Not talking about war, illness, or old age. Not even talking about our callous disregard for those who we let starve. Much, much more mundane.
This is about cleaning my office, which, this time, includes deciding what books to keep and what to give away. I’m not a pack-rat, but I find letting go of books to be an painful task, despite not being much of a re-reader. As I mentioned in my last post, I didn’t even re-read my own books until forced to. Still, this is a job I’d avoid, but with a cellar that ruins everything that wanders near it, I have no choice. Ouch.
Some decisions are easy. Long before I began to write the Matt Jacob novels I spent years tracking down little known mystery authors like Bart Spicer, Brad Soloman, Max Byrd, and others. Loved ’em. Keepers. Also easy is the decision to cling to my role models–Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and James Crumley.
But what about the few one book knock-offs I own like Murder One by Dorothy Kilgallen? Or the mystery novels that Gore Vidal wrote under the pseudonym of Edgar Box? Or Earl Stanley Gardner’s A.A. Fair books? All tough calls because they were a bitch to find and were very different than what these authors usually wrote. The idea of owning them also amuses me.
Then there are the series that are good, but not great. I have a ton. Loren D. Estleman’s Amos Walker books come to mind. Is it enough that his stories take place in Detroit, Sue’s hometown which she feels deeply about? Those are in the “maybe” pile. The others, out the door.
All this angst despite my decision to stop reading mysteries once I began writing them. I didn’t want to unconsciously glom onto someone else’s work. What’s funny is that during all the years I was on writing hiatus, I still avoided reading them. Sometimes consciousness is the last stop of information. Somewhere inside I guess I knew that Matt Jacob was still alive.
The non-mystery shelves aren’t easy either. Charles Bukowski, Harry Crews, Doris Lessing, and Christopher Isherwood are safe. But do I want to go through another round of depression by revisiting Bernard Malamud, Phillip Roth, Saul Bellows, and John Updike? I doubt it, but I’m not sure I want to say goodbye to old friends either. Friends who kept me company throughout my own years of depression. Misery loved that company. And it might be tempting fate to say I had moved beyond them. Should I commit this act of faith?
Luckily not every shelf or decision involves this much self-examination. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is a brilliant book. His others-not so much. Keep the great, give away the rest. I’m extending this rule to other favorite authors: Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, John Le Carre. The clunkers are gently laid down instead of dropped in the giveaway pile as a tribute to their best work.
Where does this sifting end? The classics? Dime bags to expensive ounces, I won’t re-read Faulkner or Fitzgerald or even Hemingway. But can a modern writer really pitch the bulwarks of American literature? Especially after watching and loving a seven-hour play where the actors read and acted every line of The Great Gatsby? They stay, but it’s a close call.
Speaking of plays, what should I do with the bookcase full of them? Especially since a part of me has always been interested in writing for the theater. At the same time, I’m no spring chicken and Matt Jacob comes first, so really, what are the odds of me actually writing a play? Don’t bet rent, but they too are probably keepers.
I haven’t even mentioned nonfiction or modern fiction writers like Richard Russo and Richard Ford, but the point isn’t the decisions, as difficult as they may be. It’s really about the times of my life that each book or group of books represent–including my Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews.
It’s hard not to feel like I’m giving away a piece of myself with each book I box. I know that it isn’t really true–I am who I am, was who I was, and that can’t be donated to charity. But somehow each giveaway feels like one of those thousand cuts.
On another level, I find it passing strange to identify different aspects and eras of my life with inanimate objects. It’s a lot easier to understand the emergence of these feelings when people I care about move or pass away; this connection to things is less comprehensible though not surprising given our culture. At least there aren’t too many other objects that would raise similar feelings. My Bakelite radios, my saxophones, for sure. Definitely all the music I’ve collected–except the collections I bought during stoned stupers deep in the night for $19.95 plus shipping and handling. I really have no need for Yanni or Zamfir no matter how good they sounded at the time.
But one thing is absolutely certain. I’ll be hanging on to every single draft of all the Matt Jacob books no matter how much space they take or how few times I read them.