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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Composting Down: SOLVE FOR X: ESSAYS, by Arthur Saltzman (Part 2 of 5)

Solve for X is Dr. Saltzman’s third book of creative nonfiction, or, as he a little self-aggrandizingly preferred to call it, his third book of “lyrical essays.” A fourth followed posthumously. Unsurprisingly, reading Dr. Saltzman’s nonfiction is a little like spending time with the man himself, which, I suppose, is part of the draw or part of the resistance, depending on which camp you sided with, and he was certainly polarizing enough to populate them both.

The essays are exquisitely wrought, sometimes distractingly so, but that should be expected by a man who would ask “For whom are you babysitting?” while holding a drink with an umbrella in it, not that he ever drank drinks with umbrellas. The subjects of his essays range from his childhood in Chicago to his tense relationship with the rural Midwest to the significance he gleans from commonplace things that most of us take for granted. About the board game Scrabble, for example, he writes, “It is merciless. It reveals too much. No other game is so charged with implication and prospects for shame.” That same essay also includes close readings of Sorry and Monopoly.
Most of all, however, the essays reflect the man in the baldness of their honesty. Dr. Saltzman was not one who could conceal what he was feeling at any given moment. He was not one of those teachers who carefully delineated his professional and his private lives. He refused to speak in hypotheticals. Everything was actual. Everything he was experiencing at any given time—whether it was Michael Jordan’s retirement or his daughter’s battle with a rare disease—he carried with him into the classroom, which meant if he was having a bad day, then you were having a bad day. As he was fond of saying, “Your goal should be to make me happy. Because if I’m happy, then you’re happy. Capiche?” He was also fond of saying, “I’m not really teaching you anything. I’m just telling you how to live your life.” And for him it was all life. 

“Living Space,” for example, from his first book of nonfiction, Objects and Empathy (2001), starkly captures the emptiness of a home that has been abandoned in the wake of divorce. Saltzman achingly describes how a man goes from dining at the kitchen table to eating while standing at the counter. “Living alone accelerates the progression of absent habit into studied ritual,” he writes. “For example, it may begin when you decide against spooning the beans onto the plate and opt for eating out of the pot directly. Soon enough you find yourself eating over the kitchen sink to catch the spills more efficiently. You define the elimination of social graces as efficiency.” That image of a man who eats while standing so captivated me that I once tried to write a whole play around it. The play failed. The man, of course, was Dr. Saltzman.

Before Objects and Empathy, Dr. Saltzman boasted a number of books of literary criticism. Some of the titles were straightforward enough—Understanding Raymond Carver or The Fiction of William Gass—but others carried with them the stench of Academia—Designs of Darkness in Contemporary American Fiction or The Novel in the Balance. I never knew exactly how he felt about playing that game. “You have to consider both sides of the colon,” I remember him once telling the class. “The first part you’re supposed to be clever, but the second is what it’s really about.” He mentioned this around the time of the release of This Mad Instead: Governing Metaphors in Contemporary American Fiction. I never read any of Dr. Saltzman’s academic books cover to cover, but I did flip through a few of them in the library on occasion. I memorized as much as I needed to in order to casually drop by his office hours and insert a reference—a reference that I knew would switch him into lecture mode—but the truth is that I barely understood a word. How can he be so engaging in class, I wondered, and so obfuscating in print?

"Obfuscating."  There's a word I didn't know until Saltzman introduced it to me.

My copy of Objects and Empathy includes an inscription that says, “For Kirby and Leuinda, just don’t get me involved in the Woolf controversy. In lieu of instant cleverness, all good wishes! Art Saltzman (28 Feb. 2003).” My dad is the one who bought the book for me and secured the inscription. There’s an email printed off and pressed into the pages in which I had written and my dad had underlined, “I can’t wait to see what witticism he comes up with on the inside cover.” I think I would say “for the inside cover” today. Apparently, too, there was a controversy about Virginia Woolf.

Dr. Saltzman wrote achingly about life turning your dining room into a sink.
 The story of how I acquired Solve for X is less memorable, its markings less personal. I heard that he had died and I ordered it online. See. I told you. I figured that buying his most recent book was the least I could do to honor him. The rock star who sells more records in death than he does in life. I guess there’s something there too about hearing his voice one last time, though it had been a long, long stretch since we last communicated. Still, just not being able to anymore was enough to prompt the purchase. I still haven’t bought the book that was published after he passed. There’s something about not finishing all of him that I find comforting.

The only thing of note in my copy of Solve for X is a message on a piece of scratch paper that has become the bookmark. Apparently I received the book in the mail and had gone out for the night before my wife got home. I had scribbled for her a message and left it with the book. The message says, “The dedication is lovely and I suspect the opening of the first essay will inspire some mixed emotions. See you soon! love – k.” The book’s dedication says, “For EMS and WHG, who make me celebrate July 30, and for Joy, who altogether graces the calendar.” I don’t know who “EMS” and “WHG” are, though I suspect they are Dr. Saltzman’s parents, the “S” in the first set of initials and what appears to be a birthday all but giving that one away, but I do know who “Joy” is. Joy was Dr. Saltzman’s girlfriend, or, as he calls her throughout the book, his “beloved.”

The campus, in the wake of the affair.
I knew both Joy and Dr. Saltzman when they were someone else’s beloved, but, hey, these things happen. Don’t judge him for that. Judge him because he wouldn’t say hello to you in the hall unless you said so first or because he wouldn’t ask what happened if one day you came to class with a cast on your forearm or because his favorite response to students who didn’t agree with his ways was “I have tenure. What are they going to do?” But don’t judge him because he met his soul mate after he met his wife.

