A Conversation of Books (or should it be Glut, Hoard or Cascade)?
What do you call a bunch of books? Collection, shelf, stack, set, library, catalogue, repository, archive?
For the answer, I turned to An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition (Penguin, 1991) by the late writer-actor-host of Inside The Actor’s Studio, James Lipton. In three editions published over 22 years, Lipton researched, collected and created more than 1,000 collective nouns, many codified into the English language in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such as flock of sheep, school of fish, murder of crows and gaggle of geese. He also came up with his own late twentieth-century collective nouns, such as an action of film directors, sprawl of malls, wheeze of joggers and pan of food critics.
But although Lipton included spread of pages, galley of type, browse of readers, providence of publishers and (one of my favourites) prescience of science fiction writers, he gave no collective noun for ‘books’. The index to An Exaltation of Larks flits from a bale of bondsmen to a bellow of boomboxes -– leaving me with a shortfall of suggestions to describe the more than 2,000 books that my husband Ron Edding and I have been dragging behind us throughout our lifetimes, like ships looking for somewhere to drop anchor. Our books have moved with us from childhood bedrooms to student housing, singledom to parenthood, city to city (eight, by my count), illegal loft to subterranean basement flat, friends’ spare couches to communal houses to mortgaged-to-hilt fixer-uppers. Many are stuffed with what archivists call ‘ephemera’ – scribbled grocery lists, love notes, sketches, postcards, baseball tickets. A few were picked up in our travels, or crossed oceans with us, or seem to have dropped into our lives from another dimension. Publication dates range from more than a hundred years ago to just last week. Some of the oldest are in good-to-excellent condition but many of our late-twentieth and early twenty-first century books look like they’ve been through the Timex torture test.
Okay, yes: it’s a library, of a sort, stuffed into eight groaning pressboard BILLY bookshelves from IKEA and one sturdy pine bookcase that Ron and I proudly purchased together as twenty-somethings on Toronto’s Queen Street West, when that neighbourhood was still arty and cheap. But the word ‘library’ implies a Master Plan like the Dewey Decimal System. Same issue with set and catalogue –– the words want to organize the books into a logical relationship with one another, rather than allowing a dog-eared paperback copy of Malcolm Lowry’s inebriated masterpiece Under The Volcano to slump boozily against the hardbound shoulder of Bright’s Old English Reader and Grammar, Third Edition –– a university textbook that still intrigues me with its archaic alphabet and translations of sermons about Viking sackings and epic poems about armies trash-talking each other across Anglo-Saxon battlefields.
Shelf, wall, case and stack are better descriptors of methods of storing books than the books themselves. Pile of books hints at a painful case of literary hemorrhoids. Although reading does involve plenty of sitting–– perhaps it should be a bum of books? Or a cushion of books? I kind of like a glute of books – which sounds pleasingly like glut (true in our case).
The ____ of books in question includes art catalogues, biographies, novels, memoirs, histories (especially of the two World Wars, the Holocaust and ancient Rome), theatre books, comic books, books about comic books, Canadiana, Judaica, poetry, children’s books, plays, scripts by David Fennario, Sharon Pollock and the Monty Python troupe, English, Russian, German, French, Italian and Spanish dictionaries, books about cities (heavy on New York, London, Toronto, Montreal, Niagara Falls and Rome), and books about animals, astronomy, philosophy, theatre, the Marx Brothers, Sylvia Plath, ship building, movie making, sewer systems, birds, robots, fast food, slow food, cocktails, artificial intelligence, demonic possession, Andy Warhol, self-driving cars, slang, bootlegging, the American financial system, several Canadian prime ministers, SCTV, eight leather-bound volumes of my father’s International Correspondence School course for electricians from the 1930s, the making of The Wizard of Oz (with an introduction by Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West) and The Complete Self Educator which promises to teach you everything you need to know about everything worth knowing in under three hundred pages (another of my father’s self-improvement books from the thirties).
Most of our books were written or translated into English, but some are in Russian, Italian or German. Some are stickered with ludicrously low price tags from long-extinct bookstores; others are gifts inscribed to one of us by a parent or child or friend or (former) lover or each other; others were borrowed-and-never-returned from people who’ve disappeared from our lives, or who we’ve been unable to visit because of lockdowns.
I suppose you could call the books a jumble or cascade or hoard or profusion or loot (given the number of stolen and never-returned books) but over the last year and half of pandemic lockdowns, those 2,000-ish books ended up being something else for Ron and me.
