Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Books: A Love Story, Part Two

Ernest Hemingway always left an unfinished sentence in his typewriter so he didn’t have to face a blank page the next day.  As I reluctantly let go of the first installment of my tell-all, between-the-pages love story, I left a two-word sentence in my WORD file—in Hemingway fashion, a terse one.  Why fiction? 

Perhaps it was also the influence of Joseph Heller, whose personal Catch-22 was that he needed a first sentence to get rolling—seldom, if ever, the sentence that would ultimately begin the book, or even lead to a second sentence, but, to the contrary, to countless paragraphs and pages that more often than not led to nothing.

Re-sorting my unboxed books, separating Hemingway’s novels from his non-fiction, I mull over the credit he gave the style guide of The Kansas City Star, where he was a cub reporter all of half-a-year, for giving him “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” a list that began with, “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English”—and I muse that “The Star Copy Style,” as the guide was known, eventually became a companion to the aforementioned Associated Press Stylebook.  So I have it in my library, as well!  (And I check above to see if my first paragraphs are “short.”  My sentences often are not; Hemingway and I disagree on that point.)

And as I write, I’m discovering a la Joe Heller—but a lot faster—that I’m not going to stay with my initial sentence.  “Why fiction?” will have to wait, because at the moment I can’t wait to cross the room to Non-fiction again! 

Under Biography: In A Writer’s Life, Gay Talese tells of having been rejected by colleges based on his writing!  In a class by itself: tucked inside the front cover of Mila 18, a letter from Leon Uris that accompanied a transcript of a speech he’d given divulging that he’d failed English in high school!

On a whim, I scan my shelves for various accounts of writers losing manuscripts and, sometimes, writing them again.  T.E. Lawrence, the one and only “Lawrence of Arabia,” lost his one and only 50,000-word first draft of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” either by leaving the briefcase bearing it on the seat next to him on a train or while changing trains at Reading Station—and, having burned his extensive historical notes, subsequently rewrote it from memory, in my eyes more heroic than his heroics during the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt.  You’ve seen the movie.

It opens up a wholly new category:  lost suitcases, valuable manuscripts and train stations.   Hemingway again!  (How does one contemporary writer generate so much “ink”?)  His first wife, Hadley, had dutifully packed all of young Earnest’s unpublished original manuscripts—he had no published fiction at the time—and all his existing carbon copies in a suitcase she intended to shepherd (all right, schlep) from their residence in Paris to Switzerland, where opportunity had presented itself to the aspiring author in the person of the influential Lincoln Steffens.  But Hadley’s thirst fatefully trumped her husband’s hunger that day!  She left the suitcase on the idle train while she went to buy a bottle of water for her trip, and when she returned, the train was still there… but the suitcase wasn’t!  Hemingway went on to have great success, and three more wives.

Recalling these literary calamities has me searching for a book with the cautionary tale of an unknown writer who, while loading his car, put his manuscript on the car’s roof and absent-mindedly pulled away, unaware he was scattering his prose and years of arduous work to the four winds—hence, remaining unknown.

I am reminded of a John Fowles’ short story from The Ebony Tower, “Poor Koko,” a haunting, disturbing tale about a writer whose house on a remote island is invaded by a burglar who, among other thefts and transgressions, commits the most painful of them all—agonizing for a writer to read—burning four years of writing and research practically page by page while the bound and gagged writer watches helplessly and wordlessly.  Unable to recall the details, but mindful of Fowles’ eloquence, I have to reread it now despite my discomfort with it.     

When I finished writing my first (and last) book, Angela Ambrosia, I eased the manuscript into a 9x12 manila envelope and laid it neatly on top of my typewriter (a machine with a black ribbon and a moving carriage) for delivery to my publisher the next morning.  Jean and I were on our way out of the apartment that evening when I doubled back to speak with our babysitter.  “Lindy,” I told her, somewhat embarrassed, “you may not understand this, but just follow what I say.  If, by any chance, there is a fire in the apartment or the building tonight… after you get my two daughters safely out… and yourself, of course…  there’s an envelope on my typewriter…”

Samuel Johnson said, “The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading in order to write. A man will turn over half a library to make a book.”  I guess I did that.  And if I “turn over” another “half a library,” as I intend to do, who knows what I might produce?

What is this writers’ obsession with collecting books we’ve read and may never open again?  And collecting more?  Days before starting a renovation, my downstairs neighbor, also a writer and as painfully reconciled as I’d grudgingly become to having to part with scores of books, glibly asked me if I wanted some of his.  My response was, “Why don’t we trade books?  It’ll be easier for you to give away mine and for me to give away yours.”  Neither of us was consoled.

“An ordinary man can surround himself with two thousand books and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.” (Augustine Birrell)

I have finally managed to fill every available inch of shelf space with a book.  That done, I am left with several dozen cartons of splendid books to find a loving home for.  And I will always have many new ones to read.  I could download them... but I like to hold a book when I read it!  So it comes down to this: every time I acquire a book I have to get rid of one.

Or… do I succumb to the music-to-my-ears of the quotable Birrell?  I do.  “Libraries are not made; they grow. Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one.”  I will wedge and stack and store when I feel I must, and leave my library to my grandson Maddan, already a voracious reader and an expressive, imaginative writer.  Turning ten this Thursday, he’s way ahead of Hemingway’s pace—and his mother would never lose his suitcase!  Maddan’s birthday present is in my safekeeping.  I bequeath him “at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy” amid the novels and biographies, the plays and screenplays, the volumes of humor and art and philosophy, the collections of show scores and music anthologies, the venerable sets of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History and the Great Events By Famous Historians, the 40-volume Yale Shakespeare and the 17,000 page, 107 pound Encylopedia Judaica.  And an  invaluable reference library!

