Foto by tgw, New York City, April 2010
I luckily grew up with people who respected books. Hardbound books. Paperbacks to the generations before mine were cheap editions of pure-dee evil. In H.L. Mencken's volume 1 of his autobiography called Happy Days, he mentions how what his parents's generation called dime novels were sneak read by boys far from home and were considered to his parents as written, published, and distributed by the Devil himself. As a kid, I remember my mother finding my brother's collection of paperback books, one of which was Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre (1933), a book my mother considered so evil and vulgar, she was on her way to send it back to Hell from whence it came through incineration in our back alley ashcan when she was intercepted by my brother who rescued it by pleading with mother that it really was literature and not the trashy novel she believed it to be. Those early paperbacks had two things going against them: 1) because they were paperbacks instead of hardbacks, they were cheap (thus "dime novels"), and 2) their covers showed illustrations of the absolute sleaziest (scatological) nature. For instance, check out the original cover to the paperback of God's Little Acre:
Though my brother was right in his defense of Caldwell's writing--and Erskine Caldwell is a damn fine writer--but with a cover suggesting the contents of the book had to do with a "scorching" story of what appears to be a lusty young stud trying to force himself on a young Southern belle and in a barn and in the hay with that evil old codger of a man (Caldwell called him Ty Ty Walden) spying on them you can understand why my saintly mother would see the contents of the book as so much ghastly trash.
Hardbound books were so constructed as to be treasured and preserved in a solid wood bookcase that was prominently displayed in the main room of a house. Or if you were rich and had a huge house, you certainly had a special room designated a library within it, a library full of book shelves on which were preserved row after row of hardbound books.
I wasn't that much of a reader until I got to college. My brother on the other hand started reading at a very young age. He once told me when he was a teenager, he would take the dictionary into the bathroom and read it from A to Zed. He later lived with my mother's mother, the librarian, and as such had access to a plethora of books and out-of-town newspapers like the NY Times and the NY World Tribune. I was born when he was 15 years old. Though my grandmother the librarian baby-sat me at the library, by the time I was old enough to start reading books, she had retired from the library, and I was shuffled around to various towns, Enid, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas, as my father struggled to find work, before eventually ending up back in my hometown of Abilene, Texas, where I eventually went to high school more interested in girls and sports than I was in reading books. By the time I was in high school, book readers were considered eggheads. I worked my last years in high school in my brother's bookstore and magazine stand where I started reading all kinds of magazines and one Christmas my brother gave me a volume of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories with orders that I read it or he was taking it back. That became the first book I ever read and that became the first book I ever thoroughly enjoyed reading.
By my first year in college--and I attended North Texas State University that fortunately had the second largest college library in the Texas University school system (The University of Texas in Austin had the second largest library in the USA (second to Harvard))--I was reading every book I could get my hands on. My goal was to try and read at least 100 books a school year, a quota I met three of my six years in college (I later went to the University of Texas in Austin, the University of New Mexico, and New York University), the other three years managing to read an average of over 80 books. By the time I graduated college and got married to my second wife, I had a collection of around 1,000 books. At the peak of my book collecting here in New York City, my wife (the Choctaw-Mexican-Welsh girl) and I had a library of over 2,000 books. Of those 2,000 books, more than three-quarters of them were paperbacks or soft covers as they were called.
After World War II and thanks to the success of Erskine Caldwell's paperback sales (he alone was responsible for the success of the New American Library), paperback books became THE source of affordable reading materials. By the time I graduated college, all the classic writers and all the modern writers were available in paperbacks. All the bestselling books first came out in hardbacks. About a year later, the paperback editions were released.
Though I no longer have a library of 2,000 books, I still have hundreds of books in both book shelves and stacked on the floor of my stuffed-full-of-stuff apartment. I read several times a day every day. I'm currently reading over 20 books at once. I just finished reading Somerset Maugham's The Summing Up for the third time in a raggedy barely held-together Mentor paperback book edition. I also just finished reading Henry Miller's Nexus in an Evergreen Press (softcover) edition. The Maugham book is in a pocket-sized paperback; the Miller book is in a hardback-sized softcover edition (too big to fit in your pocket). I am currently rush-reading a huge hardback volume of H.L. Mencken's three-volume-in-one autobiography: The Happy Days; The Newspaper Days; The Heathen Days. I'm also currently reading Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye; Toni Morrison's great novel Jazz (some most unique writing); and Balzac's Lost Illusions. I'm also at the same time reading several books referring to the truly American composer, Charles Ives, especially John Kirkpatrick's compilation of Ives writing entitled Memos, a huge book that I use as a reference book, meaning I'll never stop reading it (until I die, that is).
