Apes of God

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence


Never read it, might one day

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 nevertherless, 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 Apes of God, by Windham Lewis.  I loved Tarr, which I read in college, thought it has disappeared.  But I’ve just never managed to crack 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 Daniel Pinker, a Harvard linguist.  My mother gave it too 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 today)(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 left Holy Cross 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.

Beneath my studio

  1. Nancey writes:

    Loved this post! What voracious reader doesn’t have these issues. I find it so difficult to part with a book, it’s either one I have loved and remember everything about the reading of it, place, time, season, or else I’ve wanted to read it desperately but have not had the time yet. I love that you went and bought another right after you got rid of the boxes. very endearing.

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Bill, I am so glad to learn I am not the only one who has tons of books he hasn’t yet read. I did just read one, Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, which I’d had for years. So, sometimes it does happen. And I have instituted a rule where every time a new book comes in TWO have to go. Except I made the mistake of telling my wife, who quickly noticed that I wasn’t following it, good intentions notwithstanding. So I redoubled my efforts for a while. But then Kathy noticed that the books I was getting rid of were HERS. So,who ya gonna call? So glad you finally semi-bit the bullet for all us sinners.

  3. monica wood writes:

    Bill, if my books are in that box I forgive you, but fyi, I have yours all together on a shelf. But more burning: what form of prickishness did your panelmate demonstrate? I have one of those, too, a guy I hope I never see again who forced me (and another woman) to be his straight man, making me look like Old Mrs. Thistlebottom to his Young Cool Hipster. Ecch. If I HAD his book I’d gladly toss it.

    And a confession: for fellow writers whose books I just can’t accommodate any longer, I tear out the signed part and donate the rest. I have a whole folder of lovely inscriptions. Is that wrong?

    • Bill writes:

      Your books are in the treasured area, Monica Wood subsection. During this re-organization, I had to collect your titles from all their various migrations around the house, with one (Ernie’s Ark) still in the boxes from Holy Cross, soon to be exhumed… The boxes, I mean, as Ernie is alive and well… I like your strategy for signatures. I’ll ask Algonquin to put a perforated edge on the title page of mine so I can just sign and tear, save people the trouble! Prickishness abounds… Esp on panels. I’ll tell some stories on a future post, as it’s going to take some muscle… As for books, I’m having seven sub-basements built, per diagram. (Actually the underground stacks at the NYC Library, where they have 88 MILES of books.

  4. Kevin Watson writes:

    Man, I’ve got boxes of books in my basement that I just can’t seem to part with. I admire your strength. Maybe if I built more bookcases…

    • Bill writes:

      I’ve hardly gotten rid of any books, really! And I still miss books given away in the past… My brother has promised to put all of Bukowski on a Kindle and just give me that…. All of my books would fit on one, with room for more… I’d miss the dust, however.

  5. Emily Kresl writes:

    It’s so funny you wound up buying a new book for your collection when you are working so hard on organizing and sorting your collection. 🙂

    • Bill writes:

      I know… and I have brought home four books since I wrote that post three days ago…. it’s hopeless…

      • Roseann Fitzgerald writes:

        Great post, Bill. And I’m sure you have them categorized. The Ben Franklin Bookstore in Worcester (across the street from the Public Library) is closing probably this summer with 50% off all books. There are 80,000 to 100,000 books on the shelves as of January 2011 and still another 10,000 to be processed:


        You might find some of your missing books at Ben Franklin!