Not that anyone on campus was able to resist. Their affair caused quite a stir, as Joplin tried to prove how cosmopolitan it was by fielding a chattering class. I worked at a retail store just out of college, a toy store—OK, it was a Toys R Us—and the wife of a professor whom I much admired came bounding up to me not long after the story broke. “What is going on with Art and Joy?!” I had no idea she traded in such scandal. Joy also taught at Southern, her office a few doors down from Saltzman’s, so you can imagine.

Truth is, though, when I first heard the news about them getting together, it felt like a natural match. She hung pictures of Sinead O’Connor in her office, had had a poem published in The Paris Review. It was something to do with a bird taking flight, if I recall correctly, the poem. I read it. Didn’t understand a word. I think she used the scientific term for what I would refer to as the bird’s “shin.” He was the resident scholar, the only one on staff who was regularly publishing while still juggling a full teaching load. When the poet Donald Hall visited nearby Pittsburg University in Kansas, Saltzman accompanied him into the lecture hall. They entered like they were a couple, Charles and Diana for fuck’s sake. After, when we were having post-reading drinks and all of the students were trying to one-up each other in front of the faculty with our insights, Saltzman called Donald “Don.” “Don was telling me on the ride over.” Why they weren’t together on the way back I’ll never know.

No, Saltzman and Joy were inevitable. They were bound to swim into each other’s lives, especially given the size of the pond that they had chosen to call home.


“At nine years old, Jeremy is anxious about wasting any more time than he already has.” That’s the first line of Solve for X, the one that I thought might inspire some mixed emotions. Jeremy is Joy’s son with her first (maybe second?) husband. Leuinda babysat him for the first years of his life. Leu tells a story about how he went through a Batman phase and refused to go anywhere without his costume on. She was driving, he was in the car seat in the back, and all she could see were his little pointy ears in the rearview mirror. We marveled at how well he was able to say “Schenectady.”

That Jeremy is nine in this essay is hard to fathom. That he is a teenager at the time of this writing is impossible. Almost as impossible as Saltzman being gone.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Composting Down: SOLVE FOR X: ESSAYS, by Arthur Saltzman (Part 1 of 5)

Dr. Saltzman was a Chicago Jew, a point that’s only worth leading with because he settled in a place that wasn’t Chicago and that didn’t include many Jews. Joplin was so insensitive toward Jews, in fact, that no one even thought it queer that Don’s Army Surplus boasted Nazi paraphernalia among its tree stands, mace, and gas masks. To my shame, I counted myself among the un-offended. This was high school, mind you, and though I probably should have known better, I didn’t. We’d drive out after school, that curvy two-lane out to Neosho, the ash from our Marlboro Reds speckling the backseat like a Pollack, or, depending on your taste, like bird droppings. We’d slide the coats across the racks in search of an army jacket like the one John Lennon wore on the cover of Live in New York City, pausing respectfully when the ghost of a name appeared over the left breast—a Dishman, a Robinson—then continuing on our hunt, discounting out of hand the camouflage, the slickers, honing in instead on the olive canvas, nothing more than a shirt really, dependent upon layering—of flannels, of thermals—to gather any kind of real warmth. We scavenged in relative ignorance of the trinity of flags looming over us: one American, one Southern, one Nazi. To this day I don’t know if Don arrayed them in this order as a warning or as a threat. Were they a statement, or were they a narrative?
"Heil, Bubba!"
I never saw Dr. Saltzman at Don’s. He was instead relegated to the college that the town didn’t even have the decency to put on a hill. Joplin reserved that honor for Ozark Christian College, which had but a fraction of Southern’s student population but was more closely aligned with the rest of the community, ideologically speaking, and, thus, more deserving of their perch. OCC was out toward Carl Junction, where those three high school students had beaten their retarded friend to death with a bat in some kind of a satanic ritual the summer I moved to Missouri from California. One of the three murderers was an honor student, the class president. When the cops came to his door, he said, “You’re here about Steven.” This was my introduction to my new hometown. Welcome to the Midwest. Duck.

Missouri Southern was kind of out toward Webb City and kind of out toward Carthage, but it was mostly not toward anything at all, which is how the rest of the town liked it.

“You’re moving to a college town, aren’t you?” my girlfriend’s father had asked before I left San Diego. He was trying to put a positive spin on the situation, the look on my face for the months leading up to the move reminiscent of nothing as much as bereavement. In my mind, Missouri equaling death. And not in any abstract kind of way. I mean real, permanent, irrevocable death.

“I don’t know. I guess.”

“Yeah, you’re moving to a college town. You’re going to love it.”

I wasn’t fully aware of the implications of the term “college town,” but whatever the promises contained therein I was pretty sure they were not being kept. Joplin was a town and it did indeed include a college, but there the similarities ended. The relationship between the two wasn’t outright hostile—the mayor didn’t set bags full of shit on fire and then leave it on the provost’s porch, and the provost didn’t do donuts on the mayor’s lawn—but a mutual lack of respect festered, nonetheless. The locals thought of the faculty as a bunch of arrogant, godless, spouse-swapping ACLU-lovers who protested against the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers when they weren’t inquiring at the local head shop about a new “Visualize World Peace” bumper sticker, their previous sticker being defaced while they were in the candle shop at the mall. And the faculty thought of the locals as a group of ignorant, racist, gun-toting homophobes whose yards looked like perpetual garage sales and who might actually make something of their lives if they could only get over the infatuation with aluminum foil, Roman candles, and those screeching tops that whirled like dervishes before exploding in the air. “Awesome,” they would say, before taking another swig of their Natty Lite and igniting another.  

Of course, they were both right about the other.
"Welcome to Joplin, just as long as you aren't here for any of that book learning."
In these unofficial culture wars, several professors embodied the college. With his distinguished gray beard and his elbow-patched tweed jackets, Dr. Denniston tackled the role of the Shakespeare professor every bit as well as Olivier played Hamlet. Dr. Lambert’s push-broom mustache, protruding belly, and dry wit qualified him to teach Twain better than any dissertation. And, as the lone tenured, female member of the English Department, Dr. Walters represented her gender well, with a mind as sharp as the “T” in “Bronte” somewhere beneath that pixie-ish haircut.