Like my brother, who before he died amassed a huge library--sadly it is sitting dormant and going to waste down in a storage vault in Texas--, I do notate most of the books I read, either that or I take copious notes in notebooks as I read. I mark books up because I have no intention of reselling them--unless they are books that totally disgust me--but even those books are hard for me to part with, like Tippy Hedron's (the one-hit-movie wonder star of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds) book about raising tigers and lions on her Los Angeles ranch.
Notations from books:
From Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses
"Specialization leads to mediocrity"--a notation of mine that I deduced from Ortega y Gasset's reasoning.
"Rhetoric is the cemetery of human realities." Now come on, that's a powerful note. The reasoning power of this man.
From Alfred North Whitehead's Adventures of Ideas
"Carthaginians--civilized trading nation, racially progressive--they ruled Spain & Sicily & North Africa. While Plato was thinking, they were sacrificing their children to Moloch. What Whitehead calls 'an Act of religious propitiation.'" "Whitehead: 'Religion lends a driving force to Philosophy'; 'Philosophy guards our higher intuitions'; 'The history of ideas is a history of mistakes.'" "Whitehead: Plato: The creation of the world (the world of civilized order) is the victory of 'persuasion over force.'"
From Maugham's The Summing Up
"But the plain man's interest in philosophy is practical. He wants to know what is the value of life, how he should live and what sense he can ascribe to the universe."
"My conclusion: The Universe doesn't need a God. Only man needs a God."
"From Maugham: 'We are the playthings of Nature.'"
"The egoism of man makes him unwilling to accept the meaninglessness of life and when he has unhappily found himself no longer able to believe in a higher power whose ends he could flatter himself that he subserved he has sought to give it significance by constructing certain values beyond those that seem to further his immediate welfare.... These three values are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness."
From Henry Miller's Nexus
"A most septentrional day, let us say, when the most stupid animal would not poke a nose out of his hole."
"Stymer the lawyer speaking: 'As for those who govern the world, there you have the most dishonest , the most hypocritical, the most deluded and the most unimaginative beings imaginable.'"
"Women adore gifts, especially costly ones. They also adore little nothings, dependent on their moods."
"I have no respect for learning. It's sheer crap, this business of grammer and rhetoric. The less you know about such things the better. Especially if you're a writer."
I fill notebook after notebook with such notes from my reading. I count 20 such notebooks in the shelf that rides high above my loft bed.
Two of my dearest friends are voracious readers. thedailygrowlerhousepianist reads books as he travels around the world playing his piano and then he throws them my way when he comes back to New York. I introduced him to Plato and he immediately devoured everything Plato wrote--he is now a Plato expert where I am a Plato amateur.
My friend L Hat (of www.languagehat.com) reads devouringly. When he lived in New York City, I used to watch him walking down a street reading a book as he walked. When he wasn't reading he was miserable.
My dear friends in Rhode Island have so many books in their house they had to shore the floors up in order to keep the weight of the books from crashing down two floors to settle in a pile of dust in their basement.
I have not yet bought a Kindle. I like holding my books in my hands. Nor am I used to audio books, though I did enjoy the other day listening to William Faulkner read one of his short stories off an old cassette tape I found among the hundreds of cassette tapes that still line the floor of my apartment. Also, I just a day ago bought the 2-volume Caedmon LPs of Ezra Pound reading his poetry. Still I prefer holding a book in my hands and reading it that way. I just can't imagine not having books on my book shelves. Books I know so personally that when I want to remember something from the ones I've read, I can go right to them, pull them from the shelf and glean all the magic I remember from them all over again. Books I haven't read yet sitting on my shelves tempt me, tempt me so madly sometimes, I stop reading the books I'm reading and start reading them.
for The Daily Growler (a continuing novel)