Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dirty Books

Books are filthy. I found that out some months ago when I volunteered to help re-shelve books as part of a renovation project at the Mercantile Library in Manhattan. The library, founded by merchants in 1820—before there was a public library system—has one of the biggest fiction holdings in the country. For decades the books were stored in cave-like stacks, arranged eccentrically by title and inaccessible to the library’s patrons. To get a book you had to fill out a slip and give it to the librarian who, with the desultory air of someone being asked to descend into the fifth circle of Dante’s Inferno, would abandon her front desk perch and plunge into the stacks, or get an intern to do it. The renovation will change all that, with the stacks accessible, well-lit, and arranged—with Melville Dewey’s blessing—by author.

Since discovering it years ago I’ve loved the Mercantile Library, known to its members simply as the Merc. It’s one of those rare oases in the heart of New York City, a book-lined refuge in that desert of commerce and noise known as midtown, just steps from the northern entrance to Grand Central Terminal. At first you can’t believe it’s there, the place is so quietly wedged among skyscrapers and other “monuments to men’s mysteries”—as Saul Bellow refers to them in the opening sentences of The Victim, his first novel. But even once you accept that the Merc is no mirage, still there’s that nagging suspicion that, like Billy Pilgrim, the hero of Slaughterhouse 5, it has come unstuck in time. Though the librarian has a computer on her desk, there are no other computers or machines of any kind to be found anywhere in the library, no copiers or microfilm viewers, no books on tape or videos or DVDs. Just good old-fashioned books and lots of silence to read them in.

So when asked to volunteer I didn’t hesitate. At the front door I was greeted by Brenda, the head librarian, a willowy blonde, who rode with me up the library’s creaky, slow elevator to the 4th floor. There I was introduced to Stacy, the intern, a compact, perky brunette, who handed me a pair of white surgical gloves along with my marching orders. My task: take down all books by authors with surnames starting with M through Z from the shelves, sort them, put them on a cart, trundle them up to the 5th floor, and re-shelve them.

It seemed easy enough at first. I chose a place among the stacks still groaning with novels arranged by the old system, with titles all beginning with E, and set to work, extracting books according to their author’s last names. In the beginning I restricted myself to M authors: Morris, Miller, McBain, Morgan, Maugham. . . But then I noticed there were a lot of S authors—Smith, Scanlon, Shaeffer, Solowitz—and pulled those down, too. And will you look at all those P’s (Peck, Porter, Platt, Patrick. . .) and R’s (Reilly, Roth, Reilly, Rhodes—there must be thousands of writers named Rhodes!) and W’s (Wallace, Winchell, West). . . My head started to spin. I kept moving books around, taking them from one shelf or pile and putting them in or on another without reason or rhyme. I kept trying to come up with a system, but no sooner would I devise one than I would break its rules. It was hot in the stacks. Somewhere an air conditioner thrummed, but it made very little difference. Drops of sweat fell from my nose. Meanwhile the books seemed to swirl around me, with the first letters of their author’s last names swirling with them, rising and sinking to the surface like letters in a bubbling cauldron of alphabet soup.

And then there was the dust. God were those books dusty! At first I couldn’t see it, the stacks were so dimly lit, but when I went to get a drink of water, I looked down at my surgical gloves and they were black, like I’d been shoveling coal. Some of those books hadn’t been taken from those shelves in decades. The oldest ones disintegrated as I took them down, having been held in one piece only by the books surrounding them. They turned to pale brown dust in my hands, their covers snapping to bits and fluttering to the floor, to join the rest of the brown covers turning to mulch there, like leaves on a forest floor.

Then there was the smell, that musty, nutty, mushroomy smell of dying old books, a smell that took me back to the summer of 1971, when I was thirteen years old, the summer I lost my literary virginity. I had been alphabetizing Mr. Boyd’s books. Mr. Boyd lived in a cedar-shingled house at the top of a wooded hill (this was in Connecticut, where there were lots of woods). Mr. Boyd couldn’t see his closest neighbor and liked it that way. Mr. Boyd was a misanthrope and a miser. He looked like Lee Marvin in Hell in the Pacific, but bald, with big ears that had clumps of white hair sprouting from them and a thick, slick-looking lower lip. Since the death of Sally, his wife and my mother’s best friend, Mr. Boyd become a self-elected member of our family, showing up uninvited for lunch and dinner and sometimes early in the morning, for breakfast. He would clomp around our kitchen with his yellow brogans coated with dried mud from one of the construction sites he owned, leaving trails of mini dirt bombs that our dog would eat. He’d drink my mother’s coffee, then complain that it was lukewarm and weak, and called my father “egocentric.” Still, I liked Mr. Boyd. I liked how he always whispered, so you had to lean close to hear him, and the way his big hands trembled when turning a screwdriver. He told funny stories about being in the Navy (my “egocentric” father never went to war) and about his morbid fear of water.

