Sunday, March 1, 2009
Keeping My Lists
Back before the dawn of recorded time, when I still used an eraser, a typewriter, and more of my wits, I made a little list. (I am someone who makes lists, one either is or is not, and while I continue to make lists, I do not do so with the same resolution and enthusiasm I once brought, come to think of it, to many activities I practiced devotedly in my twenties and thirties.) My little list of books I wanted, for that's the list I mean to describe here, grew. As my two-finger-typing grew more skillful, and the technology available to me more sophisticated, my little list grew and grew, until it filled a three-ring binder. Now alphabetized and categorized, sorted into books I needed and books I had but might forget owning, my list of "Haves and Have Nots" became a more impressive and useful thing, updated and checked, referenced and annotated, an all but constant companion whenever the fever was on me, a car was available, a trip was planned or even anticipated. Even my beloved A. came to appreciate the value of that binder, reminding me when we went to the movies, or out with friends, or anywhere at all we didn't go daily, "Did you bring your list?"
I've only just discovered my list again; abandoned on a shelf in the garage, forgotten and unused for ages, stored under soda cans, dusty. My habits have changed, my collecting taken a different turn, and my reading too. Blowing the dust off the binder and turning the pages -- each page representing so many happy hours, not only of reading and buying and organizing, but also just of list-making and updating and... wanting. From "Amado, Jorge" to "Yourcenar, Marguerite" I see so many names I haven't read in years, so many books I owned and sold, so many I never found in an edition I could afford, so many that I have now, still unread. There are series here, runs of books I collected with demonic obsession: "The Classics of British Historical Literature," from Chicago University Press, the old Dent Everyman's Library, the "English Men of Letters," supervising editor, John Morley. There are authors in my lists who I once had only piecemeal and now own entire: Scott and Balzac, Fielding and R. L. S., Dickens and De Maupassant and Swift. There are enthusiasms represented here that have waned, Nadine Gordimer and Tahar Ben Jelloun, and others that broke like a fever after being too long sustained at a go, like Beverly Nichols and the Powys boys. Nothing in these lists embarrasses me. There's nothing regretted, nothing lost or really still longed for.
I will always want more Edward Gorey than I will ever own. I will never own all the Denton Welch I might want. There are Beerbohms I might still possess, had I money. (Will I ever be in a position to actually own an actual piece of his art?) Will I see again and be able to buy a copy of Peter Taylor's The Widows of Thornton? Nancy Mitford's Wigs on the Green? William Gerhardie's plays? Would I read another Janet Frame? Look for another Stephen Dixon? Pay for a clean copy of an unread Angela Thirkell -- always overpriced in hardcover?
There are authors now in this house, their titles stacked as high as my knee, I never added to this list of mine. There are writers I have loved, listed here, I haven't read in years, whose books I sold years ago, whose names came back to me now with great pleasure even as I pass them over without so much as a sigh.
One's tastes change, one's reading evolves. (If those statements have not the ring of truth to you, brothers and sisters, you're either dead or stuck.) What's changed most for me is the need to complete my library. I do not see that any longer as a goal. I've parted with books I never thought I would. I have bought books I never intended to keep. I read books now I purchased twenty years ago and never opened. This list reminds me that there will never be enough books, enough hours, enough. If I don't need it now, that doesn't mean my memory has improved. The usefulness of my list is not ended, so much as my interest in it has gone. My eye searches out other books, or knows those in these lists too well. I've come to see my library more for what it is than what it might be. I am not satisfied -- never that -- but I am now more content. I am keeping my lists, but I do not need them nearly so much. I have only to look around me in this room at all I've acquired, all I've read and have yet to read, and I am touched at the optimism, and by the spelling, of the reader I was, but glad of all the reading I have yet to do.