Excerpted from The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, published this month and co-edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee, of The Millions.
When I was 24 I attended a party thrown by one of the most fabulous students in my writing program. The apartment was on the Upper East Side, and I was living out at the ass-end of Queens; I’d moved back home with my family to save money during grad school. I traveled all that way to the party because I wanted to sleep with this woman, the host. That was never actually going to happen, I understood this even then, but I’m kind of a stubborn bastard so I decided to try anyway. The worst that would happen was that she’d say no, and I could live with that.
So I reached the place and one thought occurred to me as soon as I stepped inside: How does a graduate student afford a place like this? A two-bedroom apartment somewhere in the east nineties cost more than a little something, whether rented or owned. And this wasn’t some run-down spot. Exposed brick walls in the living room, a small kitchen appointed with every gadget one might need to prepare dinner for a diplomat. Two bedrooms. A bathroom with separate shower and tub. When I stepped inside I tried to guess how I should act in such an environment. I thought back on all my experiences with the moneyed classes. This had consisted mostly of repeated viewings of Trading Places over the years. Unfortunately, I felt pretty sure I wasn’t playing the Eddie Murphy role. Maybe I was that waiter who got a bad tip from the Duke brothers.
I’m being silly, of course. No one treated me like a servant. Everyone was cool with me. I had lots of friends in the place. The distinction that mattered most that night had to do with our genres. (A ridiculous sentence to have to type, I agree.) The poets floated with the poets, the fiction writers huddled together in clumps, the non-fiction writers commandeered the kitchen. And I did my best to snag a little time with the woman I’d come to see, but she didn’t have much time to give. She was our host, and she enjoyed the role. She was good at it, too. Somehow, she was always the person who greeted each new guest at the door. If she had to sprint from the bathroom, hurdle over ten novelists in a single bound, she would do it just to be sure that her grin was the first one you saw. But as soon as you walked in the door, got your kiss and hug, the lady got gone.
I heard her voice more often than I saw her face. I’d stroll into the kitchen because I’d heard her discussing some current events with the non-fiction writers, but no sooner had I arrived than she’d moved on to the poets, and she stood with them whispering mystically. No sooner had I maneuvered around to the poets than she’d flitted on to the fiction writers who were all grumbling about something, how they’d been overlooked, short-changed, or cheated. And I was left standing there with the poets, who weren’t exactly unfriendly; they were very tolerant of my presence, but as soon as I left the group they returned to guzzling cocktails while they gently flapped their vellum-thin wings. And by the time I reached the fiction writers? New guests were at the door, enjoying her attentions.
I was stunned that this person I liked, and respected as a writer, would treat her books this way. As if the objects themselves were, somehow, as valuable as the words and ideas they contained.This went on all night. It wasn’t that she was giving me the brush-off, I felt confident—even then—that she enjoyed my company just fine. But just. Plus her boyfriend was at the party. He wasn’t a writer. I don’t know what he did. I remember he spoke some European language fluently. He wore open-toed sandals—a grown man!—but still managed to seem elegant. I had to give him points for that.
By the end of the evening I’d figured out that she and I were not to be. And once I’d stopped acting goony over her, I was able to enjoy the party. These guests were friends of mine, and living two hours away from upper Manhattan meant that I never saw them outside of classes. So why not enjoy this night? Soon enough I’d found a nice place right near the bookshelves in the living room; they ran the length of a whole wall. All hardcovers.
In my home, growing up, we’d had one tiny bookshelf that carried the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica series. That was our “library.” And we only had those because my mother had been convinced by a fifth grade teacher that my sister and I would need them for book reports. Which had been true. I’d copy entries verbatim, show my completed homework to my mother, and then I was free to go outside all evening and play.
The books that I called my own, since I was a bookish kid by nature, were cheap paperbacks that rarely survived for more than a few weeks. I’d read them in bed and crush pages in my sleep or just lose them somewhere between school and home. If I got bored in class I’d doodle faces in the margins, or tear off a back cover so I could write a note to one of my boys on the blank space inside. I loved to read, but books were disposable. So to see all these hardbacks together, running in rows along the living room wall, well, I was more impressed by this than by the apartment. They made up one fine looking library.
And, suddenly, here she was; my host. She’d seen me pawing at her books and just had to come over. We spent the next ten minutes picking one book or another off the shelf. If anyone new arrived at the door it seemed like she ignored them. She just had to show me this one, both for the cover design and to see if I’d read the author. Then on to the next. Just plucking them down and leafing through the pages, admiring the sentences or the sans-serif.
She pulled down a book by William Vollmann. Butterfly Stories. I’d read Whores for Gloria and An Afghanistan Picture Show and felt like devouring more. She put the book in my hand and I read the first sentence of Vollmann’s brief introduction to the novel. “In case any of you readers happens to be a member of the Public, that mysterious organization that rules the world through shadowterrors...” Good enough for me!
