I lose myself in books all the time. So it’s a relief occasionally when I find myself; when I encounter a character who shares with me some quirk or fixation that it’s never occurred to me to put into words.
I’ve been known to kill time, among the back shelves at my favourite used bookstore, patiently separating the Kingsley Amises from the Martin Amises, the Henry Roths from the Philip Roths, the precious and solitary Henry Green from among the heaps of Graham Greenes, all for the benefit of my fellow browsers.
I believe I share this habit with the great English writer of ghost-stories, M.R. James. At any rate, he bestows it on the narrator of “A Neighbour’s Landmark”:
Those who spend the greater part of their time in reading or writing books are, of course, apt to take rather particular notice of accumulations of books when they come across them. They will not pass a stall, a shop, or even a bedroom-shelf without reading some title, and if they find themselves in an unfamiliar library, no host need trouble himself further about their entertainment. The putting of dispersed sets of volumes together, or the turning right way up of those which the dusting housemaid has left in an apoplectic condition, appeals to them as one of the lesser Works of Mercy.
Mind you, I don’t spend much time in the kind of houses that contain large private libraries, let alone the kind where careless housemaids are likely to invert the volumes. I can better identify with furtive Tommy Clay in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:
Three days later, on a Monday, Tommy stopped in at Spiegelman’s Drugs to arrange the comic books. This was a service he provided at no charge and, so far as he knew, unbeknownst to Mr. Spiegelman. The week’s new comics arrived on Monday and by Thursday, particularly toward the end of the month, the long rows of wire racks along the wall at the back of the store were often a jumble of disordered and dog-eared titles. Every week, Tommy sorted and alphabetized, putting the Nationals with the Nationals, the E.C.s with the E.C.s, the Timelys with the Timelys, reuniting the estranged members of the Marvel family, isolating the romance titles which, though he tried to conceal this fact from his mother, he despised, in a bottom corner. … He did all his rearranging surreptitiously, under the guise of browsing. Whenever another kid came in, or Mr. Spiegelman walked by, Tommy quickly stuffed back whatever errant stack he was holding, any old way, and engaged in a transparent bit of innocent whistling.
In my twenties I worked for a while in an adult video store, and I took great pleasure in sorting the dirty magazines by genre and title. This brought me into conflict with the manager of the store, who had his own obscure standards of taxonomy that I was frequently in violation of. After a few months I was fired – not exactly fired, but the manager made it clear that we’d both be happier if I sought other employment. The event that precipitated this ultimatum had nothing to do with magazines, but I think his dislike for me originated with my attempt to “straighten out” the magazine rack. Perhaps two obsessive alphabetizers are doomed to quarrel.
In a short story called “Making Love In 2003″, from Miranda July’s collection No One Belongs Here More Than You:
It doesn’t really feel like driving when you don’t know where you’re going. There should be an option on the car for driving in place, like treading water. Or at least a light that shines between the brake lights that you can turn on to indicate that you have no destination. I felt like I was fooling the other drivers and I just wanted to come clean. But the more I drove, the more I felt like I had somewhere to go. I was making difficult left turns that no one would ever do unless they had to. Sometimes I would make left turns all the way around a block, and when I returned to the original intersection, I would feel disappointed to find all the drivers were new.
As someone who’s been blessed with long stretches of unemployment, I know all about aimless driving. I’ve often had that sense that I was “fooling the other drivers” – all these busy people rushing off to the supermarket or the airport, and here I am, taking up a lane of traffic to no purpose. When I’m driving aimlessly, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Unlike the heroine of July’s story, I avoid left-hand turns; I worry that the length of the green light was optimized by some computer program for a certain amount of traffic, and that my unnecessary left-hand turn is throwing off the timing; and that because of me, some poor hardworking mom is going to be late for her appointment with the chiropractor.
Vladimir Nabokov describes, in his memoir Speak, Memory, an early attempt at composing poetry:
An innocent beginner, I fell into all the traps laid by the singing epithet. Not that I did not struggle. In fact, I was working at my elegy very hard, taking endless trouble over every line, choosing and rejecting, rolling the words on my tongue with the glazed-eyed solemnity of a tea-taster, and still it would come, that atrocious betrayal. The fame impelled the picture, the husk shaped the pulp. The hackneyed order of words (short verb or pronoun – long adjective – short noun) engendered the hackneyed disorder of thought, and some such line as poeta gorestnïe gryozï, translatable and accented as “the poet’s melancholy daydreams”, led fatally to a rhyming line ending in rozï (roses) or beryozï (birches) or grozï (thunderstorms), so that certain emotions were connected with certain surroundings not by a free act of one’s will, but by the faded ribbon of tradition.
The particular challenge of escaping the conventions of Russian poetry is, of course, unfamiliar to me. But “the husk shaped the pulp” perfectly sums up a failure I’ve experienced too often; the weary sense that, rather than having written what I wanted to write, I wrote what I was able to write; rather than choosing the words and images that best communicated my thoughts, I have deformed my thoughts to make them fit these unsuitable vessels, the words and images that were ready to hand.
The husk shapes the pulp. Thank you, Mr. Nabokov.
PS. I don’t really write reviews any more because it turns out I’m pretty bad at it. For what it’s worth, all the above authors, as unlike each other as any four authors can be, are excellent.
“A Neighbour’s Landmark” can be found in The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James, which every civilized reader of English should own.