The Pleasure of Dreaming in the Stacks
Much has been written about bibliophilia, of course, from Nicholas A. Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness to Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night. These authors are so insightful and incisive that I could hardly hope to add anything new to the discussion, except perhaps where in my case bibliophilia softly transforms into bibliomania, and becomes a compelling vocation, whereby I must work with books, be surrounded by books, be connected to books, as if the times were at the front end of the Renaissance, not in the middle of the Age of the Electron, sometimes called the Information Age, the Computer Age, the Digital Revolution, take your pick. All I know is that electricity and binary code and computerized industrialization are leading (some of) us into new ways of storage and transmission of the written word, where paper and ink are simulated, with text laid out on screens that glow and the kind and size of type are under our control, so we can change Madame Bovary from Times New Roman to Skia (how weird is that, to read Flaubert on that?; he would not be amused!), from a horizontal window to a vertical one, from a bright white light to a softer one, and the eye sees the newness of the contraption and, incredibly, adjusts. The finger adjusts, too, from turning the page to swiping the page, but it better not touch the screen accidentally for who knows what may happen. My nose knows, however, that it’s being had, for it sniffs out the imitation text, with its warm electronic aroma, and in its ancient reptilian nostalgia it misses the redolence of old page and inky signatures of provenance and marbled calf-leather bindings; the books from the Eighteenth-century always smell the best. Amazingly, the brain adjusts as well, although we know that the brain is so easy fooled—even by primitive trompe l’œil!—even by religious shamans selling snake oil!—even by those who don’t love us at all!—and we read the luminescent pixillated pixel lines of text and upload into our brains the story of woe that Emma and Charles Bovary project and of how Emma seeks excitement and passion in novelty and in constant entertainment, usually in the arms of Léon or Rodolphe, men who are not her husband. Le pauvre Charles is a country doctor, not too ambitious, not sharp enough for the cutting edge of experimental medicine, and he loses his wife to her mirage of the world as it ought to be. Ironically, this world exists in the books she read voraciously as a child and young woman, dreaming that one day her knight in shining armor would sweep her off her feet and take her to a world of adrenalized intensity, a world of excitement where every day would bring a plethora of original sensations. Emma wanted to live her life of dreams, her life in dreams, these dreams fed by books with their stories of gallantry and elegance, of yesteryear and patina, of candlelit liaisons and pulse-racing mystique. All she got was Charles and a claustrophobic bourgeois reality. Please note: both the dreamy life Emma yearned for and the lackluster life she got come from the same pages that Flaubert wrote; he straddled Romanticism and Realism so well that his heroine becomes a victim of both.
Madame Bovary has been likened to the King of Bookish Dreams, the Lord of Doomed Plots, the Knight Errant of Useless Scenarios: the peerless don Quijote de la Mancha, who plunged into old tomes in his creaky armchair by the fire of his humble home, and emerged from them a new man, a man with a vision and a mission, to save damsels in distress, to fight giants, “to attack the unbeatable foe,” and in so doing, of course, he made a muddle of things. And in the bargain, made us laugh, and made us fall in love with him. Cervantes, you genious! You invite us to make fun of your main character, you place him in a thousand ludicrous positions and make us think a thousand times how ridiculous, how foolish, how sadly comical this erring Knight Errant is, and simultaneously you make us want to emulate him.
Books create worlds, these worlds mesh with our dreams, our aspirations, then we don’t know where those bookish worlds end and ours here, on Terra Cartesia, begins. From the time I was a child I have always loved to read myself to sleep, even, actually especially, if it’s just for a nap. The ensuing feeling as I read and at the same time reach a state of slumber reinforces those coalescing interstices between the reality as it is created on the page and the reveries generated by my drowsy mind. I purposefully and repeatedly come out and then return into this half-world of wavering smoke-shadows, where the author’s characters continue to say and do but gently slip into my dream-world of imagination on the very razor’s edge of my consciousness. Quixotic hypnagogia, I call it, and it is crucial to my creativity. In the end I fall asleep, but the characters continue their existence, perhaps in a faltering, fumbling way, but they’re mine at that state, all mine, until I wake up and they go running back into the pages of their book.
