On our short walk home from her school yesterday, my darling daughter inquires if we can go to the bookstore. She needs some new Junie B. Jones, she reports. I assent.
This particular bookstore is about a mile away, a big labyrinth of shelves and stacks and strange little closets crammed with books. The owner once kindly estimated to me that the place houses somewhere between one million and two million books, but probably not more than three million books. The place is a hive, or better yet a brain. An archive.
On this warmish January afternoon, a coverless paperback wedged and warped keeps the front door propped open. My daughter doesn’t dally, fetching up a bevy of Ms. Jones’ adventures (and the third volume of Ivy + Bean to boot: “It’s Ivy “plus” Bean, not Ivy “and” Bean, her graceful correction).
We have a few minutes before we need to pick up my son, so I do a fairly regular patrol about the premises, looking for a copy of Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies for a colleague. No dice. And, out of weird old habits, go past the last shelf, where Vollmann’s underattended tomes rest near David Foster Wallace novels, always depleted. I like to look at the new covers, I guess.
Well so and anyway, I spied a pristine hardcover copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, clearly never read, and thought, Oh hey, this must be a first edition. Which it was and Oh hey you don’t need this book.
There is nothing rare or especially valuable about a first hardback U.S. edition of Hideous Men. The store is selling it for half of the publisher’s recommended price, but I have more than enough credit (thanks unsolicited review copies!) to pick it up. Which I do. Despite of course already owning it in the far more flexible trade paperback edition (first edition!) inscribed by some of the dearest damn friends who gave it to me for a birthday, an edition I reread memorably over a few weeks in Italy, an edition warped by strange moistures (I’d love to pretend the warping arose from the salty splash of the ancient Mediterranean but my own body sweat is a far more likely culprit).
Brief Interviews is my favorite collection of David Foster Wallace stories. The stories here are much better than those in his first collection, Girl with Curious Hair (which, the first DFW I read, has a special place in my gizzards), and though there’s nothing here that can touch the best moments of Oblivion (“The Suffering Channel” and “Good Old Neon”), the collection is cohesive, propulsive, engaging, its longer pieces punctuated by blips and vignettes. Here is the first selection, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”:
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed very hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
So I picked up the hardback first edition, realizing that what I really wanted (in addition to this edition that I didn’t and don’t really need) was the copy that I read in college, the copy I borrowed from UF’s Library West (I’ll pay you $10,000 if you can think of a better library name, which you can’t), a flat brown squashed brick—-I must’ve been one of the first to read it, this was in ’99 or early ’00—I checked it out three times and then I had to return it. I ripped off “Adult World (I)” and “Adult World (II)” (these are actually the same story, but…) for a project in some bullshit class I was taking at the time, some class called Post-Historical Visual Culture or some other such nonsense—I didn’t rip off the plot, but the structure, the whole narrative/outline thing that Wallace did there. (My story was about a geneticist trying to clone a son or maybe someone to love, I can’t recall, shudder to recall…And why was I turning in a story and not an essay?!).
Why do I want the very edition that I first read, Dewey’s decimals imprinted on its drab jacketless spine? Why do I want an object that proclaims first, first, first, even though I don’t need it—why the compulsion? And then the sentimental compulsion to keep a less sturdy paperback version just because my name is incribed in it, just because I recall so vividly shaving my beard in Minori in Amalfi after reading “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” and realizing that Oh my god this story is fucking terrible, DFW, I get what you’re doing, but my god.
A book is a memory object, a placeholder, a bookmark for the memory of the reading experience, because we don’t remember what we read, not really. I have a few novels committed to memory (more or less) through yearly rereading, through teaching, but on the whole the details fade, the misremembering opens to misreading. My dream is to disband all of my books, march them out into the world, my memory secure, transcendent, stable, eternal, etc.—the objects gone, their dusty physicality imprinted in some psychic library of the soul. But I don’t believe in my dream, and even though I dig e-books, they don’t shock my memory in the same way that old pressed leaves do. So I live with these guys, nestled together unnecessarily, necessarily so.