Alcoholics are famous for their excuses. I'm just a social drinker. I drink to relax. I can quit any time I want. It doesn't affect my driving. Just because I'm here tonight alone and opening a second bottle of wine doesn't mean anything's wrong. Pass the martinis, will you?
So, too, the book nut, who can be defined as anyone who spends as much time moving, acquiring or searching for books as reading them. The book nut believes he is stocking up for the future. His rallying cry: I plan to read them all someday! Pressed further, he will also blather about how he's forming a collection, preserving our culture's literary legacy, or at least furnishing a room.
I said all that, frequently adding that I needed these books for my work. Thus I missed the warning signs. That my apartment had the complete works of Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, Avram Davidson and Italo Svevo, but nowhere for a guest to sit. That there were books in the closets instead of whatever you were supposed to find there. (Towels, I'm told.) That I was the only one in my apartment building with his own handcart. That I was constantly using that handcart to move boxes of books out of the apartment first into the basement, then into a storage unit, then into a second storage unit. Soon I was spending enough on storage to rent a cabin in the country. Then I rented a cabin in the country anyway, and filled that up with books.
"You've got to set these books free," my friend Eric would say. "Liberate them." Eric is a model citizen. He attends the most worthwhile readings and lectures, buys the book being touted, reads it and then sends it off to a friend in Finland or Provence who would like it too. His library is Spartan. His life is normal.
Mine was out of control. The storage units proved too small. The book I needed was always in the bottom box against the far wall, which meant there was an omnipresent danger that after a thousand or so stories the one I would be remembered for was my obituary: "Book Columnist Crushed by Volumes."
But don't think I spent all my time transporting, rearranging and searching among my own books. No, I also spent a lot of hours hunting for books to buy. I would frequently go out with a like-minded friend, jaunting to Charlottesville or Pennsylvania or simply the local shops. The lust for books was great within us, and we'd come home with bags of loot. He had to hide his in the garage until his wife was asleep, which he said only sharpened the pleasure.
Women, I should point out, tend not to understand book-lust, doubtless because they are too sensible. When they accompanied me on these expeditions, their reactions might start with "This is sort of endearing," but quickly yielded to "I'll be waiting in the car," and then "I'll be waiting in the car with the engine running." It seemed pointless to them, indeed to most men too, to keep going from store to store, looking for nothing that could be named in advance and that probably wasn't to be found anyway. Certainly it was out of sync with the '90s, where the best obsessions, like the stock market, made you rich.
Yet just as the alcoholic not only needs but likes his liquor, I loved having all these books around. Their covers were evocative, the contents enticing. I truly meant to read them all. A vast library can be the sign of many things, but one of them is an implicit promise for the future -- that first of all there will be a future, and then that it will be filled with long breezy afternoons, a hammock, and the desire to read all three volumes of The Man Without Qualities and then talk about them over dinner.
And yet. There's a time to pursue your obsessions and a time when they must be put to rest. After a lifetime of being in love with books, a passion that enabled me to write this column three times and then twice a month for a dozen years, it seems a good moment -- on the eve of the millennium and the dreaded 40th birthday -- to do something else. This month I became The Post's correspondent in Silicon Valley, writing about the new technology instead of the old.
Go West, Book Man
A new job, a new coast, a new life: That meant that not only was I going to stop accumulating, but I would actually have to divest. Even if I had cloned myself into a dozen full-time readers and they all lived to be 103, they never would make it through all this stuff. It was time for many of the books to go.
It proved surprisingly easy, as if I had once been enchanted but now was free. As boxes were pulled out of storage, I gazed upon titles, all too often clueless as to why I had felt I needed these books in the first place. Whole categories went, like any book with either "Marxism" or "Modernism" in the title. So did weak follow-ups to successful first novels, and so did any first novel that was merely promising. So did all biographies of poets -- who needs the life when you have the work? So did guidebooks to countries I haven't been to in at least three years. In the unlikely event I'm ever on the point of taking a long walk in France, it will be easy enough to reacquire Long Walks in France.
As I continued, my rules became more stringent. All books of nonfiction by New Yorker writers that weren't as lively as Joseph Mitchell's had to go. So did topical essayists, if they weren't as smart as Joan Didion. So did easily replaceable paperback editions of classics.
Every day I assembled a fresh bag for the library, a fresh box for the second-hand bookseller. Sometimes I tried to set books aside for people -- a shelf of Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz and Wallace Stevens was earmarked for a verse-loving friend -- but nearly everyone I know complains they already have too many books. Much better to simply liberate them.
I'm not done -- there are a hundred boxes in a kind friend's basement awaiting dispersal -- but I've seen my way to enough of a clearing to realize how few books it is necessary to actually possess. "You can own the books, or they can own you," I was warned long ago by an editor whose own library was modest. She was right.
What books do I still want to own? The best of the literature I wrote about. One of the great things about this column was that, thanks to indulgent editors, I could write about anything. What I wanted most was to talk about the best by the oldest. The hot young novelists never interested me much. Who cared about Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, with their tales of what the '80s were really like? I remember what the '80s were like; I don't need to hear it again. I wanted to hear Joseph Mitchell describing what it was like to arrive in New York at the very moment the Great Depression began, or Nina Berberova recounting her childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez talking about living in a whorehouse because it was the cheapest and quietest place a tyro could find to write.
I was attracted to these and dozens of other writers -- a few wildly disparate favorites that spring to mind are Paul Bowles, Jim Harrison, Evan Connell, Czeslaw Milosz, Doris Lessing, Joseph Brodsky, William Gass, Richard Yates, M.F.K. Fisher, William Maxwell, Cynthia Ozick, V.S. Naipaul, Don DeLillo -- because of their energy, their desire to interact with the world, to explain it, to make sense of it, yet not be swallowed up by it nor give in to resignation. They were cranky, sometimes even outrageous, but rarely bitter. And they made lovely art.
One thing I discovered very early in writing about writers: They generally could nail an idea far more gracefully than I ever could. So I'll let the late poet William Matthews make the point here: "It used to be that the names of the battles and generals got remembered, but the names of the many dead were drowned in blood and buried by gore. In late 20th-century America, and everywhere computers are plied, all the names can now be recovered. It will be difficult from now on to forget a fact or to remember which ones might be interesting."
Which, in Matthews's view, merely underlined the role of the writer: "We remember what is first forgotten, what it feels like. . . . We describe the importance of emotional life, its speed and mutability, its stubbornness, its relation to language."
Saul Bellow, talking about the same concept, was briefer but equally eloquent. A writer, he said in 1971, "is in the broadest sense a spokesman of his community. Through him that community comes to know its heart. Without such knowledge how long can it survive?"
All this is heroic work, and all the more so for being done largely in secret -- not only the writing but the reading of it. There's a place in the mass media for Men Who Are Dating Their Ex-Girlfriend's Mothers, but not for People Who Find Their Days Improved by Reading a Szymborska Poem.
These readers may be invisible, but they're not illusory. Every time I was about to give up on Washington as a literary center, every time I attended a reading by a good writer, found myself making up half the audience, and went away thinking No One Cares, I would see someone reading Thomas Mann on the Metro or attend another reading, like the one a few months ago by Donald Hall and Charles Simic at the Library of Congress, which was so crowded that I, late as always, could find space only in the doorway.
People do care, it's just that often I couldn't see them. I, of all people, with my stacks and my handcart, should have known where they were: at home reading. Like me, having a splendid time.