On entering the newly-completed library, my friend Mark pronounced: “Now it’s a Ray Fox room!”  So it is.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Books: A Love Story

Accounting for time is futile.  Where did the day go? The month? The last decade!—did I fill it well… or leave gaping holes in my kaleidoscopic universe?  These are  ponderables you can’t google.

Where have I been lately?  In my head, but not at my writing desk.  Take last Friday for example.  A day at the hospital: reported at 6:30 a.m., in deeply drug-induced dreamland (kinda like Hollywood, only the scalpels aren’t out for your back) by 7, in surgery I’ll fortunately never remember some four and a half hours following.  

Released, at last, at 4 in the afternoon, my doting wife and I step gingerly into a serendipitously pleasant day-after-Spring day.  “Let’s walk,” I say.  Jean asks if I’m sure.  We’re in midtown Manhattan—I don’t need Affordable Health Care to field this one:  “If it’s too much, we’ll grab a taxi.”  Done.

We coast up Broadway.  Six blocks from home, we pass… almost… several tables laden with used books for sale.  My eye catches one, The Chicago Manual of Style!  I’ve always wanted it to go with my style bible, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, plus The Associated Press Stylebook and the classic little gem, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  But having a profusion of stylebooks already, I couldn’t justify spending the hefty $55 list price for a hefty, near-1,000-page tome I no longer have shelf-space for.  The effects of my surgery must have been showing: I didn’t have to bargain for it.  Marked for $12, which I would have paid, the vendor made it $10 “for you.” 

Do you see where I’m going with all this?  Not that it made my day.  Not, were it not for the surgery, I wouldn’t have acquired a book I wanted so much that only a week before,  way in advance of any gift-giving occasions, it occurred to me that this year, unlike others, I had an answer for my family to “What do you want?” The Chicago Manual of Style.  Yes,  The Chicago Manual of Style, please.  Not even to crow yet again about the wonder of The Sidewalks of New York and how wondrous I find them.  No, it’s bigger than any one book.  It’s BOOKS as a way of life.

Prior to moving to a smaller apartment a few years ago, I parted—painfully, this being a love story—with one third of what was a truly special library.  I had had everything I needed at my fingertips.  In need of a fact or a quote in the wee hours of writing, I’d go to my shelves, categorized and alphabetized, confident I’d locate the sought-after book in seconds, place my extended right index finger on top of its spine and tilt it toward me.  I suspected if Google and Yahoo! got wind of it, they’d come to me.  

Adjusting to our new home, I stood dismayed many an evening faced with the 130 cartons of remaining books taking up the floor—and air—space of my designated library.  Although every carton was methodically labeled by category and numbered, e.g. “Fiction 29 (Wilder to Zola)” or “Theater 14 (M. Hart to Kerr),” I knew I would have to check and then dust  the spine, front and back cover, top and bottom, of every book I reverentially unpacked—in light of my lifelong romance, anything but a brush off—before setting it in its proper place on the shelf. 

It was predictable that I would impede my own progress.  Ah, here’s Moss Hart’s Act One!  The best show business autobiography ever written!  Now what was Hart’s memorable observation about it not being enough to be successful, you must also have the failure of your friends?   Jean regales our friends with my distractions: “He’ll take a book from a carton… examine it… slowly drift to the nearest chair… and start reading it!”  I know just where to find my rebuttal—via Ann Landers, in the “Quotations” section of one of my over-laden “Reference” shelves.  “No person who can read is ever successful at cleaning out an attic.”  That said, now I’m reading a book of quotations!  Truth to tell, mea culpa: perusing a few lines, letting a phrase catch my eye, I get lost in one book after another.  [NB (nota bene) re mea culpa: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has much to say about when it’s proper to use italics for foreign words or phrases.]

I came across books, pages parched and cracking, I still have from childhood.  Perused lines and passages I commented on, lightly, in the margins—didn’t we all?—relieved to find I never noted, “How true!

My timeworn copy of War and Peace!  Twice read, twice annotated, the first time, as a child under the covers, flashlight in hand, so my mother would rest assured I’d be rested for school in the morning.  A book I hope to read once more in my time.  Back to the shelves for a quote from Clifton Fadiman, “When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before.”  As an adult reading “over” the covers, the child still within me hungrily anticipates seeing more in me!

In my teens, I began reading authors, not stopping until I had read every book by many of them.  Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Mann.  Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck.  Eventually, Camus and Kafka. Burgess, Borges and Bellow.  Malamud and Roth.  Davies and Doctorow, Mailer and Morrison, Updike and le Carré, both Thomas and Tom Wolfe.  Still others.

“The Medicine Chest of the Soul” was the inscription over the door of the ancient, vanished Library at Thebes.  Coming from eight days in the hospital almost as many years ago, I craved—needed a fix of—fiction.  My prescription was Philip Roth, followed by more Roth.

Why fiction in such large doses?  And what about non-fiction?  I’ve barely scratched the surface, or, perhaps more appropriately in this instance, cracked the spine.

To be continued…