That summer, after I’d painted the trim on his cedar house and cleared his yard of fallen branches left by winter storms, Mr. Boyd asked me to rearrange the library he kept in his basement, in the same room where, on sweltering hot summer nights, he slept on an army cot to save on air conditioning. There were hundreds of books—Mr. Boyd was very well read. Most of them were cheap Signet paperbacks from the forties and fifties, their pages brown and brittle with age. In exchange for alphabetizing them Mr. Boyd said I could borrow any that interested me—an offer I greeted with little enthusiasm, since back then, unless they had pictures in them, my interest in books was nil.

In fact I was barely literate; sub-literate, I guess you could say. My parents were both from Italy. My mother’s English was poor. And since my father forbid her from speaking Italian to me or my brother, she never read to us. As for my father, a polymath inventor and certified genius, he was too busy writing books of his own—on physics, etymology, psychology, philosophy—to read any to his children. Except for my mother’s gialli (Italian pulp magazines), the books on our shelves all belonged to my father, and were mostly in French or German, his favorite languages. If it sounds like I’m trying to blame my parents for my sub-literacy, I’m not. I’m merely pointing out that, until that summer, books—at least those in the English language—had not been a part of my frame of reference. The only books I’d read were Mad paperbacks, and then I’d look at the cartoons and ignore the words.

When I rearranged the books in Mr. Boyd’s library that all changed. As the books fell apart in my hands I began to wonder about what was in them. That they were in such terrible shape only made them that much more intriguing to me. They were like bones, pottery shards and other relics at an archeological dig. The voices of all those decomposing books screamed to me, begging for one last pair of eyes to read them before they dissolved into dust. And I knew if I didn’t read them no one else ever would. For sure Mr. Boyd wouldn’t read them again. He hadn’t touched them in years, and kept them only for the same reason he kept old cars and newspapers and empty jars and scraps of Saran wrap and aluminum foil, because he was a miser and hated throwing things away.

And so, while sorting Mr. Boyd’s books, I would dip into those whose titles spoke to me. I dipped into The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Invisible Man and The Naked and the Dead. If the first few lines were any good, I’d read a bit more. If I got through the whole first page without my interest flagging, then I would lay the book down—carefully, like the body of an injured bird—on the striped blanket covering Mr. Boyd’s cot, next to the bodies of other books that held my interest, forming a sort of triage station of books on the emergency ward. At the end of each day I’d choose which patient to take home with me and “rescue.”

Though most of Mr. Boyd’s books were novels, there were some non-fiction titles too, like Two Cents Plain, by Harry Golden, and Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, and May This House be Safe From Tigers, by Alexander King. But mainly my interest was drawn to the novels. That first novel I took home was The Man with the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren. It’s about a heroin junkie named Frankie Machine, and takes place in Chicago. That night I sat up in bed and read the whole thing. It was the first grown-up novel I’d ever read from cover to cover and by my own volition. Some sentences I read two or three times, and not because I didn’t understand them, but because I wanted to savor them, to turn them over and over again and let them melt slowly, like butterscotch Lifesavers, on my tongue. I loved the way the paragraphs looked, packed tightly on those brown, brittle pages that fell away one by one from the book’s spine as I turned them. And I loved that smell, that damp, musty, fusty smell, which I equated with the slums of Chicago, circa 1947, with sagging tenements and whores with heart-shaped face. By the time I put the book on Mr. Boyd’s shelf, between James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Saul Bellow’s The Victim, there was practically nothing left of it.

Though I worked every Sunday afternoon, still, it took me more than half that summer to rearrange Mr. Boyd’s books. For every minute that I spent alphabetizing, I spent three minutes reading. Mr. Boyd didn’t seem to mind. Every so often he’d look in on me, dressed in the greasy coveralls he wore to repair his old cars. Catching me sitting on the edge of his cot, turning the pages of a book, he’d throw me a smirk, his fat lower lip crawling and glistening up one side of his face like a banana slug. I read A Face in the Crowd, by Budd Schulberg, Lilith, by J R. Salamanca, The Grass Harp, by Truman Capote, and Intimacy, by Jean Paul Sartre. I read The Big Sky and The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice. To read novels was to run far away from home, to hop freight trains and shoot heroin and murder husbands and fall in love with dark angels; it was assaulting a Japanese-held island during World War II and stumbling around in a drunken stupor on dimly lit, rain-drenched streets—all while snuggled safely under the sheets of your bed with the lamp burning and the ceiling fan thrumming away in its louvered nest at the top of the stairs, with curtains blowing and crickets singing outside.