But none of these figures—really, not even the college itself—looms larger than Dr. Saltzman.

I heard about him years before I ever set foot in his class. His wife at the time was the Enrichment teacher at my junior high school, and though I wasn’t smart enough to actually be in Enrichment, I was smart enough to have a crush on the girls who were, so I heard all about their extracurricular activities—their investigative hikes at George Washington Carver National Park or their community service in the soup line at Soul’s Harbor—which inevitably roped in Dr. Saltzman as a chauffeur.

“He’s just so sarcastic,” the smart girls would say. “He’s the most sarcastic man I have ever met.”

In my mind, “sarcastic” was akin to “cynical,” which wasn’t too far removed from “curmudgeonly.” I pictured Saltzman at the wheel, a gaggle of giggling girls in the backseat, for even smart girls giggle, and his wife in the passenger’s seat, half turned to the girls and half to her husband, occasionally barking directions—“Turn right, Art. Arthur, turn right.”—Saltzman silently obeying, inwardly seething. My impression then was that he was less put upon than it sounds now, though, admittedly, “resigned” hits pretty close to the mark, but resigned in a sense of someone who has reconciled with himself that he will not always be allowed to use his full powers, that there are times when he will instead be required to cart around cars full of teenage girls. Saltzman himself would later introduce me to Saul Bellow. At the time, the best I could do was Walter Mitty.
Two passions: books and basketball.
Yet doughy, impotent Walter Mitty hardly captures his virility. He was a big man, probably 6’4”, who wore his 220 pounds well. He was only in his 40’s, but the wrinkles on his face were deep enough to hold a quarter, particularly those that encircled his mouth like parentheses. His Short Story or Recent Popular Fiction or Creative Writing classes were ostensibly “discussion,” but that really meant that he would tap his foot fitfully for the 15 minutes we were allowed to flounder before he took the reigns and led us to the heart of the discussion.  But even if he regularly failed to tame his more dictatorial tendencies—I find that the best professors rarely do—he eschewed his rightful place at the head of the class. We started each session by forming a circle with our desks, Saltzman walking among us, squeezing himself into the space between the seat and the writing surface in a way that I would relate to a circus elephant balancing on a thimble-like stool if the image weren’t so unflattering. Books looked small in his hands, an unfair fight.

I knew from our discussion of Rabbit, Run—well, his discussion of Rabbit, Run—that he was passionate about basketball, still played even with a group of trusted friends at the Y on Wednesday nights. I pictured him on the court, his back to the basket, wearing down an opponent with his considerable hindquarters, his arm raised, calling for the ball. He wears a knee brace. He says things like “nice take” and “what’s the count?” When a ball heads out of bounds, he and another player lunge for it. Saltzman is falling away, the ball in his possession. He has no clear pass to an open teammate, so at the last second he throws the ball into his opposition’s shin. The ball ricochets against the water fountain. Another player taps him on the head as he walks past. “Nice hustle.” Saltzman nods, breathes heavily, and waits for play to resume.

This is all before I learned that he was dead, that Dr. Saltzman had died, before my dad called me in the middle of the day and said, “Kirb.” My dad never calls. Heart attack, he said, though I later heard aneurysm. Passed in the night. Joy was asleep right next to him. She must have woken up and. He couldn’t have been, what, 55, 56? I’m 62. The campus is in shock. I thought you’d want to know.

I was at work. I clicked my phone shut, prepared for my one o’clock.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Introduction (Part 3 of 3): Remainders

“Remainders” are books that the bookstore reduces in price in an effort to unload them before they have to be returned to the publisher. They’re hot books that cooled off, books that were supposed to be hotter than they actually were, or books that were never really that hot to begin with. Let’s face it, they’re the reject pile, the 99-cent CD bin, only the remainder table less reliably contains that occasional find whereby the nostalgia factor makes the price truly a bargain. The remainder tables never includes the literary equivalent of the Thompson Twins’ follow up to Here’s to Future Days or Frente!’s Marvin the Album. Honestly, I’m not even sure what the literary equivalent of such finds would be. Anne Rice’s biography of Jesus? Glenn Beck’s thriller? In any case, the best the books on the remainder table can hope for is to flesh out the skeletal bookshelf on a stage set somewhere. At least that way they’ll be put to some use.

My shelves at home are lousy with remainders. Not necessarily titles that were designated as such by the bookstore, but personal remainders. Books I’ve picked up along the way for whatever reason—gifts, impulse buys, opportunity buys, well-known titles by authors I should read, lesser-known titles by authors I do read, movie editions of films I like, movie editions of films I never saw because I wanted to read the book first, movie editions of films that I bet the book was better, research for plays written and un-, books purchased in a fit of self-improvement, to fill a gap in my education, to round out a collection, books that people loaned me and that I never returned, that qualified an order for free shipping. I’m not sure of the ratio of read to unread—five to one, maybe; maybe four—but I do know that I’m confronted by them every time I walk into my son’s room and see two bloated bookshelves casting shadows over his beloved puzzles and cars. I see them encroach. I understand the premium of space, particularly in the city. Yet, to my continued surprise, I hear myself arguing for their relevance every time my wife and I have the latest version of the storage conversation.
Not my shelves, but not too far off.

