Sunday, January 27, 2008

Putting the Sag in my Bookshelves

Trips to the bookstore are probably for me what some deep-sea diving expedition is like for someone in the Jacque Cousteau mode.

I know my way around the stacks and the dumps (those bins at the ends and in between aisles for which publishers pay big, big Benjamins), but I allow myself to get lost a little, to forget the names of authors or titles I may have scribbled on my memory, for later use (this isn’t the grocery store, after all; my intellectual life is not likely to suffer in the same way, say, my diet will if I forget the weekly supply of roughage), and get entranced by the glossy spines all lined up, the intoxicating scent of ink on paper.

I know that whatever I discover and pull off the shelves to take home is likely to occupy me for a few weeks, in the manner a queer shell or monstrous mollusk means work for the marine biologist. Books are one thing in my life I don’t get neurotic about, needlessly piling on the pressure of what I will do with the knowledge I acquire from them. I look at books as transportative for the sake of motion, little more. As a writer, most of what I absorb from reading is by osmosis. I don’t want to think about it too hard. I want to cherish the state of mind a good read puts me in, the natural and incremental way savored pages tip me toward my own filling of the blank space on the screen, the netting of phrases and sentences I’ll send marching along in my own due time.

It’s an easy way of becoming inspired, of acknowledging what I read as a corner of my writing process – a cozy one, warmly-lit and waiting for me to return, but a corner only.

It’s like the innocent joy you used to take in learning. The way you could eyeball a syllabus and come to a later week in the semester, a week in which a 30-page practicum were due, say, or a completed story draft, and rather than getting sweaty-palmed and wigged-out about it, you got a charge instead, thinking, “hey, by then I’ll have written a full story” or “wonder what the story will be like.” Not – hey, can I do it? Or, God, only eight weeks until the nightmare assignment is due. As acceptance and confidence that if it’s called for, you’ll deliver. You’ll learn how to along the way.

I shop for books now the way I used to buy music in the days of cheap cassette tape stockpiling at the local Hills and Hecks and K-Mart. Back then, I’d pluck five or seven albums at a time from the bargain rack, unearthing the rare and the weird and the influential: obscure Harry Nilsson, Jack Johnson, Joe Walsh and The James Gang, used Jackson Browne, solo Sonny Bono, vaguely battered Pixies, and dropping maybe a week’s allowance for the privilege of popping them in the tape deck of my VW Rabbit – or whatever friend happened to be driving – for the ride home. There was a joy in discovering the clumsily orchestrated or puzzlingly recorded tracks, and also the gems that could stump music school audiences later, when I did that gig, or at least serve as Happy Hour trivia. “Hey, does anybody know the B-side to the original release of this?” My wife, then merely a work buddy, would always chime in, “YOU know.”

It’s different now, filling out the – ahem – CD collection, which with the switch to the portable digital of the I-Pod generation is already obsolete. For me, books have the definite advantage over fingernail-picking the cellophane wrap and making three or four tries to peel away the damn sticker gluing the top of the case together. Who wants to cradle a plastic rectangle, anyway? Nothing beats the feel of a brand new book spine, the pages crisp as you finger them, the back unbroken as you flip to the opening pages for the first time, allow the opening sentences to beam the voice of that writer into your brain.

Or maybe this is all a long-winded excuse for why I come home to my wife every season having dropped around a hundred bucks on books at Borders or Barnes & Noble, or why when we came across a leaning wooden sign pointing down an alley to a used bookstore in Lahaina, Maui during our fifth-anniversary, she knew what happiness I’d experience weighing how many finds I could cram in our luggage for the return trip.

And hey, didn’t I sound this rhapsody only a few weeks ago in this very space?

So… what I came home with yesterday:

A lot of short story collections. Even though I’m digging into novel projects on my own work desk at the moment, I have a backlog of short fiction I want to get back into in revision. As I mentioned above, I didn’t go hunting for more short stories as a means of assigning myself work in that form, because my reading and writing are connected in a more intuitive way. Or at least I’d like to think so. It’s more of getting the music in my head for later, I guess. And more importantly, tunes I haven’t heard before.

So, along those lines:

The Toughest Indian in the World – Sherman Alexie
Runaway – Alice Munro
Drown – Junot Diaz
Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
The Whore’s Child – Richard Russo

I’ve liked just about everything of Alexie that I’ve read, but never picked up a full collection. I’ve read one story from the Diaz and Lahiri collections elsewhere, and both of these collections were debuts – and greatly acclaimed. As for Munro, hell, everything she publishes ends up in The New Yorker; might as well check it out in a forum other than the “Best of” collections. I loved Russo’s Empire Falls, and thought I’d give his short stuff a try.

I also picked up:

Tender as Hellfire – Joe Meno
Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir – Joe Meno, again
The Name of the World – Denis Johnson
Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman

This is where the short story binge begins to break down. I picked up Meno because, again, what I’ve read I’ve liked, and I wanted to get some of his short stuff. But I hadn’t read Hellfire yet, a novel about adolescent guys growing up together, a bit like the platform for my Hell’s Darling Boys, but maybe too close to the bone as I get into that novel? I thought about putting it back, but didn’t. Johnson’s book is a novella, and I love his work in the “longer” short form. (It was also cheaper than paying the full hardcover price of his recent National Book Award-winning novel. Funny, Borders, how Tree of Smoke was 25 percent off before the award announcement!) And the Pullman rounded out my recent circuit of the His Dark Materials trilogy; something short, and something to stash away for my own kids someday. If Jonah is able to move from The Golden Compass, etc., to shorter stuff by uncovering the 40-odd-pages Lyra’s Oxford, well, that’s great. I’ll take it.

All this should keep me busy, polishing mollusks so to speak, as the new semester gets underway Monday. And I haven’t even bothered checking what I’ll be buying for classes.

Good thing, then, when I came home to my wife, I also came home with groceries.

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