You Buy The Book You Want To Read
by J DeSalvo
You buy the book you want to read…
…and so you read it. Maybe you like it and maybe you don’t. You usually finish it, though.
You paid for it, after all.
Then it goes up on the shelf and it becomes just one more thing in your house and even if you live with clutter that doesn’t seem to stop you from seeing each individual thing, one by one, from time to time. So every now and then you see it and aside from that you don’t think about it very much, anymore, unless something reminds you to.
At some point, someone says something and it reminds you of some line or phrase that you read in the book. If the line or phrase spoken is close enough to the line or phrase written you may think to yourself, or, if you’ve been drinking, say out loud, that this person has probably read the book.
“That’s where they got it from,” you’ll think or say, and if you are in a certain kind of mood you will think it or say it without a knowing smile, as should be the case –being as you yourself must certainly have read it there first. It’s not often that anyone has a really original thought. Against your better judgment had you been capable of it, which for some unknowable reason you are not at this time on this date, you, if only for a short time, look down on that person.
You think of this later, and it bothers you. How could you be so snide? Do you covet trivia so ardently? Do you wish to hoard witty sayings and keep them all for your own use?
In your own defense you say, ostensibly to yourself, but really to others, to ideas, morals, judgments, arguments, none of which have any meaning to you and you alone, (By yourself, on your own time, you can pretty much do what you want.) you say: “Well, they might have attributed it.” You know this doesn’t really work. It isn’t really fair. It doesn’t pass the test. It’s not a sound argument; more of a straw man. Who hasn’t been guilty, at one time or another of, perhaps unconsciously, lifting something witty from somebody else without bothering to attribute it or even to remember where it came from in the first place? You’re certain you’ve done it yourself, many times.
And that’s not all.
After all the scrutiny you’ve subjected this little witticism to, it starts to seem less and less witty. Suddenly you see a number of ways in which this line or phrase is, apart from not being quite so witty as you had previously given it credit for being, on top of it all, bad advice if not altogether wrong in more instances than you can think to stop to count. This realization tarnishes, makes you question deeply, the line or phrase and by extension the book itself. Down it comes from the shelf, and once again it is a force in your life, no longer just a thing in your house. This is all very well, but by this point you’re so steeped in doubt that you objectively doubt your ability to make an objective examination. The paradox that’s evident within the confines of this realization itself is paralyzing, and so it becomes apparent: you don’t know what you should think or what you should do. You certainly don’t feel like rereading “the thing”, as you’re calling it now, to diminish its presence, to take back some of its power over you. Not now you don’t, and not any time soon, either. Not so far as you can see.
And if you’re completely honest with yourself, at this moment you even feel a distaste, bordering on revulsion, for the book, but you don’t throw it away.
You paid for it after all. You figure you won’t get very much for it at the used bookstore, so it’s hardly worth the money, and/or time, and/or effort to take the train, or ride the bus, or drive, or walk, or whatever the case may be, unless you live very close to the used bookstore, in which event, lucky you. There aren’t very many used bookstores left, and before you know it there will be even fewer, so enjoy it while it lasts.
…But, oh my, no. You don’t throw it away. Dazed, and, if I may say so, confused, you give up and decide to just put it back up on the shelf where up until quite recently it seemed to belong. As you do so, your eye begins to scan the other titles on the shelf. If this one isn’t any good, can the others be just as bad? Have you gotten older? Changed your tastes? Maybe you will get rid of some of these. The shelf is too packed. There’s no room for anything new.
So you lay all the books out on the floor of your living room, or study, or studio apartment, or rented room as the case may be. You’ve ceased to have any faith in the virtue of sentence by sentence analysis. If you’ve learned anything so far from all this it’s that a sentence can be both beautifully written and of dubious merit. You ask yourself just what it is that each of these books is trying to say. What are the main themes? What arguments, propositions, in support of which ideas or values, are contained in the text? Who are the most complete characters and why do they stand out so much? Do they represent something you think is true? False? Or are they just great types, or great originals? Is it their pure personality that you admire? Or don’t you?
You look at the books you have bought over the years, and as you size them up for potential unloading for anywhere from fifty cents to five dollars on the open market, you can’t help but notice how ugly some of them are. The authors’ names are spelled out in bold, ridiculously large capital letters on the front jackets, so big they fill the entire bottom half of the front covers. The author’s pictures are plastered across the back covers, covering nearly all the space. The authors are smiling like greasy pitchmen. And underneath the pictures, and on the front covers, and sometimes even for pages and pages inside the books, before the stories even start, and then even again in the back of the books you often find yet more pages of them, praising the author’s’ other works, are these snappy little quotes that are basically telling you that the authors are to contemporary literature as sliced bread is to contemporary lunch. It all seems disingenuous, shifty, salesmanlike, and, if I may, phony.
Some of the authors are dead, actually, so you can’t blame them, but doesn’t anyone have any respect? As for the ones who are living, you have to wonder if they have any control over this sort of thing, and if so, why wouldn’t they do something about it?
From here on you decide that you will only buy nice looking books whose covers treat literature with the respect it deserves and not as just another commodity of advanced capitalism. After you make this declaration, it strikes you that this might be just a little too snobby an attitude for your taste, and now that you’ve finally got some idea, again, what this taste of yours might consist of, you feel better.
You put the books back on the shelves. You’ve remembered. It’s really very simple. You buy the book you want to read. All you need now is another shelf.
J De Salvo is a proud native of Los Angeles. His poetry, fiction, and articles have been published extensively in print and online. He is the editor and publisher of the Bicycle Review, the Pedestrian Press, and the Oakland Review, that is, Oakland CA where he now resides.