If My House Were on Fire…

Hello, LitKicks. This week you’re stuck with me. Let’s have a kegger.

Okay, just kidding. But only because I’m too lazy to figure out the logistics of such a thing.

Anyway, fellow bibliophiles, I have been thinking about books lately. I know this seems obvious, so to be more specific, I was thinking about books themselves, those bound paper things sitting on my shelves. I love my books, and I read some of them over and over until they are falling apart, but even though I have so many (and could someday be in danger of being overrun with them), I have a hard time parting ways with them. I understand the convenience of audio books and e-books (and am in agreement with Levi, even if he was maybe wrong about Kindle that they should come in a reasonably-priced format) but there is something, something wonderful, about the tactile pleasure of turning pages, about the beauty of rows of books lined up on shelves, that means I will always be surrounded by them.

I spent some time tonight just looking at my shelves. This isn’t an odd occurrence; I do it pretty regularly. Just looking at the titles and thinking about what each one means to me: this one I’ve read, this one I loved, this one I should finish someday, this one I should give away because it’s obviously not getting any love here, that sort of thing. And in my survey of my collection, I thought of the books that I love the most, the ones that (along with my dog) I would save if my house were on fire. Here are five:

1. Immortality – Milan Kundera
I have read this book once a year for the past three years, and I’m due to read it again (it makes for good autumn reading, so I’ll get to it when the leaves get serious about changing colors). I’ve written about why this book is my once-a-year pick here, and I’m not sure I should try to think up another way of writing it, so you can just read that, I guess. But if you don’t, suffice it to say that this book is so good it hurts.

2. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
I first encountered this book in a survey course of American literature and read it because I had to write a paper about it. I could see as I was reading it that it was a wonderful book, but I don’t think I ever got around to appreciating it until I read it again a few years later, when I thought something along the lines of “Damn, Bill.”

Complex and tragic and woven with a rhythm of the South, it’s a beautiful book. And sure, there are others by Faulkner that I love too, but this one catches in my throat like a gasp.

3. The Fact of a Doorframe – Adrienne Rich
This is an incredibly obvious pick for me, so much so that I almost left it off the list because I’m not even sure what’s left for me to write about it. But if I’m being honest, then of course I would take this book with me, this book that’s falling apart, this book that’s full of underlining and margin notes, because I’ve turned to it, written in it, written about it, turned its lines over and over in my head so much, so often, that it’s like a diary.

4. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – Pablo Neruda
Yes, I’ve already mentioned this in another post. For one thing, I’m on a bit of a Neruda kick lately (which is not a bad kick to be on, by the way), and for another thing, if I only had five books because they were all I could save from my hypothetical fire, then it’s a pretty good idea to make sure that this is one of them. It’s rather delicious.

5. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
This is another one I’ve written about before (in fact, I think I’ve written about all of these at one point or another). Aside from the fact that, as I wrote, the opening lines are sexy, it’s just one of those books that’s so insanely well-written that I’m kind of in awe of it. Of course, there’s always Pale Fire, too… picking only five books is hard.

16 Responses

  1. If my house were on fire, if
    If my house were on fire, if my dog were a bone, I could kill two birds with one stone, problem I see is many of these books are easily replaceable, if Lolita or On the Road, or some such classic burned up, a new one would be down at a muriad of books stores, new or used. It wouldn’t be the same exactly, but close enough.

    Yet my notebooks would burn and I couldn’t go out and buy a used copy of them.

    If I were on a desert island though, after my house burned down, or maybe my house on a desert island burned down because I was careless with my magnifying glass — remember that Huey Louie (Lew Welch’s step son) song?

  2. Yes, it’s not exactly a
    Yes, it’s not exactly a rational thing, and yes, if I did lose all my books in a fire I could go to the store and buy different copies, but in the case of the five I mentioned, I couldn’t replace them. I am a note-taker (which I suppose is a different argument for a different time, whether or not I should be writing in my books) and the books themselves become notebooks. I’ve loaned out some books that I’ve never gotten back and I could (and in some cases have) bought new ones, but I still miss the ones I let those people borrow. For books I read repeatedly, the physical copies become more than just books to me: full of observations and notes, layers of them, years of them. Those mean a lot to me. Those cannot be replaced.

