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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This first appeared here in April 2015, and yes, the itch is still there. The pandemic has prevented me from haunting used bookstores as I’d imagined I would. But someday…

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

  1. When I was 18 (or 19) I had this urge / obsession to travel the entire west coast to Macchu Picchu peru. I had almost no money. I didn’t make it. But everywhere I went I carried an old leather briefcase jammed full of books. I had of course my favorites: Leonard Cohen, Garcia Lorca, William Carlos williams, ee cummings, furlangetti, Ginsburg, just to name a few. I also carried my old olivetty typewriter and wrote poem on fading sheets of yellow paper. I was so much older (crazier) then, I’m younger than that now. Then I got old….

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    • You, me and Dylan. Ha! I lived about a half mile away from the Olivetti factory in Naples, Italy back when I was in high school. I wonder what that factory is now? I’ve always traveled with books. Can’t imagine that will ever change.

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  2. I’m like that too about books. I’ve always said I have more books than I’ll ever be able to read, and that suits me just fine. Like you I love looking at them, knowing they are there, knowing if I’m looking for something new to read, I can go through my own library scattered throughout the house. I love to decorate with books too, stack them on a table, put a vase of flowers on top. recently though, I’ve gotten the Book-Bub bug. I love looking through the daily offering in my inbox to see what great classic or new unread author I can pick up for only a buck or two and add to my kindle. Another library to browse through. Why does it make me feel so good? This weight of words from which to draw and enrich myself.

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    • Books have always been my weakness, my balm. Though I pared down the collection before last year’s move, there are still hundreds upon hundreds remaining, and more arrive weekly. An addiction, I admit, or, a “gentle madness.”

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  3. Keyboardist and alternate voice at my project Dave Moore ran a mail order used paperback book business for several years. The Twin Cities area was going though one of those culling of the bookstore herds then, and he would be invited to come to take what he wanted from the storerooms of some of them that closed. A closed bookstore’s storage room is a sad and rich place, particularly when this was the ’70s and the covers of the old paperbacks were rich in the pulpy come-ons to possible wire-rack shoppers.

    Hardcover poetry entices too, in a different way of course. That storage unit you speak of for example….

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    • While my book obsession has waned a bit over the years, I still find it difficult to pass by collections or even piles of books without browsing. The pandemic has greatly reduced that possibility. But maybe someday!

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