Funny, how my mind unconsciously directed our attention to characters in books who were bibliomaniacs, who at times confounded fiction with reality, or who had trouble identifying the border between the two, the border from what’s on the page to what is out there in the “real world”, whatever that is. I initially had chosen War and Peace as my example in the first paragraph of this essay. But I was having trouble remembering the names of the characters (I’ve read the book twice, but that was decades ago!), so I switched from Tolstoy to Flaubert, they both are favorite authors of mine. I could have gone to Stendhal: in The Red and the Black there is a scene where Mathilde, who has coldly been rejecting Julien’s advances, goes to the opera one evening and comes back home ravenous for passion and excitement. Please remember that opera has its libretto! When text is undergirded by music its potency intensifies. Mathilde received a double whammy of fiction-related influence, of the effects of created characters and emotive plot; she was putty in the hands of the composer and the librettist, who in effect become guilty of having provoked her new aspirations to get laid by Julien. Julien accomodates her, after a comical pas de deux with a tall ladder, which he needs to access her. After a night like none other, she is so discombobulated that in her passionate state she cuts off a big chunk of hair from half her head, as a pledge to love, or perhaps as a badge of obsession. I get her. I get Mathilde. She’s still lost in her opera, she still feels the plangent strains of the violins, the vibrations of the baritone’s voice, the thrills of an overwrought harp. She uses Julien, who is, granted, tall and cute, and available, and he can scratch Mathilde’s fictional itch. I don’t mean that her itch is a fiction; I mean that it was caused by fiction. From fiction to friction in the time of an opera, that is the power of love caused by stories. I, too, get something similar, though I will not cut off my hair, when I watch certain movies that are taken from books, such as Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice from 2005, because he transliterated Jane Austen’s narrative of the plight of her heroine Elizabeth Bennet just right. The soundtrack with Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano gives me frissons up and down my soul, all the way down into my coccyx, and after two hours I, too, am ravenous for passion and excitement. If no one is handy, I go light up a couple of pages for the novel I’m working on, usually a love scene, or a moment of wretched melancholy, but sometimes, surprisingly, a scene of euphoria or “incandescent happiness.” When the seat of the passions has been stimulated, the complete panoply of feelings becomes accessible. It is the brushes that we writers paint with.
Do not take this to mean that I also have trouble telling fake from real, verisimilitude from actuality. But as I reread Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, I get this eerie feeling in the synapses between my neurons that my life sometimes has an author, and that it is this author who has a tenuous hold on reality, for he is oftentimes wanton in his calculations and makes certain details way too real, like Balzac was wont to; or the complete opposite when all details go missing and I end up living scenes akin to the minimalist experiments of recent vintage, like E.L. Doctorow’s The March, where there is hardly anything to latch on to; or he (the author of my life) becomes derelict in his responsibilities when he leaves many events upended, unfinished, with no closure whatsoever, so I don’t know if an incident in my life is done, or to be continued, or forever to be repeated. Déjà vus are part of my world, how about yours? Augurs, foreshadows and premonitions lurk in my life like rats in sewers. But then so do epiphanies, plot twists and deus ex machinas that fly into my life like bats on a summer evening. Mostly I’m a passive character tossed on the waves of differing points of view and crisscrossing flashbacks, until I feel that the structure of my life was written by a Surrealist trying to channel Rabelais, with the cosmic carnival of life passing me by; and me, off-center and off-kilter, attempting to capture details like motes from the air but succeeding only in piecing together perfectly written circumlocutions.
As I go through my plot I feel that I’m living in a book, or perhaps that I am a book, albeit one with a stultifyingly boring plot, but with marvelously fabricated characters, my friends, each of whom is a living book, and our pages intertwine for, I don’t know, a few paragraphs, a few chapters; a couple of my friends and I can now measure our shared intrigues for several volumes now. Sadly, I’ve come to that age where I’ve had to lay down books to rest, without the possibility of knowing how the plot thickened, or how far we were from the denouement. The closure of a book is always sad, sadder in inverse proportion of how much you enjoyed its reading. My high school French teacher, Madame Marie-Josèphe Jarry, is among those closed books. We became friends, and she inked many pages with me while I was off tending to my studies, Master’s in French Lit., Ph.D. work in Eighteenth-Century French Lit., and many of our chapters together read like Dialogues from Plato, in which she discussed, crescendo, the advantages of Rousseau over Voltaire, while I asseverated, tremolo, that Voltaire won out over Rousseau, but in the end we concurred, legato moderato cantabile, that both had hearts and both used them for the betterment of mankind. Rousseauiste, Voltairean, we loved our debates, but we loved each other too much to let literary fights get the best of us. She was French, and she taught me like no other professor about class struggle in France, about the shortcomings of the bourgeoisie, to put it mildly, and about the obdurate contempt that men and women of letters felt for those shortcomings, if not for the bourgeoisie itself. Her granduncle had been Alfred Jarry, the famous, or infamous (depending on one’s perspective), playwright and novelist. It wasn’t until her older sister Thérèse went off to college that they found out about their grandfather’s brother, his existence had been kept from them. Later, when I myself became a teacher, Misèphe, as her friends called her, would be a guest lecturer in my French literature classes to present the life and works of her celebrated relative. How karmic, I thought, that a well-brought up proper dame bourgeoise should be extolling literary works that subvert the world she came from, that undermine the stolidly solid bourgeois establishment, that explode and exhibit its hypocritical social virtues for the whole world to see. How we laughed, par ma chandelle verte!, in reading out loud from Jarry’s works. My students loved her, and Jarry. Most young students are avid in exposing the hypocrisy of their elders. It’s later that they seem to lose this ability. If everybody read a scene of a Jarry play a day, the world would no longer have grubby-handed expansionist acquisitive petty tyrants. They would be laughed out of town.
