Thursday, October 16, 2014
Location: Portland, Oregon
Collection size: 300-ish, plus a lot of comics
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue: Early 20th-century printing of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, my favorite fictional character
Favorite book from childhood: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Guilty pleasure book: I don't really read things that I'm ashamed to admit, but the closest would have to be The Chronicles of Narnia because the religious symbolism is often a little heavy-handed.
High Fidelity. Rob Fleming (or Rob Gordon as played by John Cusack in the movie) has a fairly extensive record collection that is his crowning achievement. Throughout the story, he has this ongoing ritual that seems to be a coping mechanism for the drama or disappointment of his personal life: Rob can't stop rearranging his vinyl. In his search for the perfect system--having tried alphabetically by artist and then by album name and a bunch of others--Rob begins arranging the records in chronological order of when he purchased them. The process becomes a kind of catalyst for him to reflect on his life and it inspires some of the events of Hornby's novel.
Right now, I am sitting in my new domicile, facing with the same dilemma of Rob Fleming/Rob Gordon from High Fidelity. What is that ever-elusive perfect arrangement of one's own library? In my last place, the books were arranged by size at one point, then by color later on. They've been ordered alphabetically by title and then by author. They have even been ordered by genre ranging from “analysis of astrophysics” to “surrealist/psychedelic fiction.” As with many other elements in my own life--and the Rob Fleming in me can attest to this fact--none of it seems right quite yet.
Moreover, there is a reason why my library consists of 300 books instead of a couple thousand. I lend them out or straight up give them away more often than even I, myself, would like. It's difficult to explain the urge. I have the heart of a hoarder where my books are concerned, but I also have a strong desire to create the perfect library and sometimes there's a book here or there that just doesn't quite fit in. It's a bit like trying to fix your hair in the morning and, after fighting with that one unruly strand for several minutes, you finally decide to pluck it out. It is not easy--the hair and the book are a part of me--but they simply aren't falling in line and must be gotten rid of posthaste.
Today I am considering a Fleming-esque approach to my books. Not quite chronological, but still biographical in nature, I want to arrange things according to the many phases and various obsessions of my 29 years. I begin with the collection of Hardy Boys novels I have kept since elementary school. At the time of their discovery, my family had recently moved into a new house outside of Manteca, California, and I not only discovered the joys and horrors of a dank, eerie basement, but the leavings of the prior occupants. Among the boxes of creepy, dusty dolls and rusty bicycle parts had been almost the full collection of The Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon. I made it the mission of my childhood to complete the collection and, despite having outgrown the series by quite a few years, I still keep an eye out for the final two I lack whenever I go book hunting.
Within this same category, I suppose I would have to include The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Yet this brings to mind an interesting question. Should the biography of my book collection be based solely on when I first read these books, or when I most loved them? If the latter, Tom Sawyer is still fairly current, where the Narnia books should have their place somewhere around my eighth grade year. A year of trial and uncertainty, following a move from California to Texas, in which I took comfort in the escape from our world into a world of fauns and lions and griffins and talking badgers.
This autobiographical library will not be an easy task.
And what of my comic books? I have some issues from the early nineties that should technically be squeezing themselves in between The War of the Worlds and The Jungle Book. When did Superman die again? 1992? What about when Bane broke Batman's back and Bruce had to stop wearing the cowl for a while? Surely these issues must land somewhere between the time I was devouring the writing of H.G. Wells and the time I had gotten really into reading the original stories that inspired beloved Disney films...
No, not an easy task at all. Perhaps I should go back to color-coding the covers and call it a day.
Next, I move on to an obsession with classical literature that began in my adolescence. According to the biography of my library, this began with Sherlock Holmes, but rapidly spiraled into J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Melville, Tolstoy, Miller. I remember it well. Like so much of my literary life, the urge was inspired, or perhaps “caused” is a better word choice, by music.
Like some of the people in Rob Fleming's life, I had friends of that tribe who used their knowledge of music, particularly upcoming and underground stuff, as a kind of bludgeon to browbeat the people around them into some kind of submissive or subservient position. They were that brand of nerd, the loser, or slacker who realized that the music scene existing outside of Top 40 artists gave them power. I got as caught up in this wave as I was caught up in the wave of spiritual adrenaline that went with big tent revivals and the promises of Christ. All of which I have since, gratefully, recovered from. With music, it happened rather suddenly. I recognized the band that was “it” one month was suddenly “sell out” dross the next. The fickle nature of this scene left a bad taste in my mouth and I went in search of things that would last. This search took me backward in time to things that had been proven and were still going strong. I began to read old books, the ones that you find on a New York Times must-read list. And, as for music, I began listening to early 20th-century jazz, blues, and eventually folk.
Folk brought me to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, The Band, Pete Seeger, The Staples Singers, Neil Young and tons more. In literature, it brought me to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey. I suppose this will have to be the next shelf of my library, the next subcategory. On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Howl, Sailor Song, Demon Box...this era became the next obsession.