What’s the provenance of the book? Which one of us bought/stole/borrowed it, and when? Or was it left behind by one of our kids? Is there still an outstanding library fine? What condition is it in? Who was the publisher? What was publication year (with the sub-question for older books: can you read Roman numerals?) Is anything incriminating stuck between the pages? Did you read it and would you read it again? Do you think it’s rare? Should we keep it, or donate it to a Little Library, recycle it or return to its rightful owner (if whereabouts known), post-pandemic?
During Toronto’s rollercoaster of lockdowns (March 2020 to sometime-in-the-we-hope-not-distant future) the conversation of books became our Covid19 project. A solitary way to pass time, when time felt like it had stopped passing. To get reacquainted with our former selves. To meet the future with slightly emptier book shelves. During the pandemic, some people baked sourdough or did jigsaw puzzles or sang sea shanties or took up backyard chicken farming or skipped rope in their driveways. Ron and I pulled books off shelves, blew off the dust, read inscriptions, examined ephemera, recorded details in a notebook (not sure why), and talked about them one by one.
To date, our conversation has covered about three hundred books. That’s taken us about a year. I estimate we’ve got another 1,800 books to go –– but it could be more. To misquote a famous phrase from “Jaws”, we’re going to need a longer pandemic.
I write that not only as an author of four (about to be five) books and a collaborator with Ron on three (about to be four) graphic novels in less than ten years, but as a book lover married to a book lover. At some point, Ron and I crossed the line from book lovers to book collectors, maybe even book hoarders.
And by ‘book’ I mean old school, tree killing, printed and bound books that everyone was predicting the death of back around the introduction of the Kindle. Not that we have anything against eBooks. Both Ron and I have managed to hoard quite a few of those too. And yeah, they’re handy – or used to be, back in the before times, when having the latest Louise Erdrich or Stephen King or Eden Robinson or Ian Rankin or Emily St John Mandel or Jo Walton novel on our phones made subway rides whizz by. Now that we don’t go anywhere, their only purpose is to allow us to read in the dark.
But I prefer print. I find paper easier on the eyes and prefer to read without the distraction of incoming texts and emails. And like books as objects. The touch of the paper. The turn of the page. The slightly unhygienic scent of a book that’s been wine- or coffee-stained, or soaked in a basement flood. The cover art. The deer-in-headlights headshot of the author.
Sometimes there are author signatures, often with personal messages –– Ron and I know a lot of authors, and go to a lot of readings and book launches, so many of the books came to us directly form their creators...or did, before readings all went virtual. (Oh, how we look forward to attending an in-person poetry reading at a funky downtown Toronto bar! But I digress.)
Even more delightfully, we find things stuck inside in real books. Ephemera, as previously mentioned. Shopping lists, postcards, letters, ticket stubs, playbills, bookmarks from long forgotten bookshops. –– adding an extra layer of meaning to the book. Taking us back to a moment we’d forgotten.
Which is how the conversation of books got started. Two book lovers with a lifetime of book collecting both together and separately. We’ve made discoveries, especially about which books endure – the ones that, for whatever reason, we’ve chosen to keep year after year. Where they’ll eventually end up when we’re gone –– who knows?
Is the conversation of books a non-fungible asset, perhaps? Or a lifelong work of art? Or a sort of autobiography in books? For now, it’s enough that they still speak to us, and give us something to talk about during this long, strange isolation.
We’ve talked about the art books Ron poured over as a teenager while eating his breakfast cereal. My longstanding affection for the Marx Brothers and Sylvia Plath. His deep interest in Judaica, Holocaust literature, Russian history and literature, and World War II.
But not every book can be part of the final conversation (if ‘final’ is even a word you can apply since we’re still collecting). The only rule is that we can’t stop the conversation on any given evening without giving up two books, either to a Little Library or (if in very bad shape or unreadable for some other reason) the recycling bin. Sometimes the process happens quickly, while on other evenings it can take hours to agree on a couple of titles to remove.
It’s a process as haphazard as life itself. Like in the movie “High Fidelity”, when obsessive vinyl record collector, Dick, asks obsessive vinyl collector, Rob, whether he’s reorganizing his records alphabetically or chronologically, and Rob answers ‘autobiographically’. To which Dick responds, “No fucking way.”
Going forward, I’m going to blog about some of the unexpected themes we’ve discovered in our conversation of books – one of them being literary theft. I don’t mean the books we’ve stolen, but books about stolen books or stories. Our conversation of books includes a great many of those, both novels and non-fiction. They fall into the category of a book about a stolen book. Which, interestingly, is something I explore in my upcoming novel The Sisters Sputnik: a book containing a long-forgotten comic strip, stolen by a time traveller, which changes the course of history in this and other worlds.
More on the topic of stolen stories, soon.