Saturday, April 26, 2008

Overdue Returns

FOR THE PAST TWO MONTHS or so, I've been culling my library. It's now obvious that books are missing from the shelves. If you were wise enough to have taken a picture of my living room during one of my Xmas parties here, holding that photo up with my current shelves in the background would display notable gaps.

This has not been easy. I was raised with a reverence for bound words. I've long had full shelves, plus a couple of boxes of additional books — roleplaying tomes, mostly — in the closet. Parting with them seemed heretical.

I've since understood the emotional attachment that old possessions can conceal, the ties to a safer past they can represent for some. Taken to an extreme of which I would accuse nobody I know, it results in hoarding. In my case, it belies a sad nostalgia. And I have come to hate that prison of a word.

Merciless winnowing was in order.

The first couple of loads went easily. I've brought three grocery bags to the library so far. I actually believe some of the books came to me from their monthly fundraising sales. I think I bought them — I'm thinking of four or so S. J. Perelman collections — out of a sense that I was rescuing the wit inside from final disappearance. I now know it is not my duty to rescue them at the cost of convenience, storage space, or sentimental ties to a New York society now long gone. I'm done with them; let someone else enjoy them. Their past is not my past. I've got enough trouble with that past already.

Poker books from earlier in my studies were also added to the mix. If I've internalized the wisdom, I don't need the shells from whence it sprung. Not that I've become some sort of hold'em demigod, but if I am playing better in any way as a result of having read them, they're sort of alive through my improved play. Which sounds like the justification those soccer-team plane-crash cannibals made for wolfing their dead chums in Alive. At no-limit hold'em, there's little distinction. Eat or be eaten.

But I digress. I made a rule earlier this year that if I were to buy new books, old books would have to go on a one-for-one exchange. I recently took the opportunity to upgrade my Las Vegas Fodor's Guide. My copy of James Ellroy's towering and ugly masterpiece American Tabloid seems to be out on permanent loan, and I fetishize that book; thus I also ordered that. Those were straight replacements (my 2006 Vegas Fodor's is now in the care of a recent convert to the Neon Havens). Were anything else to come in the door, however, something else would need to exit.

Inspired by a post on Get Rich Slowly about the acid-drip that renting a storage space can represent to one's savings, I felt energized to resume my book winnowing. This morning, my local library will become the lucky recipients of the following volumes:

Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy: Millions of these two titles are in print, and shall be for years. No need to duplicate the work of the public library system by retaining two of them here. I do have fond memories of Red Storm though. During my boring college summer job, I used to sneak the paving-stone-sized Red Storm paperback into the john for 20-minute reading breaks. Not as brazen as my mother's habit of taking naps in the ladies' room on days following benders with officemates, but damn close.

The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction: This one, a college textbook, has survived several purges. It was the sole text used in an American fiction class I took as part of the English major program. A second course I took that same semester — for which I had to read and comprehend a Great Novel like The Sound and the Fury or A Farewell to Arms each week — had the same professor. And he was terrifying. Think about one click less scary than Elaine Benes's dad as portrayed by Lawrence Tierney in Seinfeld. He wasn't hostile or lacking in academic rigor, just terse and uncompromising, and he detested lack of class participation. (As someone who is terrified of public speaking, but even more upset by having nobody else in a class or meeting answering an instructor's question, I thus had four phobia-laden classes per week.) People eventually forced themselves to answer his questions, but almost always with an unconscious inquisitive lilt at the end, as though asking the prof if they had finally satisfied his burning quest for an answer that demonstrated that the class was actually thinking deeply about the literature. In retrospect, it was effective. In person, it was enervating.

For the class in which we used the Norton, we had the choice for a final project of analyzing one of the short stories we hadn't covered in class, or writing a new one. I chose the latter, and submitted what I, with my current set of eyes, now recognize as a terrible pastiche of cyberpunk clichés. I also now realize they were only really clichés to someone who, as I had been in 1990, hadn't been steeping themselves in William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams, and Richard Kadrey at every chance. I anticipated a withering last-page summation of its crappiness from this strict arbiter of great American literature. I was instead stunned to receive an A–. Two years later, I entered the story into a contest run by the college literary magazine. It took third, won me a C-note, and was published in the magazine. Not bad for a story whose best line was, "His scream abruptly cut off as my fingers met in his forebrain."

Writer's Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing: I took the opportunity a month ago to read through this, to determine whether it held anything of continuing worth. It does not; in fact, it's shockingly dated, and was so in the late 80s, when I received it as a gift. You wouldn't think writing tips could go out of date, but the book is tied closely to the markets contemporary to the publication of its individual articles. (Likewise with a guide to writing science fiction short stories that went in an earlier purge.) There is no advice in here that I cannot also find from working writers' blogs, more current writers' guides or marketplace reports, or — frankly — by taking the advice of an oaf I know who told me, about 12 years ago, that I ought to spend 3 hours a day writing. It was his one non-oafish piece of wisdom, and shames me in my failure to follow it.

(Yes, I owned this book before I wrote that horrible cyberpunk story in college. No, I didn't call upon its advice. Writer's Digest is blameless for that horrid line you read a couple of grafs up.)

White Jazz, James Ellroy: This will surprise some folks I know. But it's simply not as good as its predecessor, L.A. Confidential (which is an order of magnitude more complex than the also-excellent movie it inspired), or Ellroy's next novel, the aforementioned American Tabloid. (Jazz does introduce a prototype of Pete Bondurant, one of Tabloid's three stars, which gives me one of those shared-universe kicks, like seeing the skull of an Alien warrior-bug among the Predator's trophies in Predator 2.) For me, the tighter, more telegraphic prose style he adopted after L.A. doesn't function as well in the first-person narrative he uses in Jazz. Third-person limited seems to work best with that style, as does his use of three rotating protagonists, each of whom illuminates traits of the other two through his observations and interactions. With only one narrator, White Jazz feels more like a transcript; with three, Ellroy's books become brutal, seductively shadowed sculptures.

Shock Value, John Waters: The year was 1999. I'd just quit my first real job, and I was attending a horror convention with one of my now-former coworkers, on whom I had a wicked, unspoken crush. We shared a love for the science fiction show Babylon 5, and several of its stars were set to appear at the con. Also on the guest list, along with the usual assortment of nostalgia-pimps and fraying fright-flick and geek-TV retreads, was sleazemeister John Waters. I spent most of the con waffling over how to tell my coworker — who was, if it can be believed, even more naïve about romance than I was — that I dug her as more than just a friend. As I'd driven her to the con, however, I didn't want to spook her and make her even more skittish. So instead I followed her through the exhibition halls, spending way too much money on signed photos of various B5 stars. We bought copies of Waters's book and queued up for his signature. I told the surprisingly normal-looking but stylish Waters my name, shook his hand after he signed the book, and told him I loved his work in The Simpsons, for which he graciously thanked me. If I could've mustered the balls to have been as honest and direct with my coworker about how I liked her as Waters was about his life, aesthetics, and films in this book, I could've spared myself a summer's worth of nervous frustration and second-guessing . . . and the eventual humiliation of being flatly told, when I finally spilled my guts to her, that (and I quote) "you know, I don't date," only to watch her begin dating a longtime friend of mine, her eventual husband, that fall.

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