Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Life in Books

On a corner of Court Street in Cobble Hill, there is a used bookstore that is owned and run by a man who lurks on the threshold and looks like a trapper. His scraggly beard and distracted air give him the appearance of some mad Russian prophet out of Dostoevsky. He has the social graces and the bodily twitches of a hermit, but he knows every book in his store.

I've found some good things in his store. It's a corner store and so has ample space and the inside is divided and arranged in a labyrinth of aisles lined with a shelves and piles. I suspect that were one to climb to the storage space above one would find an endless stretch of shelves, appearing kaleidoscopically to the climber, honeycombed to infinity. His shelf system has long ago been strained to the breaking point by the new books that constantly arrive, dropped on the doorstep. Although perhaps "system" is too much to describe the canyons of books that have overflowed the shelves and drifted to the sides of the aisles. The walls are made of books.

I avoided the place at first -- though I love any bookstore -- because I resented the apparent disresepct with which the owner treated the books that came to him, the way they were heaped and handled. He would display them in front of the store on these old and rickety card tables, still in the boxes he found them in when they were abandoned on his doorstep. Sometimes he would put them outside even when it was drizzling. He also doesn't distinguish between yellowed paperbacks and books with cloth bindings. Instead he just piles them together indiscrimminately.

The piles always seem unprocessed, the ones outside anyway. They are arranged in no categories that I can tell. More like a permanent flea market than a book store really. Part of the reason for that, no doubt, is that most of the books he receives are donated from locals, from people trying to lighten their loads during a move, or from former graduate students who shed their books as quickly as they shed the unpleasantness of the graduate student life. No one person could have the time or energy to organize all these books. It would take 15 years or more.

But I did come to like the store and to respect certain things about the owner. For one, he sets his own hours. He's rarely open during the day and seems only to emerge around 4 or 5 and then stay open until, I don't know, I've seen him standing in front of the door as late as 10 or 11. He also closes during the peak months of summer for two months and then opens in mid September. This holiday being announced in a fine handwriting in black magic marker on a crumpled piece of paper hung in the dusty shielded window. That must be a great way to make a living. And whenever he's closed, when I walk by, I miss the store and the books inside.

I think I like buying books more than anything, almost more than reading them, though these are very different activities. Reading a book is to share an experience, not necessarily the experience portrayed in the book, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, but the experience of someone who has sat down and taken the time to shape their thoughts on the page. Collecting is a different kind of activity. I sometimes buy a book knowing that I probably will not read it, but always with the impulse that I might, in some unforeseen situation, need to. Buying books is for me a collector's activity. In collecting books we amass and store the experiences of others; it's a kind of recovery effort, a desperate search and rescue. I have very few books that are worth anything, except to me. And I guess in some ways what is true for me might very well be true of the owner of this local bookstore as well, whose role seems to be that of a collector, a wanton gatherer, a Maxwell's demon of text, a bibliophiliac.

I once bought in this store an old Modern Library collection of Russian short stories I found. Among these stories was one I first read many years ago called "The Bet," a story about an older Banker and a young Lawyer, who, at a party the Banker is giving, get into a heated discussion about the death penalty. The Banker feels that life imprisonment is less humane than the death penalty because the death penalty kills you instantly while life imprisonment draws the life out of you slowly. The Lawyer disagrees saying that "to live somehow is better than not to live at all." In order to "prove" their respective opinions they arrange this bet whereby the Banker stakes two million roubles that the Lawyer will be unable to stay in prison for 15 years. His "imprisonment" will occur in a lodge somewhere on the grounds of the Banker's estate, where he can be observed.

One of the stipulations is that the lawyer will be able to have all the books that he wants. We then see how the lawyer spends his 15 years in solitary confinement, and we witness his psychological ups and downs, as we see him either lying on his bed doing nothing, weeping, or, alternately, reading and learning with a fevered exuberance. He plans his time carefully and strategically in the first year, denying himself the pleasure of smoking, for example, so, he says "as not to despoil the air inside" his room. After 5 years, he shows signs of weakening, but then recovers in years 6 through 10, as his struggle with captivity continues.

