By Matthew Cheney
15 June 2009
I am a bookshelf voyeur; any time I go into a room with books, I spy and pry. A new room—whether a waiting room, an office, a basement used for storage—always contains excitement for me if it has books, because, until I have thoroughly pored over them, there is the potential for surprise, and the potential is often as electrifying as the reality. The arrangements of books tell stories, even if the arrangements are haphazard or accidental—a shelf becomes a collage. For those of us who spend much of our lives reading books, thinking about books, exploring the history and influence of books, a shelf is far more than a bit of furniture.
Arranging my own books also provides joy and excitement. Over the past few years, changing jobs and circumstances of life have forced me to move a few times, and each time I have been frustrated at the seemingly endless boxes of books that must be packed and carried, but unpacking provides enough pleasure to nearly make up for all the agony and effort of moving. I am a librarian's nightmare—I love reshelving books, but never in the same way.
When I moved to where I live now, I decided that one shelf above my computer would be an ever-changing shelf, with books moving to and from it with as much frequency as I could bear. Mostly, the books I keep within arm's reach of the computer are reference books, and so I thought it would be fun to have one shelf of whatevers. It has been fun, but I haven't changed the shelf very often. I need to do so. Before I do, though, I thought I would try to imagine some of the stories this particular shelf offers.
The most recent addition to the shelf is a battered, torn, and sun-warped paperback of Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight, a novel I hold in awe. I have written more than one story trying to capture some of Rhys's prose style, a style equalled, for me, by few other writers (only Paul Bowles comes to mind at the moment)—clear, sharp, almost completely devoid of lyricism, and yet somehow breathtakingly beautiful. I keep reading pages of Good Morning, Midnight hoping to figure out exactly where in the rhythms and syntax the magic lives, but I haven't quite pinpointed it yet, which is why I put the book on the shelf. It is the most recent addition because I had earlier unpacked my copy of Rhys's collected novels (a single volume), and much as I missed Good Morning, Midnight on its own, I did not unpack it until very recently, because I now have more books than I have shelves, and it's been more convenient to leave some boxes packed. I'm pleased to have this copy of Good Morning, Midnight back with me, though, because the physical character of this particular copy seems to match so well the character of the text: ragged, faded, strong.
Beside Good Morning, Midnight sit some of my favorite books on writing: John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House, the third and fifth collections of interviews from The Paris Review. and C. D. Wright's Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. I stuck these books on the shelf because I wanted some opportunity for inspiration when the writing goes badly, but now I'm interested in the breadth they represent, the breadth that convinced me these would be the books to inspire me through days built with blocks.
Gardner and Baxter are similar in their approach, although Baxter's essays are somewhat more generous in their aesthetics. The Paris Review interviews are marvelously varied, and I own these volumes because they contain meaty conversations with a few of the writers whose work has most affected me over the years (Edward Albee, William Gass, Joyce Carol Oates, Harold Pinter, Gore Vidal) as well as writers whose opinions and perceptions particularly interest me (Jean Cocteau, Joan Didion, Henry Green, Isaac Bashevis Singer, William Carlos Williams, etc.), even if I don't connect on a visceral and personal level with their work in the way I do with other writers. Cooling Time is an astounding collage of poetry, memoir, and essay that offers, in amidst so much else, an exploration of the idea of borders and limits within poetry and language, of the place and purpose of art, of the meaning of such terms as narrative and lyric. These are certainly not the only books on writing that I cherish, but there are only a few I would add to them as essential (Carole Maso's Break Every Rule, Samuel Delany's About Writing, Anton Chekhov's letters). A story lives in the movement from the dependable, somewhat conservative aesthetics of John Gardner to the illuminating and more encompassing meditations of Charles Baxter to the cacophony of brilliant voices in the Paris Review interviews to the iconoclasm of C. D. Wright—it is the story of my own struggles with form and language, with the purpose of writing, with attractions and frustrations.
Beside those books stands Gender and the Journal: Diaries and Academic Discourse, a study by a former teacher of mine who has become a dear friend, Cinthia Gannett. Cindy has had a tremendous influence on my thinking, writing, and teaching, and her book has been a part of that influence, serving as a model of elegance and rigor, of interdisciplinarity, of careful attention and careful writing. It is on the shelf, though, because, like a treasured photograph or tchotchke, it is imbued with meaning beyond itself, a reminder of a person some distance away and of moments lost to the past.
Why Gender and the Journal sits beside The Book of Fantasy edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and Adolfo Bioy Casares, I don't know. It's the way it happened. Both books represent an ecumenical approach to their topics—Gender and the Journal draws from a wide variety of academic disciplines, while The Book of Fantasy reprints material from all sorts of different literatures. These approaches appeal to me; they are antidotes to bog.
Next on the shelf is Accidental Mysteries: Extraordinary Vernacular Photographs, a little catalogue from an exhibit of old snapshots I saw at the Peabody Essex Museum. I cherish this book because it proves that beautiful, beguiling art can happen at unexpected times through ordinary methods, and that how we look at something is as important to what that thing means as what it represents.
The copy of Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh on the shelf is one of the first books I remember buying. I have not reread the book in at least twenty years, and remember almost nothing of the story, but the book itself is a kind of totem for me, one of the first novels I ever completely fell in love with. My copy is adorned by wear: its binding weak, its cover scratched and stained, the edges of its pages soft from the constant handling of a boy who had discovered that words were magic things.
