Books Do Furnish a Room (or More)

My wife announced yesterday that some of the books have got to go. It's true, there are piles kind of everywhere. I guess I have a book problem. Sometimes I can't resist them, and I have so many that it's sometimes hard to find the one I want, when I want it.

I guess about half of my books are in my loft in Manhattan, and the other half are in my country house in Connecticut. In neither location does the Dewey Decimal System hold sway, and the filing system is a little dicey. I can't say I have a real system. It's more of an imagined one.

The city/country division is a little bit right brain/left brain. For example, most of the books that would qualify as pure diversion are to be found in the country. Like my almost complete collection of Dave Barry in hardcover. Like my almost complete collection of the novels of Sax Rohmer, including all of the Fu Manchu novels. Like my extensive collection of sporty novels by the likes of Dan Jenkins and Peter Gent, and all of George Plimpton (and paperbacks like Ron Luciano's The Umpire Strikes Back, Jim Bouton's Ball Four, and Bill Lee's The Wrong Stuff.) It is also possible that there are no mystery novels in the city, but one can find quite a few Walter Moseley volumes in my Berkshires foothill stronghold, or the collected mysteries of Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box.

Here's some light reading. You can tell I'm no fanatic, with John Cheever and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit thrown right in there with the Dave Barry books:


Here are a couple of stacks of Fu Manchu and other Sax Rohmer novels:


Guest rooms tend to be stocked with suggested reading:


Some books exist in duplicate or more significant profusion. Anywhere I might potentially hang my hat has an Oxford English Dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus (the old style), Fowler's Modern English Usage, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, The Chicago Manual of Style, etc. But you'll also find the major classics of Greek, Latin, and English lit, and the more or less complete Robert Benchley, Donald Barthelme, Gore Vidal, Ishmael Reed, Wyndham Lewis, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Richard Brautigan, etc. In fact, when it comes to my favorites there aren't just duplicates, there are piles.

I guess I might have a book problem, because when it comes to certain things I am "powerless" the way some people say they are about drinks, drugs, or doughnuts. Whenever I see a hardcover Donald Barthelme under a certain price, I buy it. I probably have at least a dozen copies each of Paradise, Sadness, and City Life. And I've given at least that many away. I am probably down to three hardcover editions of Gary Indiana's Resentment, and a few in paper, because I give those away about as fast as I can accumulate them. I suspect they are a shorthand way of me explaining certain things about my own life. I'm not sure what book I have the most stock of—I'm guessing it's A, a "novel" by Andy Warhol. I think I have fifteen copies, one with a beautiful hand rendering of the "a" logo by Warhol in ballpoint.

It's madness, I know. But real madness was when I was thinking, a year or so ago, of seriously attempting to corner the market on the limited edition of Wyndham Lewis's Apes of God. I mean, if the Hunt Brothers could try to corner the world silver market, why not try to corner the market on a book of which there were only 750 printed, and undoubtedly many lost?

I have fantastic bookshelves lining the wall of my library/dining room in New York City. They have been full for years. In fact, the books went vertical rather than horizontal quite some time ago, so as to pack as many volumes in as possible. There is some organization in this area. If you're looking for poetry it's on the upper left, if you're looking for music it's on the upper right. Novels and philosophy are on the right. Biography and art are on the left. Photography is in the middle, right above naval history and fashion.

Near my desk I keep the classics—from Homer, Virgil, Suetonius, Herodotus, Polybius, Tacitus, Livy, Terence, Appian, Sallust, Plautus, Plutarch, Procopius, Petronius, both Plinys, Appolonius of Rhodes, Flavius Josephus, down to Gibbon, down to Keightley's History of Rome, down to damn near all of Robert Graves. Within arm's length are a dozen good dictionaries; Mencken's three-volume The American Language; Fairchild's Dictionary of Fashion; A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English; Kingley Amis's The King's English; The Use & Abuse of the English Language by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge; George Polti's The Thirty Six Dramatic Situations; and the inimitable Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Also within Eames-chair-swivel range: The Oxford English Dictionary of Quotations, Leo Rosten's Hooray for Yiddish, Public Relations by Bernays; The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz; Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette (1952 ); How to Do Almost Everything by Bert Bacharach (the father of the composer); Emily Post's Etiquette (1928); George Washington's Rules of Civility; A Dictionary of Similes; Ten Thousand Dreams Interpreted by Gustavus H. Miller; Milton Berle's Private Joke File; Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary; all of Alan Flusser's books; Farid Chenoune's delightful A History of Men's Fashion; and Hardy Amies's ABC of Men's Fashion, to name but a few. I have a very large collection of etiquette books. My favorite is Our Deportment (or The Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society) (1879), by John H. Young, which never fails to remind me that progress comes at a price.

