Sunday, June 20, 2010

Song of My Shelf

I once came across something that a friend had read and found worthy of making into a Facebook status: One legal definition of insanity is doing an action over and over again but expecting a different result.

I, of course, copied and re-posted her exact status into a response. Happily, at least one other person followed my lead. But since I first read those words, they've sunken into that elusive deeper level of thought where you think something without realizing that you've been thinking it.

Today I bought a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I found it for eleven dollars at a small used bookstore and apologetically put it in a bag of a much larger used book store that is probably its main competition. The guy behind the desk didn't seem to mind in the slightest; he made some little joke to make me feel better, which I missed, and he kindly repeated, but I didn't get it the second time either.

This is and of itself is nothing remarkable. What does strike me is that I estimate that this is at least the fourth time I bought it in my life -- not counting an abridged edition I had in college -- and yet I've hardly read more than a few pages of it.

The first time I bought it in my adult (read: post-college) life, it was a cheap paperback copy that I found at a store I worked at for a few bucks. It was yellow and ugly and had a bad drawing of the author's face on the cover. But it was cheap and after having read about it somewhere or other, I decided I "should" own a copy.

The second time I bought it was in New York City's legendary Strand bookstore (18 miles of books!), where I splurged on the Library of America edition -- forty bucks new; I got it used for twenty -- I don't know if you know this series, but you've probably seen them but not known what they are; they publish beautiful definitive editions of great American writing with shiny black dust-jackets and then put them on the market for a lot of money. They're somewhat parallel to the Criterion Collection in film -- an expensive series by smart people for smart people, and with every purchase comes a self-congradulatory sensation that you own something Important. It's very pretty, and it sits among the other first non-presidential volumes in the series: Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Twain. All that's missing is Old Owl Eyes taking them down to show you how they've never actually been read.

Since buying the Library of America edition, I did away with my cheap-o copy, where I gave it to a then-new branch of the Housing Works bookstore (which has since closed & relocated) on the strict rule that I shouldn't have more than one copy of a book (also donated that day were copies of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and the worst Great American Novel of all-time, Moby-Dick).

But then a few weeks ago, I began planning my honeymoon -- Annie had found this lovely cabin in rural Lexington, Virginia, and we made a no internet pact before going. I thought this would be great; I'd sit around all day and read all the books I've always meant to read (this is what Northerners think you do in the South). But as I once saw the great Warren Zevon say on VH1 when they were filming him browsing in a bookstore, "When you buy a book you also think you're buying the time to read it."

Well, we were going straight from the wedding to honeymoon, and I decided to pick up some Great American Literature to bring along, most of which I already had in other forms. Among these was an Oxford edition of Leaves of Grass, chosen because I had an old professor who only used Oxford editions for Shakespeare. In retrospect, it's a little sad that I use an English institution to judge the merits of a distinctly American work, but at the time I figured, good enough for the Brits (and Shakespeare), good enough for me. I dare say it was a noble purchase, a brave purchase, and it mostly sat at the bottom of my suitcase, where it anchored my pants as I read about more important things, like Bert Williams' Broadway career and Groucho Marx's autobiography.

So why buy another paperback edition today? Well, I'll tell you. Inspired by the small stack of books that I kept on my bedside table during the honeymoon of what I should read, I decided to make a permanent "bedside" library shelf of the Great American Canon. Thoreau and Emerson were easy -- I have a Viking Portable Library edition of Thoreau that includes all of Walden, plus a bunch of his other writings, and for Emerson, I've found the Modern Library's Essential Writings has done the trick. There's also a beat-up copy of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn just for fun and a copy of Moby-Dick that I also bought today but will spare you those details (Moby-Dick is so dreary that not even obsessing over buying it can evoke excitement). And for good measure, I threw a little copy of Franklin's Autobiography and a pocket-sized Bible (King James Version, of course), mostly because I once heard a professor say that if you were lucky enough to own books in the nineteenth century, you owned two: One was Franklin's Autobiography and the other was the Bible.

This is all just to say when I put my bright white Oxford Leaves of Grass on the stack, it didn't quite feel right, mainly because I thought it used the first edition of the work, while the Library of America used the last (or a more definitive version of the first, which is arguably the same thing). Well, imagine my surprise when, in finding in Library of America's new paperback "student" editions a fat version of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which includes the complete original version as well as the complete final "deathbed" version. Hello paperback Library of America and goodbye Oxford!

As I obsessed about this through the day (much like I had with earlier re-bought volumes of Emerson, Melville, and the Founding Fathers), I kept reassuring myself that yes, this was the "correct" edition to have that would complete my "perfect" bedside Americana library. If America truly sees itself as a "city on a hill" and human nature intuitively strives for perfection, is it any wonder that certain volumes can (or should?) be bought again and again, tweaked a little differently each time, like Jefferson's Monticello, or perhaps more to the point, Whitman's many editions of Leaves of Grass? Has the idea of American reinvention so deeply penetrated its land and people that we are always in a constant flux no matter what decisions we make or activities we do? Or is my partaking in buying and re-buying merely American capitalism playing into my own version of madness?

To try and prove to myself that I was not just arbitrarily buying the same half-dozen volumes over and over, I sat down to read my "new" copy of Leaves of Grass. In the first few stanzas I came across the line:

"I am mad for it to be in contact with me."

I wish I could give you the proper context, but I can't (something about going to a bank naked and undisguised); my mind started to drift and I ended up writing this instead. But I figured it was only too appropriate to walk away from Whitman's quintessential exercise in self-indulgence so that I could partake in a little self-indulgence of my own.

You may call it madness, the old lyric goes, but as I sit typing half a foot away from my bedside table with a volume of Jefferson at the bottom, a small black Bible at the top, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass turned upside down aside from the rest of the pile, I see my own little America, built by equal parts of passion and madness, romance and obsession, which is probably always destined to be under construction.

But for the moment, I feel safe, believing that I can finally transition from constructing it on the outside to reading it on the inside.

That is as long as my restless mind doesn't come across a "better" paperback edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...

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