So, even before I retired I began to volunteer at our bookstore, working with Cassandra who had her hands full and, frankly, was treading water backwards. Too much incoming, and the days and nights were not long enough to log each book, evaluate it, describe it, and put it up on Abebooks, Addall and Alibris. (Oops, I just made it easier for you to identify us: if you use triangulation to see which bookstores are on all three Internet booksellers and reduce the list to Florida shops, you might come close to finding us.) We take our work seriously in our bookstore, and truly believe in Basbanes’ dictum “Every book its reader,” for our homeless books are but in transit, landing safely under our jurisdiction for a while, only to gather wings for their next jaunt, their next adventure. Closed books on a shelf in the stacks are dormant, like an ungerminated seed. They need that special person to come and discover them, lift them from their dusty place of rest and open and read them, in order to have them come back to life, to release their message to the world of one person, to disperse their wisdom and thereby extend the life of the other person who wrote it. The inner sanctum of the bookstore should be, like the library, tranquil and sweet, with no overhead music, unless it is Baroque, the better to let books find their next readers. How awful to be in certain bookstores where the latest popular music is blaring, where the lights are glaring, where the odors of turkey sandwiches and chocolate brownies intermingle into a fetor of nauseating chaos, where tykes are running through the aisles happy to be free of their hovering parents, where high-school kids are spread-eagle on the floor between the bookshelves with five or six open books arrayed in a fan around them. Apparently they were under the impression that a bookstore is a library of research.
We have none of that in our bookstore. We take our work seriously. After I began to lend a hand, the surplus volume of books went up, not down. Apparently, the local economy was not improving and people were still letting go of their books. Sadly, people, including people with libraries, keep dying. I befriended Marie, another store regular, who also decided to volunteer. During the summer we get Max, who is off doing his Bachelor’s at a Florida school. Recently, Bob came to work with us. Each of us has his forté, and swiftly now the books get processed, the rarer ones get a coveted position on the store’s online list, and the remainders, the X-books, those with hundreds of hits in other bookstores around the world, get placed on the stacks, there to await the visit of a walk-in. Walk-ins take up the full panoply of humanity, with the accompanying diversity of reasons to be there. We love them all, save for those who are impolite, although I also have a secret deathwish for those who pick up a book, change their mind about purchasing it, then PUT IT AWAY IN SOME OTHER SHELF. Do they not know they are committing a crime? To tear a book away from its moorings is to invite loneliness for the rest of its life. Just a few minutes ago I returned a book on the Eskimos (as they were called in years past) to its place under Anthropology. Somebody had placed it under the Occult. The Eskimos do not belong under the Occult! Similarly, you would not put a biography of the second president Bush under Comedy, although it might be tempting to do so. But too many innocents perished because of his directives, and they make our laughter gag in our throats. Then again, you might want to place Cheney’s autobiography directly under War, for he was quite adept at inciting it even where there was no justifiable reason to do so. I can also see Cheney under the Occult, for his spouting forth of reasonably-sounding plausible reasons to go into war, and hundreds of thousands of people believed in him, and yet in the end, his gushing was negligent in that it had not a shred of rational underpinnings.
