Saturday, September 21, 2013

My Library: Bill Roorbach Culls the Collection

Reader: Bill Roorbach
Location: Western Maine
Collection size: 3,000 books
The one book I'd run back into a burning house to rescue: I would not run into a burning building for a book.  The whiskey maybe.  And if my first edition of The Great Gatsby were next it, maybe I'd grab that.
Favorite book from childhood: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Guilty pleasure book: Candy by Terry Southern

I cleaned out my studio, everything including desk, shelves, chairs, bedroll (I'm a serious napper), and books.  Lots and lots of books, about 900--too many to keep in the new, ergonomically uncluttered space of my dreams--and including atlases and dictionaries and a seriously outmoded Columbia Encyclopedia that I love nevertheless, fifteen pounds if it's an ounce, endpapers red.  That joined the elite group of books that would stay, safely out of the way of my renovations in the long row of shelves under the windows.  Another group of keepers were headed to the house, where I'd have to make room for them.  The final group, the tough-luck crowd, were going to have to leave the property altogether.

Start there.

I filled one box by just a quick and expedient culling, no problem, about 40 books, wondering the while why we all want to keep making more of these things, a subject for another post.  I pictured Jim at Twice Sold Tales in town--he has a stern view of boxes full of books and certainly must be ambivalent when he sees one.  And he was going to see this one, and with luck several more.

In the house a couple thousand books to go through, maybe as many as three thousand, which was the size of Samuel Pepys library in an era when to own any book was a serious accomplishment.  And I must now and forever institute the rule he made for himself when his shelves were full: if a book comes into the house, a book must go out.  And if, say, 200 books from my studio are going inside, that means 200 books must leave.

My culling formula starts simple: If I've never read it and never will, it's gone.  That sounds straightforward enough, but I struggle even with such direct advice.  A fat biography of Jane Goodall can go, despite its authority.  Into the box, easy.  Any number of review copies of novels and Gulf War books and advice and joke books people bought me when I turned fifty.  Box, box, box.

But then it gets hard.  Of course, some never-read-it-never-will books get retained (this is a useful place for the passive voice, don't you think, as if I weren't involved with the decision to retain?).  Like The Apes of God by Windham Lewis.  I loved Tarr, which I read in college, though it has disappeared.  But I've just never managed to crack The Apes of God.  It's a Black Sparrow Press book, though, nice woodblock print on the thick-paper cover, good to hold, good to look at, and reminds me of Michael O'Brien, the professor who suggested it, a guy who would show up for class most mornings so hungover he could only rub his face and cough and mutter Irishisms.  By the end of the semester, class was meeting at the Chanticleer, a bar downtown in Ithaca, where the poor guy could feel at home and rail at us.  You're not fit to mind mice at a crossroads!

Another category is books I read and didn't like or hated, but have kept and carted around for years.  Gone!  One was called Manhood in America, which I reviewed for Newsday, back when they had a books section.  I really trashed the thing and the author, poor guy, a garble-tongued sociologist, wrote me several rounds of hate mail to which I replied politely.  I rubberbanded the galleys to the hardcover and dropped them in the box: gone, both guilt and paper!

Gift books.  I know who gave me each and have fond feelings in some cases.  So fond that some books remain in my shelves despite the horror of them.  Like The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, a Harvard linguist.  My mother gave it to me, all cross with it, asked me if I wouldn't read it and explain it to her.  I read a solid four pages and gave up, not because it was too abstruse but because it was just too glib.  It turned out she'd only read four pages, too, and wanted mostly just to get rid of the thing.  I'm keeping it--every time I cross its path I smile (she died five years ago)(I found several books with her lost, old-fashioned handwriting in them--in her day you always wrote your name and often an occasion).  And really, maybe I'll grow open enough to read it one day.

And (uh-oh) books by friends, of which I have a lot, many of them read in manuscript, some of them multiple times.  But a few never touched.  I mean, there are people you love who write things you don't--it's simple as that.  They do not go in the box.  But they slow me down, long looks at author photos, obsolete bio paragraphs, old times.  Often blurbs from myself on the back.  (Kind of my work, like wisdom teeth you keep in a little wooden case.)  Well, one went in the box... I won't mention his petty little famous name but he was a prick to me on a panel and that was it for him, and now his book, a relief, as every time I came across it: grrr.

