Thursday, October 22, 2015

Ben Nadler’s Library: “Do you sleep on top of your books?”

Reader:  Ben Nadler
Location:  Brooklyn, NY
Collection size:  Five or six hundred books at any given time, plus about a hundred zines.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  My father’s Yiddish-English dictionary. It’s been in the family for a century, so I’d feel guilty if I was the one who lost it.
Favorite book from childhood:  Allen Ginsburg’s Collected Poems, 1947-1980. My mother kept it out on the table like it was the Bible. I dove deeper and deeper into it every year.
Guilty pleasure book:  Black Coffee Blues by Henry Rollins. This is a favorite from my angsty teenage punk years that I’ve never managed to outgrow.

During and after college, I worked as a used bookseller in New York. The man I worked with had two storage units, but his entire apartment and the hallways of the building he lived in were filled with used books as well. He had to climb over books to get into his door. After a couple years, my room in the apartment I shared with a college friend in Bushwick, Brooklyn started to look just as bad. Piles of books grew up all around me, loosely divided by category: books for my studies, books to read, books to sell, books to research the value of, books I’d acquired but hadn’t sorted through yet.

One night, a girl I’d been dating came home with me for the first time. The tall piles of books obscured my mattress on the floor. “Do you sleep on top of the books?” she asked.

For the past five years, I have lived in a cozy rent-stabilized apartment in central Brooklyn with my girlfriend, Oksana. When we first moved in, Oksana worked at a thrift store, where she oversaw the used book section. She began bringing home finds that were too good to pass up. Shortly after that we both entered graduate school and began acquiring academic books we needed for our work. I had never dropped my bookseller habit of scouring yard sales and the curb for gems, and between the two of us we read well over two-hundred books a year. Our apartment eventually started to look as bad as my old room in Bushwick. Once, when our apartment was burglarized, Oksana lamented, “Why couldn’t they have taken the books, too?”

Accordingly, our library system is less about organization than damage control. We view our books not as a collection of desired objects, but as a constant flood bearing down upon us.

We spend more time figuring out how to get rid of books than how to keep them. There is often a “to-sell” stack, which I divide up based on which used bookstore is more likely to buy a particular title. Useful history and reference books are donated to Books Through Bars, a group who provides books to prisoners. Noir and mystery novels are cycled to a couple aficionados I know. When I taught a zine workshop at the New School, I brought in a suitcase full of books for the students to cut up and make collages out of. I am loath to part with my collection of zines and chapbooks, as some of them could be one of the only, if not the only, copy of the title left in existence, though I hope to place them in a good research library one day.

Some books stick around just long enough to be read; I am currently working through a stack of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels. I got these for free from a neighbor in my building, and will pass them along as soon as I’m finished. Others stay on the shelves (or in stacks on the floor) for months or years before being pruned. Of course, there are some books we will never get rid of. A selection of religious books—including collections of Hassidic tales, and multiple translations of the Bible and the Quran—sit on an honored shelf in our bedroom. Favorite works of fiction, like The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Kurban Said’s Ali and Nino, are never sold off (unless I end up with multiple copies).

Reference books that might be used for the English classes I teach or for Oksana’s urban studies research are kept out of necessity. In the back room, I have a box containing a copy of every book my grandfather, a retired professor, published in his career. To be fair, he and my grandmother have copies of everything I’ve ever written on the shelf in their nursing home room.

Oksana and I also have a few rare or antique books we hold onto. One of these is an illustrated Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) primer that Oksana brought home from the thrift store. The book was published in Berlin in 1923. It survived a lot to make its way to our home.

Ben Nadler is the author of the novel The Sea Beach Line, now available from Fig Tree Books. Library Journal gave it a starred review, calling it “a mesmerizing narrative that will speak to any readers who have tried to make sense of their parents’ lives or the secrets that people keep.” His previous works include Punk in NYC's Lower East Side, 1981-1991 (Microcosm Publishing, 2014). Nadler earned a BA from Eugene Lang College of the New School and an MFA from the City College of New York/CUNY. He has taught at City College, Eugene Lang College, and The College of New Rochelle-School of New Resources in the South Bronx. A former Manhattan street vendor, he has also worked in bookstores across New York, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

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