My Life In Debris

Last month I finished “Life and Fate” by Vasily Grossman and started “The Skin” by Curzio Malaparte and “Come Back in September” by Darryl Pinckney … and decided I’ve been daydreaming more — and wandering in thought. The older I get the more I wish I had wandered in my thoughtful youth. In my youth I often wondered at my elders. I wondered at their calmness and thought them bored, or boring. So now I know: it’s often more interesting inside than outside.

No, I don’t think I daydream too much, but I do fret. I let history’s maddening regrets cloud my eyes. And hours upon hours I wonder at the back of my aging hands…. 

Sometimes dreaming at my desk I glance to my library and worry on its impression left to those who will deal with its debris after my death. Those chosen for the task will pause in disappointment. One will say to the other (will there be two? Will there be one?): Nothing but dreck and nonsense from this man who put on such a show about literature and knowledge!

I will then be quite dead and quite unconcerned about righting the record, but a person who indeed strives to write for a living usually does so for posterity—even though the continuing act of writing for posterity will enhance the risk of ruining said posterity. Yet when one leaves an intact and fine library he can/might hedge the family memories and create the desired memorial: What a fine library! You know, he really was an impressive fellow. 

I have never re-read a book and, at this age, it is a wise bet I never will. O yes, I’ll often pull a book for that phrase, that first line, that certain section in de Tocqueville or Judt … if the book still lives on its shelf. If it has indeed been long disappeared, I’ll let it go and write around it. In the end, books become dormant knick-knacks pricking the mind of past memories; so, I give them away when the chance arrives. All of them, eventually. Every single one. I will also find a home for all the mistakes, when appropriate—who am I to say the love in someone’s eye is misplaced. Was there not once a twinkle in my own eye when I bought Coetzee’s “The Childhood of Jesus”?

My library is debris. It is an embarrassment. It is a carcass.

It goes like this: A casual conversation turns to Kafka (as it would, and should) and the other person has read “The Metamorphosis” in school but hasn’t read anything else. This person knows they should at least read “The Trial,” but wonders if they ever will. On the next meeting I present a nice trade copy of “The Trial” published by Schocken in the 80s. Look at that price! $5.95! No, no. Take it as a gift and enjoy. When you’re done you can keep it or pass it forward. (I know books never come back. Never ever.) My Kafka supply will be down to a hardcover of the short stories stored somewhere in a box in the basement, but I’ll dig if the need arises.

What’s left, what’s left … I look over to the nearest unordered shelf and sort the decent from the muck: 

A Loeb Classical Library hardcover edition of Plato’s “Republic” Books 1-5. That’ll be a tough one: In Greek and English, with a small typeface.

Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines.” Trade paper. The third copy I’ve owned. A fictionalized (maybe) account of his time in the Australian Outback.

William Gaddis’s “JR.” Trade paper. It received the National Book Award, so there’s that. I never got through the first chapter, and so there’s that too.

Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” A newly translated (thus a must-have) trade edition from the original German manuscript. I bought it in a fit of excitement and will never get to it.

Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels and Other Writings.” A remnant from college in an ugly trade edition. It includes “A Modest Proposal”—that really good bit about eating the human babies of the lower classes.

Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash.” Hardcover. A well-researched history. It’s always good to know where your people come from. 

A handful of new edition trade paperbacks from the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Turns out I was a little long in the tooth to start digging into South American abstraction. Enough said.

Vonnegut’s “Player Piano.” An old Delacorte Press hardcover of Kurt’s first. It’s the only Vonnegut I’ve never finished. And oh, I’ve tried.

A three-volume boxed edition of “War and Peace” from Everyman’s Library. If I ever find someone who I think will actually read it all…. I did that once—helping someone fill their empty shelves with pretty editions. Never again. Never ever.

“The Captive Mind” by Milosz. I’ve bought and given away many. The new cat tested its new fangs on this remaining trade paper cover, so I might be keeping it. I know I’ll buy another to give away. It’s one of the books I know everyone should read. 

One more: An oversized trade paper on how to form a corporation, circa 1985. It’s bookmarked in two places with bar coasters from Sloppy Joe’s in Key West. (Will include the coasters gratis.) I know someone sometime will need it. Someone will want it. There is no reason to throw it away. 

Speaking of throwing away books, get this: Once upon a time on a film set the prop woman brings out a box of very used bibles. She had been tasked to supply around 20 give or take. She has 50. Questions abound. The answer? She got a line on a local church buying new and throwing out the old. Throwing out? Yep, she fished them out of the church dumpster. Think on that. Good god almighty, think on that. 

There once was a book I never owned titled something like “Die Broke.” It was about being happy(ier) in your later years by spending your money at will and bouncing your last bank check on the day you die. Of course timing your death with overdrawing your bank account might get tricky…. Anyway, why do you want to die hoarding Samanta Schweblin’s “Fever Dream”? It’s a weird and wonderful novel in translation. Give it away to someone who might never hear of Ms. Schweblin. 

Give them all away. 

I have no instructions for Kindle libraries.

—Steven Earl, November 2022

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