Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Books and Reading: Rifflings

I finally got to a book I'd "been meaning to get to for awhile now" (this represents quite a large set) recently, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, a 2009 non-fiction book by Allison Hoover Bartlett, and her meetings and interviews with a sociopathic (probably?) book thief named John Gilkey. This guy would pull credit card scams just to get hold of first editions, and he never really seemed to be interested in reading them; rather, he wanted to build a rich man's book collection because he thought he was entitled to own an impressive collection of books. It's not fair that other people own these just 'cuz they have a lot of money, Gilkey seemed to think. And then Bartlett (in a page-turner in the "New New Journalism" style), in a meditation about why this seemingly nice guy, unthreatening, non-violent, would risk multiple returns to prison for such a thing, realized, after Gilkey said something about how others would see his books and admire him for owning them , that mere ownership confers an identity, an existence that might allow Gilkey to escape into another life.

Bartlett visits Gilkey's childhood home, and the family were all collectors, so there's obviously something genetic going on there, but Bartlett does not muse on genes. The book is a sort-of True Crime delight, filled with antiquarian book lingo, and Bartlett's search for understanding the mind of Gilkey, who is probably in prison again for book theft as you read this, or is stealing books on the outside, and will soon go back to prison. (Let's hope Gilkey gets it together, but I ain't bettin' on it...)

It turns out Gilkey lived and stashed his stolen gems of books on Treasure Island, a tiny, man-made island between Oakland and San Francisco that anyone driving the Bay Bridge passes by every time they cross that 7 mile span. I've never heard of anyone who actually lived there. Now every time I drive through Treasure Island I'll think of Gilkey, along with the fog. (That's another thing I love about books: you can inhabit them, then meld worlds when you visit those places in "real life." I grew up in Los Angeles, so I "know" what Charles Bukowski or Aldous Huxley or Raymond Chandler are getting at, in a certain and somewhat rare way. But I guess all the great cities have their writers, and citizens who read like me...but all I can really say is that sometimes you can get a wonderfully odd feeling. Like I know exactly the spot where Jack Nicholson's character Jake Gittes in Chinatown parks in San Pedro, and puts his watch under Mulwray's car wheel. I know exactly where The Dude and John Goodman blow Donnie's ashes into the ocean, in The Big Lebowski. Do I make any sense here? Oh, I see that I've wandered into a nearby blogpost by accident; let me see if I can make it back.)

If I own a first edition, it's not anything anyone would want to collect. I think I understand a bit of Gilkey when it comes to my signed books. I have about 15 of those, nothing to jump up and down about, but an odd, probably Freudian thrill. Very many of my own books were bought for less than $2 each at yard sales or library sales. I like having the physical objects, the tactility of books, their odors (even though very many of my books were housed in boxes in a garage for a long rainy winter on the Los Angeles Harbor, and contracted tiny mold spots), but mostly for the "Gumby"aspect of them. (The wha?)

A few years ago I took a class on how to teach adult illiterates how to read. On the first day of class, the teacher went from person to person and asked what literary figure we identified with, along with our names, and why we wanted to teach an adult illiterate. People gave the usual suspects: Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, and one pretty gal said, memorably, Holly Golightly (!). When my turn came I said I wasn't sure if my character was in a book, but he was a claymation figure who had a peculiar relationship to books, Gumby. The teacher seemed baffled. So I sang, quite off-key, "He can walk into any book, with his pony-pal Pokey too..." and explained that I saw each fictional book as representing a "world" and thought that, neurologically, part of us must somehow "believe" we are "in" that world when we are reading. I think I was officially the Class Freak after that. Nothing new for me, that is...(But c'mon! That Gumby stuff by Art Clokey? Just try and tell me that wasn't Clokey after...umm...becoming...ahhh...as Jimi Hendrix said, "experienced." Oh wow: my brother and I were watching LSD-inspired "art" before we shoved off to elementary school every morning.)

No but seriously: when we read, we ought to "be" in the world of the book. Or at least my aesthetics says so. I do read, say Ulysses with my consciousness alternating between being in Dublin on June 16th, 1904, and in the minds of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly, AND I'm thinking of Joyce and his style and virtuosity and knowledge AND I'm watching my mind make those movements in and out of the book. And I just began yet another reading. Let most Unistatians have their Bible-bibles; I have Ulysses, The Illuminatus! and Schrodinger's Cat trilogies, Gravity's Rainbow, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Pound's Cantos and a few others.