Towards the end of his confinement he spends a good year reading nothing but the bible. Then in his final years he begins to order books haphazardly, randomly, books that seem to get opened and set aside, cross referenced, abandoned. All of this we guess by the way we see them scattered about on the table, the chairs, and the floor of the lodge, heaped and handled.

The Banker has been observing the lawyer over the years with growing concern, and is near frantic as the lawyer approaches the end of his term. Over the years the Banker has lost much of his fortune to gambling and speculation and paying this bet now will ruin him. Out of desperation, he decides that he must kill the lawyer. The night before the bet is up, he sneaks into the lodge to smother the man. As he is about to commit the deed, he sees a letter that the Lawyer has written (in a "fine hand") and decides to read it first.

The letter is a manifesto of disillusionment, as the Lawyer first regurgitates everything that he has read in the books that have been his sole companion over the years, and then repudiates both earthly happiness and wisdom as being fleeting and illusory. The letter is shocking both to the Banker and to us as we realize that we have never really known, even though we have followed his reading over the years, what has been going on in the lawyer's head. It is a letter of despair, in some ways more desperate in its tone and message than a suicide note. He ends by stating his intent to leave his prison just before the time is up and so renounce the bet and the money.

In response, the Banker weeps, returns the letter, and leaves the man alone and alive. The next morning when the guards announce that they saw the lawyer escaping over the garden wall, the Banker removes the letter from the desk before anyone can see it and locks it in a fireproof safe. Just as the Banker has been watching the Lawyer in his prison and communicating with him through notes through the small window made just for that purpose, so the Lawyer has been observing the world through the windows of books. Neither man makes any sense of what they see, as they are both cut off from life in ways they are not always aware of. I have always wondered why the Banker puts that letter in a fireproof safe at the end of the story. Wouldn't he want to trumpet the news of the Lawyer's renunciation of the bet to all the world?

But I guess this is a story not only of two strongly willed and foolish men, but about small spaces and windows in and out: it's about the room in which the lawyer is confined and in which he is observed by both us and by the Banker. The books he reads are windows onto the world he cannot touch, just as they are windows into the minds of others, though they are windows that can't ever be opened. "The Bet" is also about the small space of the human skull and how it both can and cannot be peered into by others, who seek to understand us through our words and through our actions. In the letter, after stating how much beauty he has read of in the books he ordered, the Lawyer says that he feels like all the wisdom in the world has been compressed into a small compass in his head, or as a better translation has it, a small lump at the base of his skull. That the Banker puts the letter, the one true window that we have into the Lawyer's mind, back into the enclosed space of a safe, is somehow appropriate and perhaps even part of the great power of this story. The letter is returned back into a confined space, hermetically sealed, closed off, it never gets released to the world. As if Pandora's box was being resealed forever. As if the world was not ready for such a bleak assessment. For his part, the Lawyer is seen by the watchmen climbing over the garden wall. He disappears and one wonders where he goes...

This local bookstore reminded me of this story for some reason, not only because it was there I bought this book. There the walls themselves are made of books, and it is owned and run by a man who is a mirror image physically of what I imagine the lawyer would look like, unkempt and raggedy, as if after 15 years of not minding himself; but who now comes and goes as he pleases, who can most often be seen slouching at the threshold with a cigarette, blowing the smoke outwards into the evening air, so, I guess, as not to despoil the air inside.

1 comment:

cutter said...

Bravo. Worth the read.

I know exactly the bookstore of which you're speaking. I am in the first phase of my relationship with that store. I dare not walk in yet. I've seen the man, noticed the hourse, the mess, and apparent carelessness. But I also see there is some sort of secret about that store. Perhaps it does have something to do with windows, worlds, and microcosms. One day, when I am strong enough, I will venture inside.