sweet nothing.”