Tuesday, October 25, 2005

One art - for all you fellow book lovers

John Biguenet ran this piece in the NYT today, but it's a TimesSelect protected piece. Thankfully, RJ was kind enough to copy and paste it into an email for me.

I post this piece in its entirety because it captures the feeling I have regarding my books. Everytime I'm in a bookstore, I'll see a title and think, "Yeah, I've had that... I wanted to read it... I left that at home after finishing it... I remember that trip when I read that book... I remember reading that at Bryn Mawr... I remember crying on the train when I finished that book... I remember the person who encouraged me to read this... I remember meeting that author... I remember how much that book meant to me when... I remember how this book helped me when I never thought I'd get over... I remember falling in love when I read this... I remember reading this by flashlight during Hurricane Andrew... I remember reading this by the light of the street lamps on the highway outside Atlanta... I remember looking up from this book and being shocked by the Queen Anne's Lace in Gettysburg... I remember reading this book when I traveled to visit Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges... I remember reading this book immediately after finishing graduate school... I remember reading that book in a hotel room on the way home from Bryn Mawr graduation... I remember reading this book every Mardi Gras season at least 2 or 3 times...."

In remembrance of particular moments in my life, I most remember the books that marked those periods and then I realize those very treasured books are bloated by water and covered in mold.

I don't have a clue how many books I've lost, but it's got to be in the thousands. I saved my books and often brought them back to New Orleans where I would lovingly place them on bookshelves, beside my bed, anyplace. Over the past four years, I felt my books were probably safer in NOLA than they would be as I moved around the Northeast. And they were until August.

I have been meaning to thank everyone who purchased items for me (or burned cds for me) from my amazon.com wish list. I am going to write a handwritten thank you note to all of you and promise that. I keep waiting for life to slow down just a little bit, but I think it's clear that won't happen. I need to make time and I will. But for now, I have to thank all of you. It has meant so much to me that you would reunite me with old friends. I'm okay with losing my childhood bed, childhood home, all my photographs from my birth til age 25 (25 on are safe in Brooklyn); but I am still coming to terms with losing my library. It's something that makes me feel blank inside. This may sound ridiculous to you, but try to lose everything and see how you cope. In light of the death and destruction, it isn't much, but books have always been my repository for memories and my safety blanket. I'm trying to focus on what I've learned and what I've retained, but right now, I just want my old copies of the Anne of Green Gables series. And my copy of the complete poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Read on. Much love from me.

Pulp Fiction
I had always thought that when you lose everything, the irreplaceable mementoes of life must be the hardest to part with. And dredged up from the muck left by the receding flood, such things, ruined beyond repair, do wound me — the spontaneous gift of a beautiful bowl bestowed for no reason one evening by a friend now long dead, the self-portrait with green teeth by a second-grader now grown into his twenties, the battered music box that served as the first token of a love that has outlasted more than just this most recent disaster. But I could not have guessed that of all the things lost in the flood, my mold-encrusted books would weigh so heavily upon me.

When I kicked open my door the first time we returned to our house after the hurricane, what caught my eye was not the heavy sofa that had floated across the living room to totter upon the stairs, nor even the veil of mold that shrouded every surface. What I fixed upon was the copy of "Mary Reilly" my friend Valerie Martin had autographed for me that now lay at my feet, its pages black and waterlogged. The novel had been shelved at the top of the bookcase with other prized volumes by admired writers; I realized immediately that sometime during the three weeks my house had remained flooded four feet deep, the bookcase had pitched forward into the water.

So I knew the soggy pile of books sprawled across the floor and discolored by the mold must include the whole set of Janette Turner Hospital's stories and novels I had been reading my way through this past summer, the collection of poetry John Balaban had insisted I take as a gift at a conference we both attended, the inscribed copy of Helen Scully's first novel, the volumes by Angela Carter I had found here and there over 20 years, the boxed set of Tolstoy's diaries I'd requested in place of a fee for a favor I had done a publisher, novels by Tim Gautreaux and Tom Franklin and Steve Stern and Ha Jin, Michael Henry Heim's translation of Chekhov's letters, Edith Grossman's new translation of "Don Quixote." Though I was surrounded by tens of thousands of dollars of damage, what pierced my heart was the swollen paperback of "The Tain," the Irish epic, which Marsha and I had discovered in a British bookshop on our first trip to Europe 30 years ago.

The ruined books, heavy with water and slippery with mold, clung to one another. It was difficult work, lifting them into a garbage can to haul to the curb, then flinging them, often one by one, onto the common trash hill my neighbors and I have built. In fact, the ribs on my left side are still tender from the effort to finish the job this past weekend.

I keep reminding myself it's foolish to regret a lost book. All but a few of those I've thrown away are probably available in new editions, in a library, in a used-book shop somewhere. And a book is just a temporary transition, after all, between two minds, the writer's and the reader's. So what have I lost, really?

But each book had its own story of how it had come to rest on one of my shelves. "The Tain" and the other volumes we found on that first trip to Europe came home in Marsha's yellow suitcase, the one we emptied of clothes as we traveled to make more room for books unavailable in those days in the States. The American Merchant Seaman's Manual had been my father's. The thin volume of poems by grammar-school students, including the first poem ever published by a promising young versifier named Wystan Hugh Auden, was the very touching gift of an organization I had served that knew of my love for his later poetry. Now nothing but pulp, they have a new story to tell me of how quickly things pass. (And, of course, my own books rotting among the work of so many other writers have their own lesson to teach me about the glory of this world.)

One of the books I lost was "The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop." Her villanelle, "One Art," repeats a line I've learned is true: "The art of losing isn't hard to master." But she insists, over and over again, it's never really a "disaster." I know she's right about that, too — though surrounded by my past, corrupting page by page, it's a difficult truth to accept.


Anonymous kate said...

I have a few pictures from senior year (mostly May Day) that I've scanned into my computer. You're in two or three of them, and some of the others have people you know in them, and a few are just random BMC shots. I don't have all that many, but there are probably a few too many to send to your e-mail account, unless you have a lot of inbox space. Do you want me to burn them onto CD and send them to you at home? It's probably not more than ten or so, total, but it's something. Let me know!

Tue Oct 25, 01:16:00 PM  
Blogger R J Keefe said...

Your own contribution, Ms NOLA, is worthy of Mr Biguenet's essay.

Tue Oct 25, 02:52:00 PM  

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