I shut the book. “Can I borrow this?”
She smiled and put her hand on my shoulder—so nice!—and said, “No.”
I almost dropped the book. It bobbled between my hands so she grabbed it from me and slipped it back onto the shelf, right where it had been before.
“I don’t lend my books out,” she said. “I can’t. They always used to come back, if they came back, with stains or bent pages, or even someone’s little ink stains in the margins! I decided, years ago, that I would never let them out of my sight again. I’m sorry.”
Poof, that was it. She left for the kitchen or the front door or the moon. And I stood there for minutes. Actual minutes. Waiting for her to return, laugh, slip the book off the shelf and hand it to me. But she never did. My disappointment burned my face, like shame, but it wasn’t just the rejection. I was also stunned that this person I liked, and respected as a writer, would treat her books this way. As if the objects themselves were, somehow, as valuable as the words and ideas they contained.
My wife and I live in a two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. We’ve turned the back room into a den for us and an office for me. She uses a portion of our living room as her office space. We keep all our books in the back, where I work. Right now we’ve got a few very tall bookshelves and they’re jammed with paperbacks and hardcovers. Not as neatly lined up as the ones in that East Side apartment, but I’m always happy when I walk into the room and see them there.
If you pull down the books that are mine, meaning the ones I brought with me from my single life, you can open more than half and find handwritten notes, sometimes whole paragraphs, scribbled on the end pages, or in the margins of the text. I’ve got a copy of Butterfly Stories, in hardcover, and when I opened the back cover while working on this essay I found one word written at the bottom of the very last page of the story. I wrote, “Yikes!”
If you’ve got an original copy of William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job, please don’t write in the margins.Other books offer (slightly) more scintillating commentary. In them you’ll find lines that are trial runs for stuff in my own fiction. Something in a certain book just smacked me with inspiration and I needed to write an idea down. Why not right there in the book I’m holding? Because I do this so regularly, a vast number of my books are unsellable, but they sure are valuable to me.
So when people discuss the future of the book, how readers and writers and editors and bookstores might actually make peace with the electronic book (and maybe even embrace it), I tend to think of my little notes. Can I underscore some text on an electronic reader? Or write a note to myself after reading something invigorating in Toni Cade Bambara? Right now, from all the reports, the answer is yes, but the effects are dodgy. I can’t imagine that’ll last long.
When earlier e-readers came out, I felt underwhelmed mostly because the pages all looked like dot-matrix print. But in just a few years they’ve managed to render a fairly stylized looking “page.” How much longer before a reader can use her finger to highlight a passage reliably, or pull up a little keyboard display that allows her to insert her sudden revelation right alongside Barry Hannah’s prose? She could hide or show these comments like when using “track changes” in Word.
And once those possibilities seem imminent, it becomes easy to imagine even greater power in the reader’s hands. Eventually, maybe even the ability to revise the text as the reader sees fit. Why not? I’m guessing this sounds damn near blasphemous to some folks, but a master file, the original novel, could always remain. I could just make a copy and tinker. Honestly, how would my removing all Levin’s farming scenes from Anna Karenina do any harm to Tolstoy? Leo’s ghost won’t rise and take revenge! The only one who’d be altered by this act is me. And maybe my destructive act would actually serve to educate. I never appreciate how expertly a machine works until I’ve taken it apart. The best future I can imagine for the novel is one where the book is cherished a little less. The two aren’t the same thing, after all.
Now let me be clear: If you’ve got an original copy of William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job, please don’t write in the margins and please don’t think any e-book is going to compare. But, let’s be honest, you don’t have that shit. (If you do, let me hold it for a minute?) Most of the books on your bookshelves might be beautifully designed, and not exactly cheap, but they’re no more divine than a toaster. They are mass-produced items, sold in (occasionally) mass quantities. So what, exactly, makes them so dear?
It’s not the book, but the idea of the book. Some man or woman spent weeks or months or years or a lifetime bleeding on the page! Now you hold that essence in your hands! And other melodramatic nonsense. It all strikes me as a pretty Old Testament way of thinking. Treating a book like a pair of stone tablets. A series of commandments, inviolable, handed down by a deity. (Though, let’s clarify something folks, writers ain’t Yahweh.) I think we writers like it when books are treated this way because we get to enjoy the reflected glory, even if it’s just at modestly attended conferences. Very few of us are ever going to get wealthy from this stuff, so we might as well be honored, right?
But I have to admit, I’m more of a New Testament guy. I’m thinking here of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Four books that, many scholars agree, were written, rewritten, and then edited long after the events they narrate took place. And those stories were told and retold, reshaped, for decades before any of it was written down definitively. Would this be such a terrible fate for the book? I don’t think so. The greatest gift the electronic age could bestow upon the novel is to keep it sacred, not sacrosanct.