Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Bibliopolist’s Lost Apocalyptico (Jack Kerouac once told Carolyn Cassady that his clientele was "kids who steal my books")

“Can heaven be near?”
Exuberance made me ask it, my eyes dancing down the shelves that swept to the back of the store. Surely, in this leafy little lane, the foothills of Paradise began.

“Say again,” said the man at the cash register.
Ridiculously I repeated the question.

The wooden panel behind him slid smoothly aside. “Go on,” he said. “They’re waiting for you.”

I stepped into darkness, then down two steps and through to the dim light of a low room. Sitting at tables were what the trade used to call bibliopegists — men and women restitching the spines of books, retooling the leather covers. The place smelled of chemicals.

“Are you the new book thief?” asked one of the women. “What you got for us, then?”

So began the first chapter of my manuscript, “The Book Thief,” begun a few short years ago at a retreat in the Georgia woods. Guess what? Someone else has since come out with a book called “The Book Thief.”

My “Book Thief” was intended to be short and sweet. Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief,” published by Knopf, is almost 1,000 pages long and about the Holocaust.

Down the tubes went my own effort, taking with it a story that had curiously prophesied its own downfall — as it should, if it’s really about stealing books.

Suppose the “I” of the story, the fellow who went through that secret door, had stumbled on an operation that supplied just one person in the world with treasured editions of all the greatest books, neatly restored and rebound. My purpose was to address what Henry James hissed about, namely “the black and merciless things that are behind great possessions.”

But as it progressed, things happened to my tale. Suppose the “I” character was easily recruited because he needed the cash to look after his 9-year-old grandchild who had recently and reluctantly (on the child’s part) come into his care. Suppose the child, exhibiting exceptional talent, sold the story of her grandpa’s career as book-thief to a tabloid. What a courtroom scene that would make! Man and child, they love each other to death and now must execute an extreme escape. Then what?

A character’s character is revealed in his or her motives, so to answer that question I needed to grapple deeply, not only with what makes grandparents and grandchildren tick in tune (or not), but with what makes people love books rather than each other. Or collect books rather than read them, stealing books only to collect them.

The amateur shoplifter does not have the motives I sought. Nicknamed a “booster” by professional thieves, the light-fingered bookshop prowler is in it for the chase, a matter of opportunity. Capturing the object of desire is the least of it, especially when the booster realizes he will not have acquired the time to read the damn thing simply because he’s liberated it; some shoplifters take their loot back. These folk are motivated by unresolved issues (“It’s there for the taking,” or “I deserve it”).

The most outrageous rationale for kleptomania is the one that says it’s not really yours to begin with so let’s have it. This will extend to the klepto’s relationships: “After when they disentwine/ You from me and yours from mine/ Neither can be certain who/ Was that I whose mine was you” (Robert Graves).

The professional thief who makes a living by selling stolen stuff is also not motivated in any way useful to my story. Forest Tucker, famed larcenist of the 1930s, explained that “stealing is a way of keeping your sanity in a lifetime of being the hunted. Each new joint is a place to outwit the authorities” -- too dialectical for the emotional range I was after.

But collecting books, hoarding them, is a rage of a different order. This is the rage for order. It is a drive to conceal shortcomings, including the need for order. The condition is made worse by the nature of acquisition, which is addictive and which conceals the truth even more fiercely. Addicts are in a slow burn at helplessness, at being left alone, and they will condemn themselves to a lifetime of withdrawal and solitude. which is so strange.

The murkiest of all motives for a book thief is an unconscious need to rub out the word. Now that’s more like it. The idea of one person hiding all the first editions of all the great books in the world is an echo back from the future, when the question is what happens when all the computers on the planet are unplugged and illiteracy returns. Would that be so bad?

For writers, who have much more difficulty with writing than other people, t'would be bliss indeed. For society it could spell final relief from the toxicity of what novelist John Gardner called “creating art’s effects with the daemonic help of older books.”

I spent the rest of my rural retreat reading some of those daemonic books. I made notes and I jotted down quotes. The accumulated paper trail soon began to tell a tale of its own, a scroll of other people’s thoughts that started with the usual drooling over books, continued through the hanging participles of Babylon until, too late, the languid reader saw the Word turn into the carapace of the Book. Within an eon or two, religion being simple but theology tricky, the verbs had gone viral.

But then there’s Kerouac. His quote on himself as writer is one of the strangest in all literature.

So here we go ,on my bibliopolist’s lost Apocalyptico.

“O my darling books! Others may buy and possess you — persons, perhaps, less worthy of you than I — yet how dear to me are you all! Have I not chosen you one by one, gathered you in with the sweat of my brow? I do love you!”
— Silvestre De Sacy

“Pearls were poured upon the poets, in keeping with the teaching that poets are next to the angels. Wealth began to accumulate from trade arriving from all directions. A method of making paper from flax and hemp appeared, and the new technology produced books in quantities inconceivable before. Within 40 years, Baghdad was a city of booksellers, bathhouses, gardens, game parks, libraries. The palaces were of marble, rare
woods, jade and alabaster, with carpets and wall hangings, fountains and interior gardens. Concubines greeted guests with sprinklers of rosewater and powdered musk and ambergris. A poet wrote: ‘Live, Oh live to thy heart’s content!”’
— “A History of Baghdad”

True collectors, like lovers, have an infinite sadness, even in their happiness. They know they can never put the world under lock and key in a glass case. Hence their profound melancholy.”
— Anatole France

“The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even 10 seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the Word.”
— William Burroughs, from “The Ticket That Exploded”

“Ah, my love, the glory of works which have been lost forever, of treatises which today are mere titles, of libraries which burned down, of statues which were demolished! How much more beautiful the Mona Lisa would be if we couldn’t see it. And if someone were to rob it just to burn it, what an artist he would be, even greater than the one who painted it! How sublime to waste a life that could have been useful, never to execute a work of art that was certain to be beautiful, to abandon midway a sure road to victory.”
— Fernando Pessoa
(“The Book of Disquiet”)

“I am not Solomon; I am he who watches the Lamb; I am he who has adopted the Sorrows; I am he, John L. Kerouac, the Serious, the Severe, the Stubborn, the Unappeased; he who is pursued by the Hooded Wayfarer; he who wants Eyes; he who Waits; he who is Not Pleasant, and hears Silences; he who Works; he who Watches, and has Hidden Thoughts; he who Grinds the Stone and even the faces — with Eyes.
“He who is not Satisfied.
“He who hates Satisfaction.
“He who loves the White Valley of the Lamb.
“He who Eschews, and Waits, and Watches, and Sleeps, and Works in Anticipation of the Lamb, the Lamb so Meek on the
— Jack Kerouac (Journal, 1947)

“Reading these lines I can easily convince myself that I am inking down the words, that I am this Jack Kerouac. It is as if, hidden somewhere in his book, there is a writing that hasn’t been written yet and will never be finished. Recently in a dream I tried to convince him to release some of his unpublished writings, or persuade his widow to release them, but he answered, refusing, ‘writing settles nothing.’”
— Clark Coolidge
(“Now It’s Jazz”)