    I don’t write in all of my books… some of them I just read. But the ones I study (or have studied), well, I’d really miss them if they were gone.

  3. I agree, there are just some
    I agree, there are just some books that cannot be replaced. The copy of Paul Bowles short stories that smells of Morocco, the perfectly worn copy of Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, or that book sitting on your shelf that is always next on your list but never gets read. My favorite non-fiction writer cum philosopher, Nicolas Nassim Taleb, always speaks of Umberto Eco’s library to bring up a certain point. This is from The Black Swan:

    The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopaedic, insightful and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently right real estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

    We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property meant to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library’s sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with antiresumes telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that) but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head. Note that the Black Swan comes from our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises, those unread books, because we take what we know a little too seriously.

    Let us call an antischolar — someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self esteem enhancement device — a sceptical empiricist.

  4. I’ve had immortality on my
    I’ve had immortality on my wish list since the last time you wrote about it. I love Kundera. My favorite is call “Slowness” and I read it once a year also. Oh, and I love Nabakov, check out (unless you already have) his “Invitation to a Beheading” Good stuff!!

    I would save:
    Slowness, Kundera
    Invitation to a Beheading, Nabakov
    Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Amy Bender
    Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
    95 Poems, e.e. cummings

  5. Rubiao – you make a good
    Rubiao – you make a good point about the unread books on a person’s shelves. My unread books currently outnumber the read ones by quite a bit. I have virtually stopped buying any new books, but once in a while I will. Sometimes I read it right away, other times it joins the other unread ones. Do they stare at me menacingly? Not menacingly, maybe accusingly. Like, are you going to read all of us before you die, or are you going to continue to slack off and waste your time
    with such un-useful pursuits as working.

  6. This horrifying possiblity
    This horrifying possiblity almost happened to us Saturday – I live in a single family in Boston and the triple decker right behind us was completely gutted by fire. Happily, we weren’t even singed – but we were ready to run out the front!

    I agree about easily replaced books. The ones I would grab are a few inscribed to me by authors I like – from William Burroughs to choreographer Bill T. Jones. Impossible to get another. I have always coveted the illustrated Ulysses signed by both Joyce and Matisse – a fantasy purchase I would risk getting hot to save.

  7. I would grab Jamelah Earle’s
    I would grab Jamelah Earle’s Sketches of a Return Journey. Or at the very least, I would grab Jamelah Earle. If she happened to be there. And I would expect some formal recognition from the City for my heroics.

    A fire, you say. I’d probably want to save any of the books I’ve had autographed, regardless of where they stand in my “top 100” or whatever, because I will probably never get the chance to have them autographed again.

    These include A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines, Crime, Criminals, and Characters of the Cumberlands and Southwest Virginia by Roy L. Sturgill, a copy of Famous Monsters magazine signed by editor Forrest J. Ackerman, Tall, Dark, and Gruesome: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee, Summer of the Mets by Levi Asher, Firecracker by Caryn Theremin, The Klan Unmasked by Stetson Kennedy, Virgin Gloves by Alex Hitchinson, Solidarity, a rare poetry chapbook by Al Letson, Allan Justiss, and John Citrone . . . and I may be forgetting a couple. I used to have an autographed copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Curse of Lono. I won’t go into the treachery involved in that loss.

  8. I have a first edition-its in
    I have a first edition-its in paperback- of ‘Anthology of Concrete Poetry’ Edited by Emmett Williams for Someting Else Press,Inc. 1967.which I treasure to the extent that I am almost too frightened to read for fear of damaging it. I picked it up in 1976 read it all the time for years, then someone said I shouldn’t do that because it was ‘rare’. I wish they hadn’t bothered, I would have just read until it fell apart, taped it together and continued reading it.
    Now it seems more like a useless posession than a favourite read.That shouldn’t happen to a book.
    Ignorance can be bliss on occasions.