Right now the storage space that we rent includes things that can fairly be called “shared”: camping equipment, mainly, an inflatable mattress that takes up a lot more room than you think when it’s deflated, maybe some lawn chairs. But we recently cleared out what passes for a “receiving room” in a New York City apartment to make room for my new bike, a generous Father’s Day gift that delights to no end on the weekend but that passes as a poor imitation of even the most liberal definition of “adornment” during the week. All kinds of tchotchkes went into storage to make room for the bike, nearly all of them hers: remembrances from her teaching days, gifts from her mother, vacation pictures, even a Wedding Day photo. A whole shelf boxed up, and in its place a bike vertical to the wall, a child carrier for the bike, three helmets, sweat-fossilized gloves, an air pump, a dirt-encrusted water bottle, somehow still more room for a stroller and some of Jonah’s outdoor toys, various rubber balls, a plastic bucket and shovel. The closet door still opens, but barely. It’s not a receiving room anymore; it’s a mud room, the equivalent of a shed out back in the Midwest, only it’s not out and it’s up front.

And what sacrifices have I made to clear room for our ever-accumulating lives? Well, did I mention that the CD’s are under the bed?

“What about the books?

“What about them?

“Do you think maybe we could reduce them to one shelf?”

Shaking my head.

“I’m not talking about burning them. I’m talking about putting them in storage.”

“It’s damp there. They’ll get all moldy.”

“It’s not damp.”

“It’s storage. It’s dank and it’s cold.”

“Have you even been to the storage space?”


Her again: “And, besides, they’re books, not puppies.”


“Do you really need them all?”

Of course not.


All of them.”



“We can’t get rid of any of them? Not even ‘get rid of.’ Box up.”

Sure we can.


“Not any of them?”



“None of them?”



“Oh, my god.”

What happens to books in storage...I just know it.
She leaves the room, gets as far away from me as possible, though even that is still within earshot of a normal speaking voice. Jonah sits on the floor. He uses my copy of Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews as a ramp for one of his Matchbox cars. (Incidentally, the Joseph Andrews was picked up during a mid-semester run to the previously mentioned Dickson Street bookstore in Fayetteville when I remembered how much I enjoyed Tom Jones and resolved to read more Fielding. This was 1999. I haven’t read it yet.  But one day….)

I don’t know how to say it other than getting rid of books feels like a loss. And I don’t mean a loss of will. It’s not about stubbornness, or, at least, it’s not only about stubbornness. Instead, it feels like a loss of something more. Something essential. Let’s just leave it at that.

“All of these books mean something? All of them?”


“They’re all indispensable?


Prove it.

That’s me there, obviously, not her. The “prove it.” It’s a challenge to myself. One I’d like to accept. I’m going to put a moratorium on further book accumulation, and I’m going to read the un-read books from my shelf. Not only that, but I’m going to write about them as well, and in so doing, I hope to prove that, not only do the remainders have value, but a book is more than the sum of its words, that the manner in which it was acquired, the circumstances that brought it to your attention and eventual possession, these all inform your reading experience in ways that are inextricable from the content itself, in ways that are consequently lost if your reading restricts itself to forms that have no spines. I may never have revisited these titles had they not been staring me in the face for the past however many years rather than residing in some electronic menu (how many out-of-sight CD go unlistened to). In many cases, these books would have remained unacquired by me without the physicality to acquire.

The first book I'm going to read and write about is a book of essays by Arthur Saltzman called Solve for X. (Dr. Saltzman was a professor of mine years ago, and many of the books are his fault.) After that, I'm not sure what will come next.  I'd like to make sure I mix up the genres:  novels, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, self-help, biographies, philosophy.  Right now, candidates include: Aaron Copland’s How to Listen to Music; Robert McKey’s Story; Allan Moore’s The Watchman; Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code; George Will’s Men at Work; the Modern Library Edition of The Basic Writings of Nietzsche; Luc Sante's Low Life; and what looks to be a fairly comprehensive biography of Leo Tolstoy, by Ernest J. Simmons. But I don't want to lock myself in. 

The Beach Reads will appear after every two major entries. They will be determined by a vote of the readers. They are designed to take advantage of the, shall we say, less substantial titles I've accumulated throughout the years.

I hope you visit with each new entry and that when you do you stay awhile. As I've noted elsewhere, I realize that the commitment is considerable. The site is not unlike a good book in this regard (he hopes). My goal is to make it worth your time.

I'm excited to see what I have been missing all these years.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Introduction (Part 2 of 3): May I Play with Your Nook?

In the movie version of this essay, this is the part that shows those barren boyhood shelves being filled with rapidly multiplying books. Side by side, then topped off. The team photos disappear, the ribbons, even the foam tomahawk. Then the books are boxed up, duct-taped, and stacked onto a moving van. The back of the van clangs shut, high angle road shot of the van barreling down the freeway. Then a new house, new shelves, bigger, me proudly beaming. The books appear again, outgrow the shelves again, are boxed up, clang shut, road shot, a quick succession of green highway signs with reflective lettering—Fayetteville, Arkansas; Lawrence, Kansas; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; then New York City. Hold. Cut to me in the middle of a cramped room. Bookshelves form all four walls. They’re stacked two deep, topped off, turned against the binding. Anything to cram more in. Outside the window a brick wall. My wife stands in the doorway, a stern look on her face, never looking more like her own mother than now, a baby on her hip, wailing, of course. Cut to the baby’s crib, cemented with books. And…scene.

The funny thing, the Prequel, if you will, is that we just went through this with the CD’s. I hear about couples who get together and combine their individual music collections into one super-collection, like a corporate merger. They honeymoon on the money they make selling their duplicates on eBay. Never mind “We’re staying together for the children;” instead it’s “We’re getting together for the music,” their collection as strong a bind as house ownership or a shared retirement fund or, oh yeah, their marriage.

This was not the case with Leu and me. When we first got together, I had 450 CD’s, she had four. She had the Sleepless in Seattle soundtrack, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, Marc Cohn Marc Cohn, and Glenn Frey’s Soul Searchin’. Suffice it to say we did not honeymoon on the duplicates. Though I think overall Leu has enjoyed the benefits of the inherited collection, it was the source of at least some anxiety early on, not the collection itself as much as its upkeep and management.

