Obsession: Books, or, Poetry Finds Me

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In another life books framed my days. I slept with them, dreamt about them, woke to their presence stacked by the bed and in various corners throughout the house, read them, handled them, discussed their merits with friends, co-workers, beer-drinking buddies, bartenders, customers, strangers, relatives, and even enemies. Traced my fingers slowly down their spines, identified some by odor alone, others by weight and feel. Bought, sold, cleaned, lent, skimmed, traded, gave, borrowed, collected, repaired, preserved, received. Traveled to acquire more, returned home to find still others languishing in never-opened, partially read or barely touched states. There were always too many. There were never enough.

The relationship began innocently. I’ve been an avid reader since the age of five, and over the years developed a knack for uncovering uncommon modern first editions. I’d walk into a thrift shop and spot a copy of William Kennedy’s first novel, The Ink Truck, snuggling up to Jane Fonda’s workout book, for a buck. Or at a small town antique store, something especially nice, perhaps a near-fine first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark, would leer at me from a dark shelf – $1.50. John Berryman’s Poems (New Directions, 1942) found me at a garage sale, for a quarter. Good Will yielded Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There were others, of course. Many others.

I partnered with a few like-minded friends and opened a store, and when that didn’t work out, started my own home-based book business, which eventually expanded into a small brick-and-mortar shop, a true labor of love. And I mean labor. The forlorn space we rented was cheap and had housed for years a low-end, illicit massage parlor. Cleaning it out was, oh, shall we say interesting? I’ll never forget the furry massage table, the naked lady lamp or the various implements left behind after the joint was finally forced to close. But we hauled out the filthy carpeting, stripped and refinished the hardwood floors, fixed, painted and patched what we could, and hid what we couldn’t. It was exhausting, but well worth the toil.

My work schedule ran from Monday through Sunday, a minimum of eighty hours a week – in a seven-year period, I took off only two long weekends. It consumed me, but in the end I emerged mostly intact, a little more aware of my proclivities, of an unhealthy tendency to immerse myself wholly into an enthusiasm, to the detriment of family and friends. When we sold our store’s wares, I embraced the change; some dreams simply deplete you. But the itch remained.

Just a few weeks ago I found myself perusing an accumulation of books in a storage facility across the street from a junk shop in Llano, Texas, a small county seat an hour’s drive west of my home on the outskirts of Austin. The shop’s owner had purchased an English professor’s estate, and judging by the collection, the professor had specialized in poetry. My first thought was “I want it all,” but reason set in (I could very well imagine my wife’s reaction were I to arrive home with a trailerful of books) so I glanced over the criticism, fiction, drama, essays and biographies, and concentrated on the poetry. In the end I walked away with thirty-one books, including H.D.’s Red Roses for Bronze (Chatto & Windus, 1931), Randall Jarrell’s Little Friend, Little Friend, Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems and Questions of Travel, a brace of Berrymans – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet – both the U.S. and U.K. first editions, which differ – and Love & Fame. A good haul, to say the least, but one that left me only partially satisfied and contemplating a return. But I remain resolute. So far.

As I said, the itch remains…

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94 thoughts on “Obsession: Books, or, Poetry Finds Me

  1. I really like the precision in your choice of words in your poetry. Your narrative piece here is just as polished and exact…My latest book addiction is to latch onto an author and read as many titles as I can find. Graham Joyce and Somerset Maughan have been recent obsessions. It feels so good to be immersed in the thoughts of a really good writer.

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  2. How do you assess translations? I find I get very attached to certain translations of poems I love but always wonder what might be off the mark. I am fond of Cavafy (The City is one of my all time favourite poems), but translations vary widely, even from the same translators. I am also reading a lot of Paul Celan and I find the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must confess that I don’t worry much about whether they’re accurate. I’m much more interested in the translated poem drawing me in and not letting me out until I’ve read it. The piece has to work as poetry. There’s been some discussion of this on the blog. You might search for “On Parting (after Tu Mu) and peruse the comments. Also, a recent posting, “Bright Autumn Moon” benefits from reader comments, too. You might pick up a copy of 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (which is also discussed on this blog) or perhaps a copy of Felstiner’s Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu. These offer excellent insight into the art of translation.

      I wouldn’t know how to begin assessing translations of Celan, but I have several at hand that all provide something that feeds my need.