Three entirely different books stand beside Harriet the Spy—books of literary and cultural theory: the third volume of the "Essential Works of Michel Foucault" series, this one devoted to the idea of Power, and beside it two books by Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics and On Deconstruction. Foucault is the philosopher I come back to most frequently, whether seeking an argument or inspiration, and Culler's books are my favorite general guides to theories and theorists that have been important to my reading practices. Their placement beside Harriet the Spy provides fun contrast, but there are also many possible connections, especially between Fitzhugh's novel and Foucault's ideas of power, surveillance, and society. Perhaps only Monty Python could truly pull off a Foucauldian analysis of Harriet the Spy, but such an analysis would not be entirely unjustified. . . .
It also seems appropriate that the book beside On Deconstruction is M. John Harrison's Viriconium, a book of deconstructions. Deconstructions of a different sort fill Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, one of my favorite novels of the last decade, a hilarious and touching tale of time travel and nuclear destruction and religious fundamentalism that in some ways feels, in its fulsomeness, like the inverse of Harrison's austere stories—both books provide, in very different ways, metaphysical journeys. Beside them stands the most recent book on the shelf: The Clean House and Other Plays by Sarah Ruhl. It occurs to me now, though it would not have without the book's placement here, that my favorite of Ruhl's plays, Eurydice, is a kind of melding of Viriconium and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart—a poetic fantasia, whimsical and yet emotionally affecting in a way similar to Millet's novel, but closer in its structure and uncertainties to Harrison.
Next on the shelf is Declarations of Independence by Howard Zinn, a collection of political essays that, when I read it in high school, changed my entire view of the world. Few books have had such a profound effect on me, a result in this case of perfect timing (I was just beginning to examine the conservative ideas I had inherited from my family, and so Zinn's arguments about justice and responsibility and radicalism and history, expressed with fierce clarity, provided a paradigm that had previously been invisible to me). The copy on the shelf is signed; I brought it with me to a speech Zinn gave at the University of New Hampshire in 1994 and had him sign it as I tried not to faint from hero worship.
The book beside Declarations of Independence, the 1982 edition of The Best American Short Stories, should probably go beside John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, because the 1982 edition was edited by Gardner. It is one of the most idiosyncratic volumes in the entire BASS series—though it contains some stories that have since been dubbed with the wonderfully paradoxical label "contemporary classics" (Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," Charles Johnson's "Exchange Value," Charles Baxter's "Harmony of the World"), only three stories come from magazines of substantial circulation (The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Playboy), while the rest all first appeared in little literary journals. Gardner speaks openly in his introduction about his differences in taste with his series editor, Shannon Ravenel, and his struggle to find stories that affected him deeply. The anthology Gardner produced was a book shaped by a powerful personal vision, and it is my favorite of the BASS collections because I cannot imagine any other editor who would have put those particular stories together—Gardner risked alienating the readership of the series on his quest, making the whole a remarkable window into not only the short fiction of 1981, but Gardner's tastes and passions.
In his introduction Gardner says, "I tried hard to find a really good piece of science fiction, but the sci-fi short stories I was able to get my hands on, both in 'literary' magazines and in 'popular' magazines, all turned out, ironically, to be mundane." Maybe he would have liked the next book on the shelf, the PS Publishing hardcover of Jeff VanderMeer's The Situation, a story where surrealism elevates the mundane (office politics) to the sublime. Much like Gender and the Journal, The Situation rests on the shelf as a reminder of a friend via a particularly fine example of his uniquely beautiful work.
Unique beauty is what links The Situation to the book beside it: Yasunari Kawabata's Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, a book of very short stories that appeals to my ever-growing desire for fiction that is concise, focused, enigmatic—a desire for clarity in a world where empty language always seems to be exploding around us. The Situation is a book made from a single short story; Palm-of-the-Hand Stories contains, in a mere 238 pages, dozens of stories written over the course of an entire lifetime. For reasons that are mysterious to me, I find these two facts heartening.
We have reached the end of the shelf with the last book: Gertrude Stein's How to Write. It is in many ways the opposite of Kawabata's stories: an efflorescence of verbiage. I adore it, though it is a book I have not read in its entirety—I doubt many people have, because it is not that sort of book. Instead, it is a kind of object, the embodiment of an argument (but what is that argument?), a great practical joke, and, in the right light and mood, a surprisingly affecting poem. I keep it around to open it randomly, because it inevitably provides weird pleasure, like a Marx Brothers movie translated into Urdu and then back to English:
What is a sentence. A sentence is an imagined master piece. A sentence is an imagined frontispiece. In looking up from her embroidery she looks at me. She lifts up the tapestry it is partly.
What is a sentence. A sentence furnishes while they will draw.
Take a sentence. They mean.
Or take a shelf, for they, too, mean. Twenty-one books, beginning with the mysteriously powerful prose of Jean Rhys and ending with the powerful mysteries of Gertrude Stein. I imagine, without any evidence, that Rhys learned something about sentences from Stein in the same way Hemingway did, though I dislike Hemingway's novels with as much vehemence as I adore Rhys's.
At the moment, this seems like a perfect shelf of books to me, a world unto itself. But I must dismantle it, because I have not kept the promise I made to myself to let this shelf change and metamorphose. Its power to inspire will diminish if the selection is not dynamic. The story this shelf tells will end and a new one will begin.
Excitement courses through me, the excitement of potential and wonder, of new discoveries and connections. Entire galaxies of meaning await. . . .