One compromise we reached not long after moving in together was that we wouldn’t scatter the CD’s across the bedroom floor.

“You know, they make things to prevent this kind of situation from happening,” she said.

“‘Situation,’” I replied. “What do you mean ‘situation?’”

“Discs strewn about like lily pads. That kind of thing.”

“Oh, that.”

“Some of them even encourage you to keep the disc and the jewel case together.”


“Just something to think about. It might be nice to get up in the middle of the night without jabbing your heel on a jagged piece of plastic.”

I have to admit, I saw her point. Yet, despite all of their attempts to be otherwise, CD cases are notoriously unfashionable. Even the sexiest models—those tall, sleek towers that look like the obelisk from 2001—can’t escape their fate: namely, to house four-by-four-inch pieces of plastic. Close your eyes and envision the ideal CD case, and it’s probably one that hides the CD’s completely. This is telling.

"Aw, man. That CD rack really tied the room together."

Ultimately, we settled on three 144-disc carriers rather than one higher-capacity version. We thought we neutralized the garishness by opting for a natural-wood finish, like something you would have picked up next to the prize-winning jam at the county fair or something you would display because your kid made it in shop. The results were mixed. First of all, simple math, which apparently wasn’t so simple for us: I started with 450 discs; she contributed four. We bought three 144-disc carriers. 144 x 3 = 432. 454 > 432. So right away there was overflow. Little-listened to recordings were exiled to the top of a closet. But even that fails to account for future accumulation, this in Napster’s infancy, when “accumulation” was only possible through physical means.

Another challenge: What to do with packaging that didn’t conform? The cardboard cases that were becoming all the rage and that were often oversized, and the plastic sleeves preferred by DIYers that disrupted the 12-disc symmetry per section, to say nothing of the box sets? Dear god, the box sets! Should they be stacked lengthwise on top? Should the discs be removed and arrayed with those that did not belong to a larger whole? Was this fair? Did this somehow undo the power of the box?

But all of these questions of conformity and fit paled in the face of the biggest question of all: What about the aesthetics? Could anything possibly be done about the aesthetics? Because, I have to be honest, the natural finish wasn’t enough. We had scoffed at people who organized their rooms around the placement of the television—OK, so the TV goes there, which means—but how was it better to pull the room together with a collection that didn’t even have the decency to submit to remote control? At one point, I mixed it up a bit by organizing the carriers in a pyramid style, with two of them on the floor jutting out at opposite diagonals like a woman in stirrups, the third bridging the distance on top. I thought this would make the room arts-ier, sex up the otherwise purely functional. But who knew that echoing a trip to the OBGYN wasn't sexy? Apparently, I didn't. Those CD’s—and the three-foot high speakers that accompanied them like a sidecar—were the greatest threat to the early days of our relationship.

Luckily, the iPod came along and saved my marriage. By the time we were in New York, we now had an entire bookshelf devoted to CD’s, despite the fact that all of its relevant content was stored on this device that was no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Once again, the shelf was the dominant piece of furniture in the living room, even though everything on it that had been acquired in the past three years had been ripped rather than played, and that only once. So I was ready when, one night, after a few gin-n-tonics, I noticed my wife quietly contemplating the shelf.

“Do you think, maybe, we could…?”

“Absolutely,” I said, not even letting her finish. I knew it was coming, was surprised that the discs had lasted this long, actually, though in hindsight I realize that it had only been two years since I unloaded my cassettes, and perhaps she was giving me time to grieve.

Today, there’s a stack five-high of recently acquired discs in the four-foot space I have carved out for myself behind the bedroom door, but otherwise everything that was once the centerpiece of the living room is now in a box under the bed. Some might be in storage. See how much it bothers me? I’m not even sure where they all are anymore.

Though I’m absolutely guilty of romanticizing music, I am not one who romanticizes its packaging or even its format. I confess to a pang of loss when I think about all of those great album covers from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s—Electric Ladyland, Pearl, Dark Side of the Moon—and how much album art was undercut by the diminutive canvas of the cassette—a rite of passage for Beatles fans everywhere and for all time has been identifying the people on the cover of Sgt. Peppers, a pastime that will eventually go the way of baseball cards in the spokes or, worse yet, baseball itself—but I have no interest in the hipster-driven resurgence of vinyl. Albums are clunky, un-portable, and scratchy. Why would I want to go back to that, other than to appropriate someone else’s nostalgia for something I never really experienced in the first place? Wanting an album is as bad as wanting a Volkswagen. The head of some advertising firm wanted a Volkswagen when he was young, so now he wants me to want one too. 

Albums were something my dad had. I accessed music differently. I vaguely remember 8-tracks, grew up on tapes, transitioned to CD’s then MP3’s, all without even a remote sense of loss. This evolution feels natural to me, particularly with a form (recorded music) that is relatively young in the grand scheme of things. (I imagine the same argument could be made for the shift from celluloid to digital video.) I don’t even import the album covers to my iPod. I don’t want to take up space that could otherwise be reserved for music. For me, it’s all about the music. 
I don't miss the 8-track, the cassette, or the CD, and I damn sure don't miss vinyl.
I feel differently about books. I see the ever-increasing number of people on the train in the morning reading on their e-readers. They look so light, the e-readers, the passengers holding them with one hand, Fred Flintsone and his prehistoric strength reading his morning tablet. I used to project a feeling of smugness onto the readers themselves, as if what they were reading wasn’t as important as what they were reading it on. Look at me looking at this. That kind of thing. But I’m over it now. Now I see that they are just as engaged as us Luddites with our Times or Post or paperback. After all, none other than Nicholson Baker assured me in his New Yorker article that the e-reader can achieve the most transcendent state that a narrative-delivery system can hope to achieve: eventually it just disappears, leaving only the story behind, the grin of the cat, as it were.

