Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's okay to hate your books

THE CLOSE READER; It's O.K. to Hate Your Books
By Judith Shulevitz
Published: January 13, 2002

BOOKS are sacred. We all know that, and lest we forget it, an entire literature exists to remind us. It includes essays by the greats -- Montaigne, Benjamin, Borges, Roth -- as well as books by the lesser known. But don't be intimidated by the sheer size of the pro-book lobby, or the big names backing it. Try this as an exercise: suspend your bookist presumptions for a moment, then visualize the inside of your apartment or house.

It looks fine, right? More or less the way you'd like it to look, except for one thing. That is what to do with the books. They've piled up and piled up, and now they seem about to swallow you whole. Since I write about books, I am sent dozens every week. They invade in waves, like determined settlers. I fend them off. They arrive anyway. Their padded envelopes release balls of nonbiodegradable gray fluff that work their way into everything. Their publicity material falls out and floats out of reach. But that's nothing compared with the stacks of books that take over the floor.

You may think that people who don't write about books don't have this problem, but if that's what you think, you're wrong. There are also many people who buy too many books. You're probably one of them -- if you weren't, you wouldn't be reading the last page of the Book Review. You carry them home in spasms of hopefulness, then face the task of shelving them. But how? No solution you come up with ever quite works. One book-review editor I know just lets every corner of his house fill up with books; he owns so many that when he actually needs to consult one, he'll buy a new copy rather than try to find the one he already owns. Other friends periodically purge themselves of their books, then find themselves checking out of the library a book they owned as recently as last month.

The problem isn't The Book. It's books. As a physical object, the book is a triumph of design: a rectangular volume of eye-catching matter that has evolved over millenniums to fit fairly neatly onto stackable shelves; a thing that is portable, handsome, mechanically reproducible and self-sufficient, and makes a pleasing rustle when in use. (Compare that with electronic books, which cause eyestrain, need batteries and emit an unpleasant whir.) As an emotional object, the book offers pleasure and enlightenment.

But books, in the aggregate, are another story altogether. Thinking about them for very long is a sure way to induce depression. On days when the world seems unmanageable in general, I find myself hating my books. Like children, they sap my time and energy. Their public disarray reflects my inner disorder. Anything else that clutters up my house I can just throw out; books demand special treatment. Perhaps it's because, at some level, I know they don't belong to me but to a universe higher and better and realer than mine. They exist to take their proper place in that vast, impersonal Total Library wherein all knowledge, all being, when properly categorized, forms a perfect Platonic whole.

As an imperfect being, I haven't the slightest idea what that proper categorization would be. I'm forced to improvise, and am doomed to fail. Even when a method of cataloging isn't impractical, it's unsatisfying, reflective neither of the way we actually organize knowledge in our heads nor of the experience of reading. No standardized system can tell us where to put books given to us by loved ones or brought keenly to life by a memorable professor. Nor is there a rigorous way to distinguish between books we have finished and have a right to display proudly, and those that are unread and hover behind us like a reproach. The novelist Nicholson Baker once tried to categorize his books in such a way that they themselves would nag him to read them:

''I bought some Dennison stick-on dots. Books that I'd hardly read got a red and a blue dot, books I'd read but hadn't finished got a blue dot only, and books that I'd finished had no dot at all. . . . Once read, their dots would go away -- I would peel them off. So I was progressing in the general direction of dotlessness, as if recovering from the chicken pox. But I only followed the system for a few weeks, and eventually many of the dots fell off by themselves.''

So even the obsessive Nicholson Baker can't stick to his own idiosyncrasies! This bodes ill for the rest of us, reduced by laziness to filing in alphabetical order (reductive -- Susan Sontag once said it set her teeth on edge ''to put Pynchon next to Plato''), by subject (inelegant, since it requires putting in separate places one author's thoughts on disparate topics) or size or color (crude, but a purely physical criterion for organization does allow you to sidestep the sense of having failed some larger intellectual test).

So what should we be doing instead? We could all study library science or the structure of knowledge, but those would only give us a more sophisticated vocabulary in which to discuss our perplexity; they wouldn't reduce it. We could give up and shelve at random, but that would lead to physical anarchy, which could lead to intellectual anarchy. We could stop buying books and force ourselves to read only the many we own, but that would require us to become insular, and also to quash our better selves, since it is out of an admirable optimism that we buy books we suspect we'll never read.

Another option is to act as librarians do. They aren't collectors anymore; in today's overloaded information age, they're divestors, de-accessioning those books they feel readers have outgrown. I did that throughout my 20's and the first half of my 30's, making it possible to migrate from city to city and apartment to apartment. Now I regret it. I regret all the bad decisions I made about books in my younger, more callow days. I even wonder whether all that moving ever did me any good. In the end, being a reader is a problem without a solution, rather like being alive.

Drawing (Robert Grossman)
A version of this review appeared in print on December 10, 2009, on page 727 of the New York edition.


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