I’ve spoken much about fiction, novels, but only now do I get to other genres. A book doesn’t have to tell imagined stories to be worth reading. Heck, many bios, and most autobios, are chockablock in creative fabrications hatched up to throw the gullible off the truth, or because the writers truly believed their own confabulations. I receive much enjoyment, and much inspiration, from books on Science. I soar with books on Ornithology, I must own hundreds of them, from Alexander Skutch (A Bird Watcher’s Adventures in Tropical America; The Imperative Call: A Naturalist’s Quest in Temperate and Tropical America; A Naturalist in Costa Rica; A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm) to Dominic Couzens (Extreme Birds). Entomology? You won’t find a better guide about the ants than Edward O. Wilson (Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, with Bert Hölldobler). I even liked his novel about ants, Anthill, for its portrayal of these social animals. Farther afield, I love Jared Diamond, and I daresay his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, about the self-destruction of whole civilizations, inspired me to start writing a novel whose subject I had been flirting with, a story based on the ten years before the French Revolution. True, France did not collapse entirely after the Revolution, but it came close to self-immolation, and Mr. Diamond made me think about why the French were clueless as to the dire direction their country was taking. Moreover, Mr. Diamond’s limpid and entertaining style was an inspiration all on its own. Another book that inspired me to write my own comes from History: I have all of Stacy Schiff’s books, but the one that struck me in the very heart was her Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, in which my hero Benjamin Franklin was described in such wonderful, personal detail that I had to make him one of my primary characters in my book of pre-Revolutionary France. Books on Paris? I can’t get enough of them. (You can look up the authors on your own, I think?) Paris: The Story of a Great City, 2010. How Paris Became Paris, 2014. Old-Fashioned Corners of Paris, 2014. History of Paris in Painting, 2009. Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, 2004. True Pleasures; A Memoir of Women in Paris, 2005. Seven Ages of Paris, 2003. Paris Underground, 1991. Paris, The Secret History, 2007. Paris Under Water, 2010. Paris: Biography of a City, 2004. The Secrets of Paris, 2012. The Sweet Life in Paris, 2009. Fascinating Paris, 2002. Paris Discovered: Explorations in the City of Light, 2006. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, 2011. Paris from the Ground Up, 2009. Quiet Corners of Paris, 2007. Paris, City of Art, 2000. Paris: History, Architecture, Art, Lifestyle, 2003. Literary Paris: A Guide, 2006. Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, 2014. Paris in 3DP From Stereoscopy to Virtual Reality 1850-2000, 2000. Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, 2010. Paris, 2013. Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, 2014. One Thousand Buildings of Paris, 2003. Paris: Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, 2011. Paris, Then and Now, 2003. Please notice that this list includes only books published since 2000! I also devour novels whose stories take place in Paris, but those are too numerous to mention here.
At home I must have around ten thousand books. My library has broken its confines and escaped into other rooms, the reading room, the guest room, the media room, my bedroom. Not all are unique titles: I collect different editions of Candide and the rest of Voltaire, of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, of Jane Austen, Jules Verne, André Gide, W. Somerset Maugham, Gore Vidal, Jerzy Kosinski, P.G. Wodehouse and Edmund White. Zeus in Olympus! What holds that group together, I wonder? Sixty thousand other books await me three times a week at our bookstore, with incoming just about every day, sometimes twice and even three times a day. As far as bookstores go we’re pretty small, but we have choice titles. Also, every nook and cranny is full, and War has been growing, without the addition of any more shelving, ever closer to the ceiling with the lower books serving as a platform for those above. The whole edifice of War is fast approaching its moment of truth. Last year I traveled to Portland, Oregon, and therefore to Powell’s, and there my senses were overwhelmed. I had two hours on the first day, one hour the next, and I shipped home about a hundred books. I judge cities by the amount of used and antique bookstores they have. Paris is number one. (I haven’t yet been to Hay-on-Wye, but I’ve been to Bécherel where I feel elated to visit as many bookstores as I can, but at the same time frustrated that I cannot visit them all.) All of Florida is pretty grim, with very few bookstores per capita. I look longingly at towns like Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco, and, of course, New York. But where we are situated in sunny, empty-headed Florida, most people are either at the beach or in the gym, and they go back and forth between those two places like gyrating yo-yos, stopping intermittently only at restaurants and tanning salons. Still, in our bookstore we do well and we can hold our head high. Because of our resident populations we have books in many languages, including Swedish. Our collections on Cuba, Jewry, Science & Math, Art & Architecture, Poetry, War, the Occult and Books on Books are amazing. We’re bursting at the seams, and yet outgoing is healthy and, thanks to the web, we sell to the Seychelles, to China, to Italy. I love it when a French book is sold to France: it’s going back home. After I’m dead and gone, will the thousands of books that I’ve brought home from France ever be repatriated? Ah, voilà le mystère!