For the most part, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid contact with the various e-readers, in the same way that a devoted husband won’t even glance at another woman. But such across-the-board abstention strikes me as being more a sign of fear than commitment, so I thought I should at least hold one in my hand—the e-reader, not another woman—if only to show that I was not afraid. A co-worker provided the opportunity when she strolled in one morning with a new gizmo in hand, a gift to herself for some long hours she had been putting in at the office.

“What do you got there?” I asked.

“A Nook.”

“A ‘Nook?’”

“It’s Barnes & Nobles’ version of the Kindle.”

“You like it?”

“Love it.”


“I downloaded, like, this eight-volume collection of books about the British monarchy.”


“I know.”

“It’s on there?”


“All eight volumes?”

“Yep. Maybe $30 for all eight.”

“That’s pretty good.”

“Uh, yeah.”

I paused, not knowing which line to pursue: the price, the capacity, or her unexpected fondness for the British monarchy. Instead, I surprised even myself by saying the dirtiest thing I have ever said to anyone at work: “May I play with your Nook?”

She looked at me with one eye cocked, unsure if a double entendre was intended and if so was this an HR-able offense? After a few seconds, she must have decided that I was benign. “Sure,” she said, and passed it over the half-wall of my cubicle.

This, however, feels like a loss. 

I hefted the Nook in my hand. It was light, as I suspected, but not cheap. It felt sturdy. Maybe not book sturdy, but sturdy, nonetheless. I looked at the screen. It was big enough. Small by a computer’s standards but bigger than the page of a paperback. The words were very readable, I begrudgingly admitted. I had less a sense of staring at a computer screen than I expected. My oft-repeated “Why would I want to stare at a computer screen after spending a whole day starting at computer screen?” line of attack was deteriorating right in front of my surprisingly comfortable eyes. Then I clicked the arrow designating “turn page.” The screen changed, the page turned. Whoa. Rarely do I get a physical sensation from an electronic command—the clicking sound that the iPod makes like the wheel on the “Price Is Right” a curious exception—but I did so now. I clicked back, the page turned again. I felt exhilarated. I wanted to take it for a test drive. Bookmark a page. Search for a specific word. Explore the Notes feature. The front cover, back cover, copyright page. All of that stuff that I had heretofore reserved for only book books.

I handed it back.

“Cool,” I said.

But it wasn’t just cool. It was cooler than cool. It was the future. I knew it.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Introduction (Part 1 of 3): Books Are Hot

I started gathering books in college. Before that, only a few scattered titles lined my shelves: John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, never returned to a class set in San Diego; John Bly’s Iron John, a gift from a well-intentioned aunt in New Mexico; and a rotating series of Stephen King stories, precisely which ones depending on what I had sold back to or picked up from the Book Barn at any given time.

Strange to think of shelves as something to be appreciated or not, but the shelves in that room I most definitely did not. They came with the house, were built into it, and started about the height of a bar stool from the ground. In width, they extended 16 of the room’s 20 feet, the other four filled by a window that looked down at the neighbor’s fenced yard. In height, they rose to the top of the 10-foot high ceiling. I’m serious when I say that they were sturdy enough for me to scale, like those idiots who climb the Times building or Malibu on The Wall on American Gladiators.

This was in the obscenely spacious house in which I grew up in Joplin, Missouri, though at the time I didn’t think it obscene at all. At the time it was just where we lived, its size more an indication of exchange rate than wealth: California dollars stretched farther in the Midwest. Bulky intercoms sat next to the light switches in each room, but the sound was so fuzzy you had to holler down the steps anyway. The driveway was big enough to turn around in. Afraid to back into traffic? Don’t worry. Just engage in a five-point turn in the safety of your own side yard, and we’ll have you facing the right direction in no time. I’m embarrassed to even type the number of bedrooms. (Six, though I can diminish the ostentatiousness if only slightly by talking one down to a sewing room and one down to a den.)  The second floor alone could have accommodated a whole wing of the building I’m living in now.
Where I lived growing up.
Now, my wife, Leuinda, my two-year old son, Jonah, and I live in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, on the other side of Broadway, which qualifies as “the tracks” anywhere else. In Richard Price’s novel Lush Life, two characters travel all the way from upstate to two blocks away from our apartment to buy some real primo dope with the intent to distribute. Last Friday, Leu ran across the street to Rite Aid to buy a new battery for her watch. On her way home, she saw a guy swinging a bat at another guy.

“Give me my money,” the guy with the bat said.

Something small and plastic fell out of the other guy’s pocket. He scrambled to pick it up. By this time a crowd had gathered.

“There were 100 people within seconds,” Leu said. “The traffic on St. Nick totally stopped.”

Apparently spooked by all of the attention, both guys—the bat-wielder and the bat-ducker—jumped into the same car and sped off down a side street together. And here I always thought that the term “partners in crime” meant that the partners were on the same side.

“Where was this?” I ask.

“Right on 186th,” she says. “A block away.” If I step out of our building, I could hit the corner on the fly with a well-thrown baseball.

“They jumped in the same car?”

“Weird, huh?”

This is where we have chosen to raise our son. Try that five-point turn in our neighborhood, and someone else is liable to be driving by point three.

Is it any wonder that Leu is obsessed with other New York apartments?

“That place looks nice,” I say, as we pass a complex that I had never noticed before.

“It’s a walk-up,” she replies, with the expertise of a city inspector.

