When we married, my husband's dowry included thousands of books and subscriptions to The New Yorker and Harper's. I, on the other hand, came into the marriage with a ragtag amalgam of photocopied short stories acquired at grad school, some costume jewelry, and a threadbare collection of furniture from Goodwill. If we lived in an Austenian era of matrimonial tit for tat, I think it's clear who came out the victor when we said our vows.
All this is to say that I am still discovering books on our shelves that I've never seen before, thanks to Husband's remarkable gift for literary acquisition--a gift he has now thankfully put to bed since our every wall is covered, floor to ceiling, with the fruits of said gift. During our three plus years living together, I've had a fraught relationship with these books. When we moved the hundreds of heavy boxes into our wee house, I moaned. When we had to go and buy bookshelves on bookshelves, I groaned. When he cleared out our living room to stain and saw custom shelves, I sighed, hands on hips.
I'm a writer, so it goes without saying that I adore books, but does one want to feel as if one lives perpetually in a library? Husband's answer to that is yes. Mine? I would prefer to have room for the odd decorative vase or two, or piece of art that in no way resembles the spines of books.
But last week, I experienced a sea change in my relationship to my book-cramped abode. While Michael Phelps swam one of his thousand races, the blue of the pool glowing over the vast spread of titles surrounding the TV, I pulled a footstool up to the custom shelves (which are quite handsome, to Husband's credit) and started browsing. Though I stare at these particular books from our couch almost every day, the abundance of works by writers I've been meaning to read--mostly foreign, mostly perished--took me by surprise, and I started to harvest books like the best story-starved bibliophile. There were all of Nabokov's works, minor and major, several volumes of Calvino, the slim and sexy books of Milan Kundera, intriguing novels by Jeannette Winterson and John Berger. They now comprise a neat stack at my bedside, and I realized: If I allow my walls of books to be books, rather than a patchwork mosaic covering most surfaces of my home, they're pretty fantastic.
Last week, I finished Kundera's strange and wonderful THE BOOK OF LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING, and I realized why his books have lasted, why they continue to turn up on our shelves decades after their writing. His writing is so incredibly fresh--funny, sensuous, vivid, frank--that it reads as if it had been written yesterday. Even while he tackles the looming matters of his time, which tag the work temporally--the Russian invasion of the Czech Republic, for instance--he does it in such an artful way that his words and the lessons they carry become timeless.
At the end of the book, there's an interview of Kundera by Philip Roth in which he speaks compellingly about the novel's purpose in the world:
"A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don't know whether my nation will perish and I don't know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place. In any case, it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than to understand, to answer rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties."
After stumbling across that gem, I am reminded again of the riches I inherited when I married my book hoarder.