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…


  1. Ray's old office in the picture was one of the great sanctuaries ever... between the books & the view, wow! I loved seeing Ray there. But, you'll notice that there was nowhere for a visitor to sit - the lone other chair was always piled with books. This was a room for Ray to think... and that luckily goes with him to whatever room he inhabits.

  2. If a man's home is his castle, your library was a learned man's harem.

  3. Ray,

    From a Charlie Brown Cartoon:

    "In the Book of Life, the answers are not in the back of the book!"

    Keep reading and writing, my friend.

    Looking forward to the continuation of this Blog--