She attends yoga classes, birthday parties, she monitors local message boards for free stuff like the guys on The Wire, all to find ways to get a look at other neighborhood apartments. When I leave to pick up a corner table for her sewing or a box of clothes for the boy, she says, “Make sure you get a good look at their apartment.” When I get home, “So?” If she were to walk into a New York apartment and see the shelves that lined my room when I was growing up, she would offer the tenant $400 more per month on the spot. Maybe even five. She keeps cash on hand in anticipation of such an opportunity.
The view from where I live now.
Then, however, the shelves were just a wall that I couldn’t plaster with still more posters of Christie Brinkley. They held team photos, participation ribbons, a foam tomahawk commemorating the Braves’ appearance in the 1991 World Series, a gift my dad had brought home from a trip to Atlanta, the reason for him going never clear to me then and even less so now.

This all changed in college. The small state college I attended had to be one of the last to insist that students rent rather than buy the textbooks for their core classes, which prevented us from being saddled with entry-level World History, Music Appreciation, or Psychology texts that were as heavy as the coffee tables they barely fit on. Most students appreciated what I’m sure they considered a kindness on behalf of the college. In fairness, the school benefited from a large contingent of non-traditional students—working mothers who wanted to become LPN’s, twentysomething teenage boys who wanted to parlay their passion for Cops into a career in criminal justice—and this rental policy kept money in their pockets for Similac or Taco Bell.

When it came to the rentals, though, I sided with the professor who would begin each semester by announcing, “Call me crazy, but I believe you should leave college with some books.” He’d go out of his way to order titles that the bookstore didn’t have among its stacks. The black market that cropped up as a result astounded me. Second- and third-year English majors would say, “Don’t buy A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I had that class. You can borrow mine. I have Greasy Lake, too.” Students would get pissed—like, really pissed—when one book was substituted for another. Sula for Tar Baby. Lost in the Funhouse rather than In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. This meant that the required text couldn’t be borrowed; rather, it had to be—horror of horrors—bought! And if the replacement happened to be new enough to only be available in hardback, watch out. If his office had been a house, it would have been egged. And these were the students with scholarships, stipends.

My test scores were good enough to earn me the former but not the latter. Still, I never squabbled about buying books. That professor who insisted on making his students leave school with a library? I enrolled in six of his classes. Six. Had they been in another department, I would have had a minor. On the last day of the semester, when everyone was returning their rented books and drinking their returned deposits by way of cold pitchers of beer, I would loiter in the Student Union and see which books would make their way to the “discontinued” table. They would sell these for three dollars each. I stocked up on Intro to Sociology, Macro-Economics, and as many Norton Anthologies as I could sardine into my backpack: World Literature Volumes 1 and 2, American Literature Volumes 1 and 2, Poetry, Contemporary Poetry, Drama. I was the model Liberal Arts student. Pound for pound, I was determined to take home with me that which I should have been carrying all along.

The space on my shelves dwindled.

This was around the time that I started seriously frequenting used bookstores, treating them as destinations rather than diversions. I have written elsewhere about the significance in my life of one particular store, and, indeed, had I not discovered the Book Barn when I did, whatever I would have discovered in its stead was bound to be a poor substitute, but the Book Barn was as important for what it represented as it was for what it actually had. In a town in which the final scene of Easy Rider is considered not only comedy but sophisticated comedy, the Book Barn was a counterculture bastion, a haven for those of us who valued words and tunes more than hunting and chaw. But visit the Book Barn three times in a week—three times in a month—and you’ve picked over everything that’s there to be picked. The Book Barn depended on the community for its stock, and that stock disappeared with the college kids over the summer. You weren’t going to drop by one July afternoon and suddenly find a shiny new section that included the Riverside Shakespeare, the Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg, or the compact OED, magnifying glass or not. They didn’t even have a shelf reserved for “New Arrivals.” Not even half a shelf. In the summer, they were a dealer whose distributor had been pinched.

So on those unbearably hot Midwest days when “hot” didn’t even begin to capture it, we would abandon the Book Barn for other lovers. We’d leave her in her nightgown and curlers at the kitchen table, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, while we engaged in a weekend rendezvous with stores in Springfield, Tulsa, Fayetteville, Kansas City, occasionally a nooner with this strange bookstore/bar combination on the back way out to Carthage, the exit for which I never did find the first time and that ended up having a surprisingly smart collection. Those weekends. Those lost weekends. Their sole purpose to accrue more books. The offerings even 50 miles away somehow more exotic. Look at this cover of Nine Stories. Does your copy of The Awakening have short stories in the back? Don’t get that. It’s a Dover Thrift. It’ll take you six minutes a page. On the drive home, the trunk so weighed down, the muffler would drag over bumps, casting sparks in our wake, the third-hand Audi now a comet in the night.
The dirty little secret about used bookstores—the one that could get me kicked out of the club for its telling—is that they’re really all the same. Individually so quaint and unique, but as a genre one hardly distinguishable from the next. All some version of: The heavy metal door that won’t shut all the way is pocked with fliers announcing Open Mic Night, Volunteers Still Needed for This Year’s Fall Festival, and Please Please Please Let Me Feed Your Cat While You Are Away. The first editions and/or signed copies are either under the counter or behind it, if the shop is lucky enough to have any first editions and/or signed copies. If not, this section is reserved for tote bags and T-shirts with the name of the store in Old Tyme font: The Dusty Bookshelf, Dickson Street Books, Bound to Please. Order a shirt, and the woman behind the counter will say, “I’m sorry, all we have left are women’s small.” She’s nice enough, the woman behind the counter, but you can tell that she’d rather not be talking to you, rather not be talking to anybody, actually, which is why she’s here rather than, say, a bank or a restaurant or an amusement park. The place is inherently hushed, your voice disruptive, a scratch in a song or a crinkling wrapper a minute after curtain. She’s standing among stacks of books that still need to be tagged and shelved. She’s a college student, most likely, a creative writing or English major, and a third sexier inside the store than out, because, well, because books are hot.

