Thursday, September 8, 2016

John Domini’s Library: “My Mess, My Mountain”

Reader:  John Domini
Location:  Des Moines, Iowa
Collection Size:  3,500 volumes

Equal parts recrimination and encouragement: isn’t that a library? When I take in the shelves surrounding me, both here in my work-space and elsewhere around the house, certainly I’m shamed, seared, by all the titles still unread, all the authors so much more courageous, determined, and skilled. Yet the same long look allows me to bask a bit, to enjoy a text-besotted soothing, as I consider the challenging reads I eventually caught up with, or the aid I lent to this novel with a review, and that set of stories with some lines in an essay. Then too, when I spot, say, Colette’s Chéri novels or Steve Tomasula’s VAS, accomplishments that’ll remain out of reach no matter how I stretch, the very qualities that humble me can, all paradoxically, lift me up. It’s an inspiration, isn’t it, to witness transcendence? Especially when you consider the differences! The chasm between Colette’s spiky, sexy take on the social novel, circa 1920, and Tomasula’s multimedia spectacle of anthropo-sci-fi, circa 2005—that chasm gapes so wide, the earlier writer wouldn’t even recognize the later book as fiction. Yet here both sit, and both put me in my place even as they prod me to do better; the party’s come one, come all.

I’ve got some rules, granted, a kind of system for those walls with the extra insulation of bound pages. I live in an older Des Moines neighborhood, the lots small but the houses intended for big families, and so I’ve got rooms enough to parse out my collection. Upstairs, for instance, I keep the poetry in the guest bedroom. Insomniac nights find me in there, so as not to bother my wife, taking solace from, especially, John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Then on the ground floor I’ve got a kind of trophy room, with some of my oldest favorites, in particular Edith Hamilton’s compendium of Greek myths. So too, this room gathers all the books I’ve written about in one way or another. The organization is supposed to be alphabetical by author, but the shelves have gotten so crowded that a number of these “trophies” lie on their sides, atop the others. While I’m admitting my shortcomings, too, I should add that a few of these taste of good, greasy schadenfreude. A few surfed into the bookstores on waves of New York money, amid a fanfare of blurbs, and yet nowadays the title elicits a blank stare.

The core of my library, though, is here in my “office”—an ill-fitting word, since it suggests I’m running a business. Here I’m among my own kind, in that nearly everything I write is either fiction or the sort of non-fiction that I hope glistens with some style, some personality. Thus the shelves around me are taken up by the same two baggy categories. That is, the non-fiction (roughly a third of the room’s total) includes no encyclopedia of baseball, but rather a couple of Roger Angells. What better company than Angell at the ballpark, when I don’t feel like working? As for my novels and stories that make up the majority of the office collection, the oldest are hand-me-downs from the family. I’m especially found of my parents’ edition of A Christmas Carol, standalone, on a British imprint. The illustrations emphasize the ghost story, and neither the front matter nor the back contains a date; my best guess is the era of Downton Abbey. Also I’ve still got a couple of my high-school pickups, for instance a mid-’60s paperback of Gunter Grass’ Cat and Mouse, now in the same tattered shape as when it left my 16-year-old mind. These and the rest strive for alphabetical arrangement, but in this room as in others I’ve no choice but to stick a lot of stuff in sideways. The crosswise gang consists mostly of books I’m bound and determined to get to, relatively new acquisitions, but I also spot, for instance, Don Quixote. My C’s were already overflowing their banks, see, but my copy had long since disappeared and Ecco brought out this new translation...

There’s also a rack of Domini, more encouragement I suppose, though the shelving system might be termed Bad to Worse. Up top I’ve got published books, including an anthology or two, in reliably chronological order. Beneath them come more anthologies, plus the sort of quarterlies that look good lined up, but the chronology turns haphazard, as there’s no way to fit in some of the later pubs except, what else, sideways. Below those, things really break down, with battered reading copies bookended by a fat new MS, plus assorted items printed off the web, in newsprint, or in old-school photocopy.

If it’s a mess, though, it’s my mess, and I keep it right at my elbow. My published work, that is, stands alongside the space in which I try to compose more. I work on my feet, at a head-high, wall-wide jack-of-all-trades that Office Max would call an “office center”—warehouse clearance, like the bookshelves. The unit looks to date from the early ’90s, it’s got a rollout for a keyboard, and it was in place when we first toured the home, a monster in its cave, ululating as I sailed by. Resistance was futile; I had the previous owner leave the thing and jerry-rigged a booster in order to stand. This setup also requires books, four volumes of an encyclopedia to which I contributed. Around it spills the usual writer’s swill, the notebook and the handwritten drafts, the printouts of oh-so-important emails heaped up over others even more important. Here, too, I stack the critic’s TBR, a good dozen at least: advance reader’s copies, with a few exceptions. They sit at my right hand, you could say, and sure enough this is a sign of status. My rule is, if a book makes it into this pile, it gets half an hour’s concentrated reading, with all my screens dark and muted. After that, I know whether I can pitch a review, and how, and to whom.

Nor do those ARCs exhaust my library, since a desk like mine, one with all the fixin’s, includes shelves. On these, reference works share space with family memorabilia — and one upper corner provides the perfect home for an heirloom, come down to me from the family over in Naples. This is a tall edition of La Divina Commedia, printed in MDCCC...1869. Its heavy cloth-based pages feature, in many of the Cantos, copies of the famed Doré engravings, good copies by and large, though whoever drew these has trouble with shoulders and hips. The covers are thick cardboard with durable leather sheathing, not vellum but high quality. The Italian on the spine, the title, remains a perfectly legible gold on maroon. In some worst-case scenario, if Des Moines tumbled into the same nightmare as latter-day Aleppo, this Commedia is the book I’d risk my neck to save.

As I say, this volume crossed the Atlantic to reach me. Over in Naples, it served as the Holy of Holies in the collection of a Dominican friar. This prete worked most of his life in what we’d now call the inner city, his home a cell above the church sanctuary. There he enjoyed visits from the extended family—including the two young brothers who grew up to be my father and uncle.

“That room of his,” my uncle told me once, when I was over in the ancient city, “I’ll never forget it. A mountain of books.”

With Movieola!, John Domini has three stories collections and three novels in print. Other books include selections of criticism and poetry. He’s published fiction in The Paris Review and Ploughshares, non-fiction in GQ and the New York Times, and won a poetry prize from Meridian. Grants include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The New York Times praised his work as “dreamlike...grabs hold of both reader and character,” and Alan Cheuse, of NPR, described it as “witty and biting.” John has taught at Harvard, Northwestern and elsewhere and makes his home in Des Moines.

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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