There's much here on dandies and dandyism, including a very nice copy of Thackeray's Book of Snobs with his original illustrations, as well as the Duke of Bedford's Book of Snobs; Quentin Bell's On Human Finery; Lord Whimsy's The Affected Provincial's Companion, Vol. 1; D'Aubreyville's The Anatomy of Dandyism; The Wits and Beaux of Society; the complete works of John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester; and, to get the full picture of "the Libertine," the works of Sir George Etherege.

I even have a bible, a nice Masonic edition with family associations, as well as The Oxford Companion to the New Testament, and, just so I don't get any funny ideas, H.L. Mencken's freethinker's bible, A Treatise on the Gods. Right behind me is de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Art Pepper's cautionary autobiography, and Leroi Jones's Blues People.

Often someone comes to visit one of my residences (quite often it's a messenger, a delivery man ,or someone who's come to fix something) and says, "Wow, have you read all those books?" Usually I laugh and say no, although at least once I know I said yes. I have read a lot of them, and a lot of even more of them, and there are many I plan to read either at my earliest convenience or when I just can't take it any more and refuse to work. I have read just about all of the Gore Vidal books, and I hope he writes some more so I can read some more. They are located right next to just about all of James Purdy's books, not far from most of John O'Hara.

It's funny how enthusiasms happen, and suddenly, way into one's reading career, you suddenly discover somebody you'd passed over in the bookstore many times. For me lately it has been Ludwig Bemelmans, probably best known to most you as the author of the Madeleine children's books, or the artist who decorated that swell eponymous bar in the Carlyle Hotel. For me he is now the delightful author of The Blue Danube, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, How to Travel Incognito, and Hotel Splendide, among others. His novel Dirty Eddie is one of the most amusing tales of Old Hollywood you'll find anywhere.

When you're pretty much maxed out on space for the books, you start doing odd things with them. Like, say, think of them as installations. My friend Richard Prince gets away with that as an artist, stacking various editions of Lolita on plinths. I don't think my living room "installation" of E. Howard Hunt books is really pulling it off.


Now, I'm almost pulling it off with the Warhols, thanks to the nice pedestal.


Since my wife declared yesterday that I have too many books, I have some tough choices to make. (No, divorce is not on the table.) Until I do I'm going to have to stay away from the ABE and Alibris web sites and book fairs and, sooner or later, I am going to have to de-accession. I could donate some books, but then I might worry about what hands they would fall into. Maybe I have no choice but to become a dealer. I suppose that could make matters worse, but there might be some interesting tax deductions involved.

But the question really is, "Can I change?" I think that any serious collector, or even hoarder, is doing something beyond what meets the eye. For me my books are a sort of security blanket or metaphysical armor or a manifestation of belief in the future. I mean, I wouldn't have all these books if I weren't going to finish reading them, and I wouldn't be able to finish reading them if I weren't going to be around for, say, thirty years. On the other hand, even I have to admit that it's unlikely I'll ever finish Howard Stern's Private Parts.

Is It Time to Put the Pastors Out to Pasture?

In the magazine world we have a lot of appointments, and it's hard to get around in this town. There's incredible traffic, what with all those sight-seeing buses and rickshaws and billboard trucks. And with our state-of-the-art city planners there are always improvements that haven’t quite kicked in—like the redesign of Houston Street and its eternal construction, which has traffic backed up from the West Side to the East River; or the new bus lanes on Broadway downtown, which have yet to show any improvement in traffic (maybe because the police have the right lane of Broadway blocked, while they ticket everyone with the temerity to move out of the left-side gridlock into the totally unoccupied right side of New York’s most famous avenue). And so magazine editors take a lot of Town Cars. 

These are better than taxis because they pick you up and drop you off where you want, and they wait for you. They rarely curse you or try to overcharge you, and the cars are usually not too smelly and, even if it seems like the driver is suicidal, he will usually slow down if you ask.  So we get to know a lot of these drivers. 

Today I had an interesting guy. I knew he was different right off because he looked like a college professor. He had the classical music station on, and in the back-seat pocket he had The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the latest issue of The New Yorker.  He was quiet and careful (a little too methodical, I’d say, because I had to wait while he wrote out where I was going), not a speed demon like the former Soviet Socialist Republic guys I usually have, who are getaway drivers, geniuses at getting you to your next appointment on time. This guy, I’m sorry, was a bit of a nerd. He was just the wrong guy for the job.

Anyway, I had many stops on this day and so I wound up talking to the guy. Turns out he’s a white-collar professional who was a computer programmer until his job was sent to India when he was 55 years old, along with every job in his department at a Wall Street firm. He studied philosophy and comparative religions and has a degree in biology. He seemed like he should have been teaching rhetoric at Hunter College or molecular biology at City College. But he didn’t have any education courses and he’s got a teenage son studying music, so he’s got to work.  There are guys like this driving cabs and flipping burgers and selling underwear.

