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.