I have been riffling through an amazing and wonderful book from the public library called A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, by a Venezuelan erudite named Fernando Baez, who is an authority on the Library at Alexandria. The book took him 12 years to write and it's just marvelous. I spent a couple of hours delving randomly in it, and experiencing the unique emotional pain of such losses of books over humankind's history, since books were written. How odd these strong emotions about books. And books were destroyed since the time they were written, as Baez says in his first chapter, on Mesopotamian books:

"No one knows how many books were destroyed in Sumer, but 100,000 is a plausible figure, given the number of military conflicts that ravaged the region. Archeology reveals the existence of these ancient books. Excavations of the fourth level of the temple of the fearsome goddess Eanna, in the city of Uruk, uncovered tablets, some intact, others in fragments, pulverized or burned, that can be dated between 4100 and 3300 BCE. This discovery contains a great paradox of the Western world: the discovery of the earliest books also establishes the date of their earliest destruction." (p.22)

Baez's book runs chronologically, with the last section centered in the 20th century, with fascism, China and the Soviet Union, censorship battles, an entire chapter on Spain, Chile and Argentina, and the looting of Baghdad in 2003, of which Donald Rumsfeld is quoted as saying, "Stuff happens. [...] Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes, and do bad things." I am one who thinks it would be good for all of us if Rumsfeld were on trial in The Hague. All this, while a former Iraqi library director said, "I can't remember barbarity like this, not even from Mongol times."

A chapter (number 18) that I found especially fascinating was "Books Destroyed in Fiction," with plenty about my favorites: Borges and Lovecraft, Poe and Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson and Cervantes all playing parts. In here there is much on authors and their inventions of "dangerous books," which is a topic that has long fascinated me: the "demonic" power of books.

And then I realized: this whole book is really about that subject; but most of the times the humans who had the power to demonize books were emperors and Caesars and chancellors and kings: books and the ideas in them threaten power. These autocrats and fascists and bullies may have been power-mad and murderous, but they were and are right about books, I think. And for that I take a perverse pleasure: they may burn them, but they continue to rise.

Blogger James Bridle has a good-looking review of Baez's book here.

Now, if only we can get more people to actually READ them.


Bogus Magus said...

There's a funny thing. Just as you are reading The Destruction of Books, I find myself riffling through
Books on Fire: the destruction of libraries throughout history - also borrowed from the public library...

Eric Wagner said...

Frances Yates writes about the burning of math books after the Reformation. Sombunall Protestants considered math evil Catholic magic.

michael said...

@Bogus: Is that the one by Hag Bosmajian? (Or however he spells it) If not, I have to read that one after Senor Baez, the National Librarian of Venezuela.

@Mr. Eric: Here's a bit on Dee's library from Baez: "Elizabeth I admired Dee and not only pardoned him but entrusted him with missions not even her closest advisors knew about. Among other things, Dee brought to England Mercator's first globes, contributed to the first translation of Euclid's Elements, and wrote a mysterious book called the Hieroglyphic Monad. But while he was traveling, his house in Mortlake was attacked by a superstitious mob,and when he returned in 1589, he discovered that his library, one of the most complete with regard to esoteric texts, had been pillaged." (150-151)

Eric Wagner said...

Sad story, Dr. J. Thanks for sharing it. Yates paints a sad picture of the "war on the Renaissance" in England in the 1590's.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I've always liked collecting books, too, but do you suppose that will soon seem like a silly anachronism? I know a guy at work who got rid of all of his movie DVDs -- when he wants to watch something, he just streams it. Likewise, he is largely giving up buying new music and is paying to stream Spotify through his smart phone (which means he can listen to music anywhere, plugging the phone into his car stereo, etc.) Will owning books seem pointless when there's a big library "in the cloud"?

michael said...

@Tom Jackson: I've thought perhaps far too much about this Q over the last year or so, and I think in less than 15 years having books in the house will be something like a "tradition in the family" (although dead-tree books will probably go up in cost, significantly), and people like me will be thought of as maybe like a person who collected 78s in the year 1978: a real eccentric.

But I don't know. I wonder ho many people will refuse/avoid reading everything online or on Kindle-like gadgets. I love the tactility of the book. I also like them as objects to hold, stack, move around, arrange, page through...