Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Curse of a Small Wallet and Big Intellectual Aspirations

I live very close to three really great used and new bookstores, and one small but substantial university press bookstore. I've lived here, oh, 11 days, and I've bought books at almost every one of them.

This is a good habit, but very bad for my wallet. It's particularly bad because I want to read and learn everything, but I cannot buy everything. My intellectual appetite is bigger than my wallet. My music/movie appetite is bigger too, yet I rarely buy CDs or DVDs (and no, I don't get the stuff illegally). Yet, not owning a lot of CDs or movies doesn't bother me. But not owning a lot of books does. I wish I had more books. I wish I could afford more books. I wish I had the time to read the books I already have.

Did I mention how poor I am? Did I mention how much I am paying in rent, and how much I am paying in tuition? I am not going to eat out for the rest of the month. This is what happens when you prioritize feeding the mind more than the stomach.

So I've taken this guy's advice to heart, and then some. I shipped myself a few dozen novels and poetry collections. And I recently bought about eight more. Who can pass up Paul Auster's New York Trilogy for $9, or W.H. Auden for $3?

Books I've bought in the past few days:

Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer, eds. Nancy Levit and Robert Verchick. (I like anthologies to mine the table of contents and the "suggested further reading"--and in this case, the actual edited pieces aren't bad. They offer a nice, not overly redacted or simplified introduction to some key concepts.)

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (dont' know why I've never read this one....)

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie (last time I read it, I was 10, and it's just as thrilling now)

Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (one of those growing up poor and Jewish in Brooklyn in the early 1900s books. I haven't read it since I was 13, am very excited to re-read)

100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings (I left a lot of poetry at home, bringing up only Eliot, Rilke, Virgil, and Roethke, and it's embarassing that I don't own cummings)

The Selected Poetry of W.H. Auden (again, how is it that I do not own this, yet I own the Collected Poems of James Wright, Hart Crane, and Robert Frost?)

Being Here, Poetry 1977-1980 by Robert Penn Warren (fantastic)

The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James (I left other Henry James books at home, it seems embarassing not to have him on my shelf--how could I forget to pack that? How is it that I never read this one? Probably explains why I never saw the movie either--I never watch the movie until I read the book, which is why it took me 10 years to read/watch The Remains of the Day)

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (there are certain writers, like Phillip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, Ian MacEwan, and Jose Saramago, whose work I am just now beginning to read--and Paul Auster is one such writer. I can't explain my lateness, my willful ignorance, or whatever--just glad to start to make some remedies. Someday I'll get to Proust).

This is why when I go for walks, I rarely bring my wallet. My meandering daily constitutionals invariably take me past one of the 4 bookstores, and I'm always tempted to duck in--just for a minute--and end up with a bag of books. A bag of books I may or may not end up reading. A bag of books that will probably eventually find their way to my parent's house, which houses most of my library.

I don't have a huge number of books. Maybe a few hundred, tops. I borrow from libraries a lot, and I just don't buy as much as I want to--mainly for lack of funds, although that may change with access to used bookstores and my willingness to forgo lunch for brain food. I have more books than some, having been an English major who didn't sell back her books (not even that Medieval and Renaissance lit stuff!). I scour library sales and used bookstores when I can, although living in Orange County (where there are relatively few used bookstores) and being unadventurous in Bourgie Metrosexual City (were there used bookstores? I didn't see any in my Bourgie neighborhood) depressed my book collecting for a while. I know people who have several hundred, if not thousands of books. I wish I had that many, even though I know they'd all just be stored in my parent's house. I don't think we bibliophiles collect just to show off. I think we just like books, and being surrounded by them. We dream of having separate libraries one day. We store our books in our parent's houses until they can rejoin us in a wall-to-wall shelved room.

I don't collect books to show off, although it won't take much pushing to get me to show you my old T.S. Eliot (safely housed in Orange County, alas). But The Wise Man has this to say about why you like to have certain books around you:

I also agree that buying books merely to appear to have read them, or to appear to be the kind of person who might one day read them, is unseemly. [But understandable; before we went to college, I deliberated for several hours with co-conspirator Matt Hengeveld about what books we should take to our respective institutions. We definitely thought about what books it was important to have for signalling purposes-- The Fountainhead, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, &c.-- but we were using books to signal our genuine tastes, not to project false pretenses.]