It was at this stage in my reading life that I began to seriously consider pursuing writing as a career. The words of Ginsberg and Kerouac, Kesey and, eventually, Hunter S. Thompson, ignited something in me that never cooled. Following the track and history of the Beats, I found Naked Lunch and William S. Burroughs. Following Burroughs and realizing that so many of these people were all part of one community, largely featured in Kerouac's books, made me see all the interconnecting webs of that era in literature, music, and art. Bob Dylan was inspired by Kerouac. Hunter S. Thompson was inspired by Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan was inspired by Hunter S. Thompson. Ken Kesey was featured in Thompson's Hell's Angels during a chapter set at his La Honda estate. It was an endless cycle of influence feeding into and out of itself, influencing America in kind, and eventually influencing me.
My pursuit of writing, however, did leave me kind of jaded as I rapidly began to realize that there was very little else I cared about. I couldn't imagine myself doing any other job, for example, and my late teens and early twenties were troubled as I suffered unusually powerful growing pains as a struggling writer struggling with newfound responsibilities. I had staked a lot of myself on faith because of my time in Texas, but in studying literature and pursuing creativity, I began to feel an awakening that made things about that faith not quite sit right. By the time I was 20, writing was the only thing I believed in anymore. Books, that was it. I had no religion, no patriotism, no love of money, no passion for any career outside of telling stories, and, of course, no resources, finances, credit or anything else to my name.
This is when I found the writing of Chuck Palahniuk and, in the space of five months, I read everything he had ever written. The humor of destruction, the nihilistic poetry that made light of so many of our culture's sacred trusts, and the consistently poverty-stricken characters stubbornly maintaining their outsider status both in terms of their living conditions and their intellectual outlook on life, all resonated with me.
Even now, despite having since outgrown Chuck, I find myself thinking about my library in relation to this line from Fight Club, “I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.”
This library is a sculpture – take a title or two out, add a Norman Mailer book here or a Thomas Disch novel there, and I could be complete...
As for Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor was a particular favorite as it told the story of a guy brought up in a suicide cult who lacked the faith to take his own life when the call came. Growing up religious and grappling with my own agnosticism, it just felt right.
My wandering 20th year of life took me to a town called Denton, Texas, north of Dallas, where I wound up writing my first novel. In Denton, I met Shea, who loaned me his copy of Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins. My obsession with the writings of Palahniuk ended that day and I was now vehemently, even vigorously, centered on this new set of books. I read Woodpecker in two days. Then I spent the next week at the local bookstore, unable to afford a copy of anything larger than a Jehovah's Witness pamphlet, basically stealing a chapter here or a chapter there, reading Jitterbug Perfume on the fly. Since that time, I have gotten all of Tom Robbins' books and even had the pleasure of attending a reading of his autobiography, Tibetan Peach Pie, this past June at Powell's Books.
In Tom, I found something that made me realize how narrow and juvenile the vision of Chuck Palahniuk's books had been. I saw people, like me, with the same outsider perspective, the same distrust of society's values or disconnect from social norms, but instead of being miserable about it, they were filled with wonder and daring. I realized that, like Bob Dylan said, “When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
I turned a corner and began to explore America, not in search of answers or something new to believe in or really anything at all, but just to go because that's what Amanda from Another Roadside Attraction would do or because that's how the great king in Jitterbug Perfume managed to live forever.
The biography of my book collection is starting to look increasingly optimistic. Filled with this new vigor, I stopped seeing things as the next scene or the next historical moment I had to devour and began to just search for what I liked. I found Neil Gaiman and read four or five of his books. I started reading books about physics and math, getting a big kick out of a little known book called Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife in which I learned about the tug-of-war between math and religion going back to when Time was still in diapers. Then, much later than I should have, I finally got around to Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and, embracing a lifelong love of science fiction, got into Philip K. Dick, Orson Scott Card, and tons more.
Not long after, I wrote Dystopia Boy, my own addition to the annals of science fiction and a love note to everyone on my book shelf. I learned how to add danger to my voice by obsessing on Hunter S. Thompson for a while. I found humanity through Tom Robbins. I found music and poetry and that lowdown eloquence of the poor from listening to too much Bob Dylan and reading too much Kerouac. J. D. Salinger taught me how to talk in my writing rather than just speak. Palahniuk showed me how the incendiary can be hilarious. And my love of the classics held up the firm belief that if something is good, it is timeless, if the writer does his job right, it never suffers the fate of so many bands that my old friends liked for a minute and cast aside like autumn leaves the next.
Like Rob Fleming's vinyl collection, I can see my life in the literature I've consumed. I have often been a little behind the trends, but typically that's just because I want to make sure what I'm spending my time on is going to last. It's just another variation on the eternal question Tom Robbins asked all those years ago: How do we make love stay?
Trevor D. Richardson is the founder and editor of The Subtopian and the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files from Montag Press. A West Coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon. His numerous short stories have appeared in magazines like Word Riot, Underground Voices, and a science fiction anthology called Doomology: The Dawning of Disasters.
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