Books by students.  A long shelf.  These, you really have to keep.  Many are self-published, most are inscribed, some are quite successful, not a few I've labored over as if they were my own, hours of painstaking work, tons of cheerleading, the blurbs again, what are you going to do?  You keep them, probably to be tossed when you die.  (Note deflective use of second person.)

25 years of The Paris Review.  I like the interviews, what can I say?  I could have as many or more years of many other lit mags I perpetually subscribe to, but there just isn't room.  Plimpton got the nod.  The others I gave away to students over the years.  Not a bad thing to do with books in boxes, by the way.  When I was done at Holy Cross after my wonderful experience as the Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters (five years!), I left fifty or so books and journals on the bench outside my office and by the third morning only three books were left, all of them Norton anthologies.

But about 200 books came home with me, some of my very favorite books, truth be told, the stuff I brought with me, the stuff I taught from, and those books are still in boxes in the barn: no room at the inn.  But that's the point of this exercise--moving books out so books can come in.  I'll try to get many of those office books into my studio when it's ready.

Another category is books I haven't read but might just.  These include a lot of classics.  A lot.  Some I've been dragging around since college, too.  And books I really am going to read, too many of them for one lifetime, alas, but intention counts, especially for writers.  I'm going to make a special shelf for them so I can have a look before any trip to the bookstore, like looking in the fridge before you go buy groceries.  Though then again the books stay fresh.

The biggest category, of course, is books I've read and loved and want to have near me.  One of them is The Books in My Life by Henry Miller (is he still anybody's hero?).  In the first pages he advises never keeping a book, always passing it along.  I read it when I was nineteen and proceeded to give away all my books for many years, keeping only a valiant core, two boxes worth, that included The Books in My Life.  I've got a lot of biographies of writers (best way to find role models, and anti role models), filled two whole shelves bringing them all together in one place finally, something I've planned for years like a trip to Asia.

I would like to have all my Black Sparrow titles back.  Bukowski's Women, what happened to that?  There--I've mentioned Black Sparrow twice, and this must be meaningful.  One day I'll tell you about Fielding Dawson.

I stopped in at Twice Sold Tales to warn Jim I was coming.  He's got a practiced rap for this situation, stiffened visibly, drew himself up.  "It's your choice," he said.  "Bring 'em in.  But don't get mad at me if you don't like my offer.  They're your books, you do what you want with them if you don't like my price.  Take them to the Literacy Project book sale!"  He gets pretty dramatic.  But you know he still wants to look.  The horror in his face can't hide the gleam in his eye.

And I'm not after money so much as just a good home for these titles, some of which have lived with me years and nearly all of which will outlive me.

Up and to the bookstore!  Jim follows me to my car with a handtruck and loads my boxes, keeps 'em overnight, calls the next day: 30 bucks.  But I have to come take the books he didn't want.  Back at the store I take the cash and take my books back and Jim and I get to talking about a book I'd bought from him recently, We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich.  The woods she took to, back in the early 1940s, were very near here.  That discussion got us to a book called Nine Mile Bridge by Helen Hamlin, who lived a few years in much more remote woods up near the Allagash about the same time period.  So of course I took the book and gave him back a ten-dollar bill.  The book was marked fifteen, so I felt I'd got a deal.  And I will read it one day.  I will.

Bill Roorbach is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Flannery O'Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend, Into Woods, and Temple Stream.  His latest novel, Life Among Giants, was published to resounding applause from critics and readers alike and landed on many Top Books of 2012 lists.  His work has been published in Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, and dozens of other magazines and journals.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.   Readers are encouraged to send high-quality photos (minimum 150 dpi) 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.

Author photo by Sarah A. Sloane


  1. On the other hand:

    Collecting is the redemption of things which is to complement the redemption of man. Even the reading of his books is something questionable to a true bibliophile: "' And you have read all these?' Anatole France is said to have been asked by an admirer of his library. 'Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?'"

    Benjamin, Walter (1968-10-23). Illuminations (p. 42). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  2. I'm a huge Roorbach fan, and this essay only increased my fandom.The rules we establish - one of mine is to eventually get through the bookcase of unread books, which get arranged in random order when I dust them every three years or so. A second-hand paperback of Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice" was in the read-this-next position last month. I must have purchased it thirty years ago, read part of it, and assigned it to the bookcase of duty. But, beginning at the yellowed bookmark, Cleaver talked to me about questions that I'd been worrying like a sore tooth.

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