The computer seems out of place, though it’s as ubiquitous now as the inert cat. That it’s dialed in to Alibris or Amazon or somehow making it even worse. I’m here, aren’t I? Why must you be there? I don’t want to know their inventory. I want to know yours. It’s too plugged in, too bright. The rest of the store is dim, dingy, but charmingly so, un-obstructively cluttered, the aisles narrow enough that you have to turn sideways when someone else walks by. A nod, a slight smile to the passing party. One of Melville’s gams. “It’s cool.”

The New Arrivals are housed on those two-tiered rolling shelves (the Book Barn being the exception that proves the rule), but they have yet to be sorted, so they are more trouble to browse than they are worth. You walk right past, seek the store’s depths, where the true treasures lie, see how far back it goes, the best establishments like those rooms that have a full-size mirror reflecting them only there’s no mirror, no reflection, it’s all room, row after row of books, lining the floors like runway lights, the cheap paperbacks like breadcrumbs above, follow the Robert Ludlum, the Nora Roberts, the Wally Lamb if you can’t find your way home. She’s Come Undone alone should get you half way there. But beware the step stools and ladders, some built into those grooves, like that child’s toy where you flick your wrist and the top goes down one side and then back up.

The organization disappointingly influenced by that Liberal Arts curriculum from before, the sciences together, the –ologies, but all in the same condensed place like this rather than stretched across a campus the feeling more like neighborhoods, Fiction hoping to increase its property value living so close to Literature, New Age and Sci-Fi adding some much needed color to the block, and way in the back, the park after dark, Sexuality and Gay/Lesbian Studies. Venture deep enough and you half-expect to find a guy in a raincoat.

After taking the tour, settling on a section, squatting in a neighborhood. Scanning the shelves with soft eyes, a skill the Internet never understood. Running your fingers over the spines, like that scene in John Woo’s The Killers in which the guy searches for the book with the gun inside. Which one of these has what you need inside? Teetering one off the shelf. The back cover first, then the front. Cover art. Copyright page. When was it originally published? What is unique about this edition? Corrected text? A new translation? An introduction by a well-known author that reexamines its influence? A movie tie-in, perhaps? Most Forewords should be Afterwords. Font. Spacing. I didn’t re-read Crime and Punishment for years because the mass-market paperback I had left too little room between the lines. How do the pages feel in your hand? How durable the spine? Those spines that crack, that threaten to split the book in two, like a leviathan parting a seacraft, the majority of the crew on one side, the balance on the other, those cheap spines discarded immediately. Heartiness over convenience. Must sustain the tumble of backpacks, bleaching in a dashboard or a cracked vinyl seat, everything that diners and airports and beaches and trains and strollers can throw at it. Everything from before the movie begins to after the last pitch is thrown. It has to be able to go everywhere you go, do everything you do.

Darwinian, the selection process. First restricted to what you can fit into one hand, then two. Then, I bet they’ll give me a bag. Leaving a pile in an empty spot on the floor or the top of that step stool so you can fit more. Inevitably putting some back, price or I’ll find that one somewhere else or I don’t know, it’s just not live or die. Settling on a stack that fits comfortably in two hands, avoiding the need to cradle near your waist (or, worse, balance with your chin), staying on the right side of that line that separates bookstore from library.

Finally, checking out. The hours have passed like minutes but the girl at the counter doesn’t appear any farther along than she was when you arrived. You note the music for the first time, though it’s been playing all along. Light jazz or folk or This is NPR, National Public Radio News. She tallies up your total by noting the number in pencil on the inside cover. She punches the figures into a calculator, as Old Tyme as that font, adds the tax by hand. She’s two-thirds sexier now by virtue of raising her eyebrows in approval of your purchase of The Waves. For a second you wonder what she’d look like sitting across from you at dinner. Would she wear more make-up? Would she get her hair did? You hope not. You hope this is exactly who she is, the girl behind the counter at the used bookstore. But then, paying with cash, blinking your way back to the pavement, releasing the heat from your car, a moment in the front seat before keying the ignition, unrolling the top of the brown paper sack, lifting the books out one by one, taking stock of your haul. The back cover again, then the front.
One used bookstore or another.
I’ve visited used bookstores in Portland, Denver, San Diego, San Francisco, Oxford (Mississippi and England), Ann Arbor, Pittsburgh, and New York, to name but a few, and the experience has always been something close to this. I bet Bookworks is the pride of Albuquerque, but I also bet it’s not that much different than Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis or Haslam’s in Tampa Bay. One benefit of the Internet destroying bookstores is that they didn’t survive long enough to be commodified, a la coffee-shop culture and Starbucks. But really the only differences between these allegedly unique experiences are the names on the signs and the titles in the Local Interest section.

And, still, indistinguishable though they may be, choose a book from my shelf and ask me where I got it, and I can tell you exactly. Well, maybe not exactly, the names too often in the ether, but exactly enough. The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men? That place in Denver, off Colfax, I think, purchased for the cover that would be called “retro” were it not original, one of my only under-the-glass purchases, got on that road trip I took with Dana in ’95. The Risk Pool, Richard Russo? One of like four stores in a stretch in Ann Arbor that had me thinking, Damn, I could live here. I was there for a reading of a play. Jim telling me about it before. I had to call him to confirm the title. I had a copy of The Idiot too but put it back because I didn’t know when I would ever get to it. Black Swan Green, David Mitchell? Easy. The Strand Annex, Lower Manhattan, before it was shuttered and turned into something else. Not bought by me at all, actually; rather, a gift from a friend, a fan of Mitchell’s, who rescued multiple copies of the book from the remainder pile by buying every copy they had. He passed them out at work, eight or ten in all, not just to anyone, mind you, the limited quantity too precious to be indiscriminate, but only to those he knew would understand.