Saturday, November 12, 2011

Today's mail

Somewhere in the middle of the long list of things I don't like about living in Texas is the postal service. If I remember correctly from my days growing up in the Northeast, mail would come every day except Sundays and certain holidays. In Texas, the mail only comes once or twice a week. You may argue that this is because Koch and I don't get a lot of mail. Wrong. Usually we have four or five dry days, during which the spider that lives in our mailbox builds a home, then suddenly all bills, coupons, magazines, journals and junk arrive and destroy it. Today happened to be such a day.

On this particular day of plenty, along with the usual bills, were the latest (for a Texan) New Yorker and New York Times Book Review. In the first I found an essay by James Wood called "Shelf Life: Packing up my father-in-law's library," which was illustrated with a photograph, "Agnon's Library," by Yuval Yairi. Underneath the picture was a caption, a quote from the piece, "Our libraries may say less about us than we imagine". Then I turned to the table of contents of the New York Times Book Review. The end-piece essay, "The Subconscious Shelf" by Leah Price, features a quote from the piece itself: "Our bookshelves reveal at once our most private selves and our most public personas [sic]".

Clearly my mail was sending me mixed messages, although when I returned to the pile, I didn't find an envelope telling me that I didn't actually have to pay my bills either. Damn.

I read both pieces back to back. I found Wood's essay appalling, a man airing his resentment towards his late father-in-law in published format, to be read by, well, a lot of people. (We should all be so lucky, right?) I found what he had to say about packing up and getting rid of a man's library of 4,000 volumes unreasonable and unfair, signaling that dying before ridding oneself of one's library is a contemptible act of selfishness.

In some ways, Leah Price's essay says a lot of the same things, about how personal libraries can often be a front or misleading. After all, who has read everything they own? As Wood argues, one's library is usually smarter than oneself.

[Usually. My library, and by library I mean the particle board bookcase I bought at Walmart that houses all the books I've read since moving to Texas, is decidedly NOT smarter than I. For one thing, it holds every volume I read for this blog. When people who don't know me well come by (that one time), I immediately have to explain to them why the hell I have George W. Bush's memoir and the latest Grisham, Koontz, Roberts, and those three damn Pattersons.]

1 comment:

  1. As the author of "Shelf Life," might I point out that my purpose was not, of course, to air resentments against my late father-in-law, but to capture truthfully the complexity of a very difficult man -- where that complexity undoubtedly included alcoholism, pugilism, and heedlessness, as well as kindness and wonderful vitality and astounding curiosity about the world. Of course, I was not arguing that it was selfish to die before having disposed of his books; only a hostile or foolish reader could possibly imagine that. (Though it is worth reflecting that my father-in-law was in poor health for ten years, and certainly had the time to make proper preparations.) I was trying to get at something deeper -- and to include MYSELF (the owner of thousands of books) in the judgment: that our books may be ruins, though we don't like to think of them like this; and that our libraries, painfully enough, may not say anything very particular about our deepest anxieties and ambitions. Emphasis on OUR not on HIS. I'm sorry you could have read it in any other way.
    --James Wood