      I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I so recognize that itch. My consolation when I look at the towering stacks in each room of our old house – insulation, for the mind and the body.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Books are the hardest. They are not only souvenirs of past experience and thought but have all the associations of the people who owned them. I got rid of rooms full of books when I moved to Mexico and still have a roomfull I should dig into. If you were here, I’d let you have first pick…Judyhttps://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/afloat/

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  5. The itch is contagious. It has crossed continents, oceans and seas all the way to the ‘Great Southland’. It even spread to my little town and this office. Thanks for a riveting post. I zoom read through paragraph one and had to keep going.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m in envy mode over your new treasures … where I live, I can’t peruse books by hand and so spend months adding to and refining my wishlists to fit my budget …. like you, the itch remains …

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  7. No judgment coming from me. Full speed ahead with the book collecting, my friend! I’m a bookaholic for sure, my husband is not, and it has proved to be challenging for us at times. Plus there are the decades of journals I have filled with my own musings about the absurdity of life. I have no idea what I’m going to do with all of my books, but who cares? Beautifully written post!

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    • I’m concentrating on poetry these days – at least the volumes are slimmer (tho yesterday I seem to have brought home with Jane Hirshfield’s newest book, The Beauty, two nonfiction books dealing with numbers and perception…

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  8. Occasionally my wife and I will gather up books and magazines that we’ve had for awhile– everything from novels to school books to self-help books to various paperbacks– and bring them to one of the local adult schools for freebee pick ups. On of those days we must’ve dropped off 20 books/mags (including a college human histology book) and they were all scarfed up in about 15 minutes. So there’s definitely a desire for folks further educate/entertain themselves. Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Bob, too much to say and too little time before my nap to say it, so I promise an email will be on the way before the Ides of July…or whatever! But I’ll say this…your prose is every bit as good and enjoyable to read as your poetry.

    Which brings me to this — Bought your book (“If Matter Could Reform”) today and am having a blast with it! Really feel sorry for those who don’t enjoy poetry! And knowing the author is a special bonus!!

    Nap time for Ronzo!

    Obi Ron

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ahhh, books and bookstores; my brother, John, recently sold his old and rare bookstore (The Seattle Book Center) and retired (age 73) after 30+ years of running the place. Book have been a major part of our family’s life since I remember. This post brings back a ton of memories for me.

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    • I never lived in ready proximity to a bookstore until I moved to Austin for school in the late 70s. Of course I applied to quite a few jobs at bookstores, but to no avail. In retrospect, that was probably for the good, as I picked up other skills along the way. But books have always been a passion. I’m so glad this post brought back memories to you.

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    • I’m so pleased you enjoyed this! I don’t attempt much prose as it’s difficult for me and I’m rather lazy. 🙂 I’ve posted a few other prose pieces on this site: “Which Poet, Which Beer,” and “Poet’s Pantry” are two that come to mind. There might be others, too.

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  11. This was so interesting to read, and kind of poignant too. In my non-writing life (or non-poetry fiction writing life) I am an attorney and have often been in situations of having to sell books/libraries–some with wonderful book–and I am always saddened by how little they get–at least in that type of situation- – I know if you are on the buyer’s end they are more expensive–but there are just so many wonderful books, and although i confess to having and loving a kindle (it’s just very good for my eyes), there is an incredible charm about an old book that has been looked at, traveled. Anyway, thanks for sharing that itch! k.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is the poignant part of the book business. In general, if you can get 25% of market value for a good but not spectacular collection you’re doing okay. The used/rare book business is demanding, and there isn’t much margin for error. I, too, have a kindle, which I use to read “disposable” books, and when I need a book immediately for research or to satisfy curiosity. But when all is said and done, the heft, the texture and even the odor of a book of a certain age just can’t be beat!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Well said well written and thank you for the insights of your creative passion. Great work, don’t stop. I too love the feel of paper in my hands, especially old beautifully bound and crafted books. Digital leaves me cold. I am new to your blog. Looking forward to diving in! Thanks for dropping by mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I really liked this piece! Definitely empathised with the all-consuming nature of being in business. I’ve had a few shops – peddling food, coffee and ideas. It became a form of performance art.
    I’ve also moved way too many times, lugging boxes of books every time. I’m still positive I need them all.

    Liked by 1 person

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