  9. I like the burning house vs.
    I like the burning house vs. desert island distinction, i.e., which five of your books is most difficult to replace (because they’re rare/autographed, tied to a good memory, contain your notes) and which are most valuable (endlessly re-readable and instructive). I would go:

    Burning House

    1. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
    2. The Northern Lights, Howard Norman
    3. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
    4. Patrimony, Philip Roth
    5. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas de Quincey

    Desert Island

    1. Meditations in an Emergency, Frank O’Hara
    2. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
    3. Henderson, the Rain King, Saul Bellow
    4. Complete Poems, Wallace Stevens
    5. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

  10. Did somebody say kegger? That
    Did somebody say kegger? That could most definitely lead to a house fire… if it’s a good kegger. You might create a self-fulfilling prophecy by holding a wicked good kegger in a house full of books in fact. That being said I don’t think I could narrow it down to five. I’d just grab a handful out of a pile of Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Poe, HST, Buk and some good bio’s. I couldn’t really pick exact ones out because, you know, there’s a FIRE raging around and I probably don’t want to go up in flames. Unless it’s a Monday around the first of the month. And I’m hung over. After a kegger.

  11. 5 I would save,
    and not in

    5 I would save,
    and not in order:

    Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
    Complete Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson
    Art of Being and Becoming by Hazrat Inayat Khan
    Punk Diary 1970-1979, George Gimarc
    The Search for Goodbye to Rains by Paul McHugh

    sometimes I misplace Art of Being and Becoming so in that event it would be Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg (honorable mention)

  12. I think I would go with,
    I think I would go with, assuming my house and all bookstores burned down:

    7 Pillars of Wisdom: TE Lawrence
    The Stories of Ambrose Bierce
    Collected Fictions: Borges
    The Savage Detectives: Bolaño
    Chromos: Felipe Alfau

    But I might just throw myself into the fire. I would just be praying someone brought Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote, because god are we going to need something funny.

  13. Back in college, when I was
    Back in college, when I was really hard-up for cash and going through a strident “I want to live with as few possessions as possible” phase, I sold approximately 95% of my personal library to a used bookstore, including books with extensive scholarly notes, books with extensive personal notes, books I’d made cute sketches in, books I’d made pornographic sketches in, books I’d been given as gifts with personal dedications inside, books with old love letters used as bookmarks, books that I picked up in Slovenian hostels with some unknown person’s handwriting inside…

    I’ve made some pretty stupid decisions in my life, but MAN, this was a particularly stupid one. Not only have I since re-bought most of the books I sold, but I also have come to realize too late how much those physical things meant to me. This was five years ago, but I still hold out this pathetic sort of hope that I’ll find some of the old irreplaceable books at a yard sale somewhere (I’ve scoured the bookstore to which I sold them many, many times over).

    So if, after all this, I had a fire that destroyed my reconstructed library … dude,I don’t know if I could do it over again.

    I’d definitely try to grab a Kundera on the way out, though. And some Elizabeth Bishop — there’s a woman who understood losing things.

  14. Five books to save from a
    Five books to save from a fire.
    Savitri. – Sri Aurobindo.
    The Long Goodbye. – Raymond Chandler.
    Lorna Doone. – R.D.Blackmore.
    One Hundred Years of Solitude. – Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
    The Good Soldier Svejk. – Jaroslav Hasek.

  15. Hi – Paul McHugh, here. A
    Hi – Paul McHugh, here. A search for “Search for Goodbye-To-Rains” readers turned up that positive listing by “Doug.” I clicked on his link, but did not perceive a way to get a message to him. Here it is: That novel is out of print – but I have just had it scanned, and it is now posted on Google Books! If Doug or anyone else would care to write a review – and pass the word around that it can be found there, and read for free, you are all hereby invited. Here’s the link: http://books.google.com/books?id=qy4DcnZPAeIC&pg=PA148&dq=isbn:0933280076&ei=7VFmSe3mCpXSlQT99LjADQ#PPP1,M1

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