Of course, The Wise Man has much more to say about why he is a book-hoarder (something about "rapid-fire and obscure quotation," writing, the ordering of thoughts...). All very good reasons, I have the same mental reflexes. I was cursing myself for not bringing my Hannah Arendt, thinking I wanted to find some quote in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But I want to consider, for the moment, the idea of "signalling."

What did/do I want to signal when I brought up/shipped my small, but select library? Well, I wanted it to be clear that I was a critical race theorist, or at least had some training in the area. So I've brought up some major anthologies, but I left behind some smaller works by Derrick Bell (and all of the Delgado actually). If it's not truly useful, either to my work or my spiritual benefit, I didn't bring it. I wanted to bring up some of my critical theory anthologies, but again, I wondered how much of it I would use--and was I merely wanting to bring my Adams/Searle "Critical Theory Since 1965" to show off that I was a former critical theory nerd who has read Derrida and Foucault? It goes to my insecurity over abandoning English literature--I always feel sensitive about that, and I almost go out of my way to demonstrate my English lit nerd street cred. I dont' know why, being a law nerd is nerd enough--but still, I feel like I have to lay claim to my former high-falutin theory days, when I couldnt' even tie theory to law and praxis, and when it really was just the useless pondering of abstract ideas. Those were the days.

I always bring some political theory with me, yes, to signal that I too, know jurisprudence. Oddly enough, I left my Locke and Rousseau at home. But I always bring my H.LA. Hart, Lon Fuller, and Ronald Dworkin. And I really want to start reading Joseph Raz. Again, back to my inferiority complex--it will always bother me that I didn't go to political science graduate school (I couldnt' decide between poli sci or English, so I went to law school). It will always bother me that I didn't take political philosophy and theory more seriously. So I have a few books just to show that I at least know a little bit. Not much. But a little.

And with respect to fiction, I honestly have such varied tastes that I don't know what I signal to others. Being a lapsed Objectivist who won an Ayn Rand essay contest at 14 and turned in her Objectivist society membership at 16 (sorry, Wise Man), Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged are buried deep in storage somewhere in my family's house. But displayed in prominence in travelling bookshelf are Flannery O'Connor (signals dark humor and bitter realism), Oscar Wilde (wit and delight), Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Faulkner, and Willa Cather--among many others.

I don't know what that says about me. I just like those books. I like things that are bitter and dark, that are funny and whimsical, or heartbreakingly romantic.

Bibilophiles are a hopelessly romantic breed. We like things that we can touch and turn and revisit in the middle of the night. We believe that one day, we will read all of our books. And if you are like me, you even lent a boy (or girl) you liked a stack of books that meant something to you, and since the boy (who you now dislike) never gave them back, you've spent the years since college trying to remember which books you gave him and trying to re-purchase those lost books. That is the ultimate love, to share something you love with another, or to give him or her something from your collection. It's like the more erudite version of requesting a song on a radio. Instead of "I'd like to request Journey's Open Arms to show my girl how I feel about her" (ewww), you say, very nakedly, "I liked this book a lot--and I hope you like it (and I hope you like me)." Coded in that is "I hope you think of me when you read it. I hope you love it as much as I do, because I cannot love someone who does not love this book." Hey, we are a romantic breed.

It is very brave giving someone a book that means something to you--how will they respond? Will they love it as much as you did? If they hate it, does it mean that the relationship is doomed, and that either something is wrong with them, or maybe something is wrong with you? And what if you buy someone something wildly romantic, like the poetry of e.e. cummings (remember Hannah and Her Sisters?) or Pablo Neruda? Is it too much? Should one start off light and lacking in symbolism for the first book purchase? David Sedaris rather than A.S. Byatt? Nix the overly romantic, the too depressing, and the just plain dark and dysfunctional? (So, no to Andre Dubus as a first book present.)

I recently bought a book for a man. It's not romantic. It's not even serious. There is no symbolism, and there are no characters who can represent us (if a man ever says he wants to be Heathcliff to my Catherine, I'll turn my heels and run for the door), because it's not even fiction. It's a safe choice, but still, potentially coded in the present is "I liked this book a lot, and I hope you like it too (and I hope you like me), and if you don't like it, something may be seriously wrong." But maybe it's just a present from one nerd, one bibliophile to another. (I hope he likes it.)