Why in the world for the past 30 or 35 years have I been lugging around boxes of books, from one city to another, from one basement to another, when the chance of ever rereading — or even reading some them for the first time — are slim to none?
You, like me, might have those cartons of books in the basement: Books from college courses (at least 35 years old, in my case); books acquired as part of the job; books purchased for that week’s vacation or long plane ride; books written by friends; books given by well meaning friends who think I might actually have time to read them, when in fact I don’t even have time to unpack them.
I have been lugging some of them ever since college graduation 35 years ago. From Little Hall at Princeton University to Carnegie Hall in New York, where I had a studio apartment with a shared bathroom in the hall on the 14th floor of the recital hall; to East Cedar Street in Chicago, just a few hundred feet from the Oak Street beach and Rush Street; to Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh; back to 48 University Place in Princeton (where I squatted for almost two years in a university office while I got started as a freelance writer), to an office next to Hoagie Haven on Nassau Street; to my first real house on Moran Avenue (next to a roofing company and across the street from St. Paul’s Cemetery); to my old house at 34 Park Place, where the books kept growing in number until they reached what seemed to be their final resting place — in the basement.
In one of the more excessive areas of my life, the books stayed in their boxes in the basement at 34 Park, even after I moved into the house next door, at 36 Park Place. That was seven years ago. Then one day early this year I met Mike Greco, a cabinetmaker who was just finishing up a year-long endeavor building cabinets and bookcases for a large house in Princeton Township and had some time for a small job. Bookcases, now that’s a novel idea, I thought — no pun intended since I have very few novels in my book collection.
A few weeks and a few thousand dollars later the cabinets and shelves were in place and the books started to emerge from their boxes.
The handsomely bound senior thesis from 35 years ago — typed on the B model IBM electric typewriter that remains in the basement: The Portrait and the Frame, A Study of Point of View in Emma, The Ambassadors, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and All the King’s Men. As I dust off the thesis I wish I had acquired John McPhee’s 1975 collection of articles, the similarly titled Pieces of the Frame — the title choice may be as close as I come to McPhee’s caliber of writing.
A clutch of dictionaries and reference books, including the Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, Webster’s Dictionary of Proper Names, and A Dictionary of Euphemism & Other Doubletalk (published in 1981 — wouldn’t it be fun to compare it to an updated version?).
Books by the “new journalists,” who to me still seem new and fresh even 30-plus years later: Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72, and Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.
Books about journalists, including The Chief, a 686-page biography of William Randolph Hearst, and Words and Their Masters, by Israel Shenker with photos by my old friend Jill Krementz.
Books by people I have known while they were writing the books — Dan White’s two books on Pete Carril; Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (I put it in its place and recall the day when Jaynes — a lecturer, but not a full professor at Princeton because he had never bothered to get his Ph.D. — came back to Princeton after appearing on the Dick Cavett Show and regaling us with behind the scenes stories of the star host); and Lanny Jones’s Great Expectations, America & the Baby Boom Generation, published in 1980. Back in the office I have Jones’s newest book, William Clark and the Shaping of the West, published just in time for the bicentennial of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. Here at 36 Park I make a little room on the shelf for the Clark book’s ultimate home.
Over at the newly rebuilt Princeton Public Library, the staff must have felt some measure of satisfaction as they unpacked their 130,000-plus books (not counting CDs, tapes, etc.) and put them on display on 10,000 or more linear feet of shelving.
Here on Park Place, I try to take a measure of my own satisfaction and use some contemporary marketing math. The price of 43 linear feet of solid maple bookshelves: More than the cost of the several hundred books upon them. The price of hearing your 12-year-old respond, when asked a homework question by the 10-year-old, “You can look it up yourself in the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy:” Priceless.