Things like this make you think there’s really something wrong somewhere. It’s a waste. I asked him if he was supporting Obama, since McCain is a free-trader and, despite denials, the record shows that Clinton backed free-trade agreements until it became inconvenient for her campaign.  This fellow complained that Obama hadn’t talked about it much.  I suggested that perhaps this was because all the media wants to talk about is the record of Obama’s ex-pastor back in Chicago, or else the “bitterness” thing, about lost jobs driving people to the church or their guns and the issues surrounding them.  Nobody in the press wants to talk about the real issues—it starts at the top with despicable panderers like George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson and trickles down to the morons who write letters to the tabloids.

The fact is that Barack Obama, like just about every other politician, goes to church.  The things that are said in church are often outlandish and over the top.  There’s nowhere, not even in Congress, where hyperbole works better than in church.  Generally speaking, Christian sermons are dramatic and drama relies on overstatement. 

Overstatements like: “God damn America…” in a sermon dealing with the drug epidemic in black communities and the mass imprisonment of young black men.  Or: “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon… and we never batted an eye. We supported state terrorism against Palestinians… and now America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” 
Inflammatory? Sure. But that’s what preachers do. They take a grain of truth and blow it up until it inflames.

The reaction to Wright is really about the fact that he talks about things that one is not supposed to mention.  But that’s what pastors do. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone pastoring to a politico who hasn’t said or done some stupid shit. 

Hillary Clinton’s former pastor, William Procanick, is serving a three-year sentence for inappropriately touching a 7-year-old girl. John McCain proudly accepted the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee, who calls the Catholic Church “the Great Whore” and he has blamed Hurricane Katrina on God’s wrath over a homosexual parade scheduled for that city.

Our current president was put up to running by his pastor, the Reverend Mark Craig, who hooked him by telling the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3-4). And I suspect that Bush’s extraordinary immunity to criticism might be rooted in a bible verse he often cites, and no doubt picked up from Reverend Craig: “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart…” (I Corinthians 4:1-5)

What Jeremiah Wright talks about seems kind of reasonable compared to God’s divine choice of George W. Bush as our infallible President.  But speaking of infallibility, how about the biggest pastor of them all? Recently the U.S. Department of Homeland Security admitted to the United States Joseph Ratzinger, a former Hitler Youth who now goes by Pope Benedict XVI, who was once involved in covering up child abuse by Catholic priests in the U.S. and who now preaches that it’s okay for Catholic clergy to excommunicate political leaders who support abortion rights and, presumably, birth control. Such as former presidential candidate John Kerry. It’s funny how we can allow a foreign head of state who believes in the supremacy of divine law as much as any Shariah-preaching Islamic dictator to visit this country in an election year and mess around with the electorate.

Meanwhile the United States denies entry to artists like Amy Winehouse, author Sebastian Horsley, singer Cat Stevens, rapper MIA, the Israeli singer Rita, the band The Field, five Cuban Grammy award winners, dancehall star Mavado, and Emma Louise Jordan of the Ballett Freiburg. Of course, discriminating against artists is a U.S. tradition and during earlier repressive regimes Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dario Fo, and Pablo Neruda were turned back at the Statue of Liberty.

It’s rotten, what’s going on, and it’s all in the name of ignorance.  How dare Obama say that people without jobs are bitter and turn to religion? How dare the pastor, whom he’s been forced to denounce, suggest that the United States ever did anything wrong?  The mass media knows a good circus when it sees one, and its Barnum-like tendency is to stir up hysteria rather than appeal to reason.

I grew up in Ohio. I made money for college by working in the blast furnace division of Republic Steel.  Steel once accounted for about a third of the jobs where I grew up. Today those mills are closed.  Throughout this country whole industries have been wiped out as America transitions to a “service economy.”  Whom do we service?  That’s a good question.  Maybe it’s debt that we service.  But I know that when intellectuals are chauffering Town Cars because their jobs were shipped to India to save $20,000 a year, there’s something essentially wrong with the system.  I actually think Mr. Obama would like to talk about these issues, but it’s tough when the media doesn’t cares what the candidate thinks, but what his preacher thinks.

I’m hoping that Bill Maher’s new film Religulous, which comes out this summer, is the An Inconvenient Truth of 2008.  Maybe he’ll get a Nobel Peace Prize for pointing out that religion is the bait and switch that’s been for deluding the people for the last few thousand years.  Funny, but my driver whose job went to India is very interested in religion even though he himself is not religious. He highly recommended Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, as well as his book The Selfish Gene.  The driver prefers Dawkins to Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. From his reading my driver thinks that religion is an innocent error, being a biological system of visualization which developed as a survival mechanism and which has outlived its usefulness.  The ability to see demons, he says, might have made a child growing up in a hostile environment more likely to survive.  He thinks that these instincts may eventually disappear.  Perhaps they will be replaced by instincts that lead to taking teaching courses in case one’s industry is moved to the third world.