One day, while sorting Mr. Boyd’s books, I came across one with a mauve cover showing an old-fashioned engraving of a man in a top hat with a bushy neat mustache and holding a smoldering fat cigarette or thin cigar—I couldn’t tell which. The book was called My Secret Life, and its author was somebody named Anonymous whom I took to be the man on the cover. According to the back cover copy, the book (which was at least two inches thick) contained “the anonymous confessions of a wealthy Victorian who lived for sex alone.” Furthermore, it was “complete and unexpurgated”­—a phrase that would soon enter the pantheon of titillating words and phrases that, slowly over the past year or two, had been creeping into my vocabulary. For reasons having little to do with literature, this book, which I took home that night (not the way I took home the other books, but furtively, under my jacket) quickly became a favorite. As soon as I got it home I hid it—first in a dresser drawer, underneath a pile of winter sweaters, and then--realizing that my mother might find there--against the wall behind a trunk in the attic, which was where my mother locked me and my brother sometimes when we misbehaved, and which a door next to my bed lead to.

For two or three weeks, whenever the opportunity presented itself, I’d get the book out of hiding, carry it with me deep up into the woods behind our house, to the Cave—a deep crevice formed by the glacial tumble of rocks during the ice age. The entrance was just large enough for a pubescent boy to squeeze into, but— unless you knew exactly where to look—too small to see. From the beer and soda bottles and campfire ashes on the floor, and the graffiti on the walls and ceiling, it was obvious that other boys knew about the cave. Yet the odds of anyone coming around while I was there were extremely small. I brought a flashlight, matches and birthday candles with me, and lit them one by one to see the pages by as I tunneled my way through My Secret Life, digging for the smutty parts—and there were quite a few, the book being a Sears & Roebuck catalogue of every imaginable (and, to this thirteen year-old, every unimaginable) type of sex, but without the pictures.

And though the book was by all means “unexpurgated,” once the novelty of printed four-letter words wore off I actually came to the parts that were left more to my imagination, where things weren’t stated so much as implied or inferred, which only made things more intriguing, imbuing every perfectly turned euphemism with the delectably foul air of smut—even when it had nothing to do with sex.

For two weeks, by candlelight, in that clammy crevice, I read all 2,000-plus pages of My Secret Life, dog-earing the passages I found most stimulating for future reference. One passage in particular earned so much of my attention it finally broke free of the spine, surrendering itself into my hot, greedy hands. All I remember is that it involved our mustachioed Victorian (Walter, his name was) with two “gay women” and a drunken sailor, and that the scene culminated with one of the ladies, who was German, yelling, “Nicht gut! Nicht gut!”

Eventually, fearing that Mr. Boyd might note its absence, I put My Secret Life back on his shelf and kept only that one page, a sexual talisman. I folded and tucked it between the pages of one of my Mad paperbacks, among its movie satires and Don Martin cartoons. Seized with a sudden lust for Victorian literature, I’d sneak off and read the passage one more time, until finally the sweat from my excited fingers ate through the page. It didn’t matter; by then I’d memorized every word. But even if I hadn’t it wouldn’t have mattered, since by then just the smell of an old book, any old book, was enough to set my imagination aflame. That musty, mushroomy smell of rotting words had become inexorably linked in my mind with the forbidden splendors of my sexual fantasies. I had only to smell that smell, and to whisper the words “randy,” “lewd” or “spent” (a word which, in its new context, had nothing do to with money) to myself to be aroused.

Summer came to an end, and with it my working for Mr. Boyd. September brought school and other pursuits, including a new improved interest in girls. Almost as soon as I’d started reading them, except for school I stopped reading books. I returned to being a sub-literate pubescent boy, only now I was a horny, sub-literate pubescent boy. Forced to read a novel, I would do so, but with no fervor, no longing. Something had gone away from the experience that would never come back again. That first rush of voluntary reading had been like losing my virginity, something you can only do once and on your own, with no one supervising or protecting you. As I went on sorting books at the Mercantile Library, smelling their smutty, nutty mustiness, I realized that it wasn’t the smuttiness of My Secret Life that had been such a turn-on; it wasn’t anything forbidden about those books I read that summer. It wasn’t even their perfume that had excited me so. It was the mere fact of spending time alone with the words of all those complete strangers, in worlds that they had created for me alone—or so it had seemed. It was the sublime interlocking of reader and writer that in its way had been as intimate as any sexual coupling. I had loved those books in every sense of that word, with the sort of devotional love only a pubescent boy can feel toward an older, more experience persons who initiates him into the ways of the world. Those crumbling old books had been my secret lovers. That I discovered and embraced them while I was discovering and embracing my own sexuality made for a heady summer indeed, a summer that comes back to me whenever I breathe in the smutty air of dirty old books.

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