Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Uses Of Books

When you're a bibliophile, and books are the object in your home that you have the most of, it is inevitable that they will begin to find themselves repurposed for all sorts of extraliterary ends. There was a time in my life when the book--the physical object I mean--was sacrosanct, and could never be used for anything but its intended purpose. I shelved them with strenuous anality, keeping them flush with the face of the bookcase, wrapping their dust jackets in acetate slipcovers. Then I moved in with Rhian. Right now, on her bedside table, about nine books lay open facedown upon one another, their spines hopelessly broken. This kind of behavior seemed horrifying to me for a while, but since then, I've loosened up. How could I not? The things outnumber us by several powers of ten. Her attitude toward them is the healthy one.

There is nothing like a copy of Strunk & White, or perhaps a volume of Billy Collins poems, for propping up a table that's off true. A hardcover Ovid held open the window in Toby's room for five years, exposing itself to the elements, until it eventually began to look like a first edition. And while a rolled-up New York Review of Books (much more substantial than the New Yorker) is always handy for swatting a housefly, nothing really matches the satisfaction of dropping the world atlas onto one from a height of three feet.

At the moment, the latest Best American Short Stories is serving as a toilet-paper-roll platform (though the cheap cardstock used for the cover has curled in the moisture from the shower, and only a fresh and heavy roll seems willing to stay put), and a small French-English dictionary has been keeping fruit flies out of my wineglass every night for several months. I've used them as sun visors and trivets, and as obstacles for preventing the ingress of mice into my former writing studio. (The books I used for that were, in fact, a pile of remaindered copies of one of my own novels.)

You may consider it disrespectful for us to treat our books this way, but in my view it's the profoundest kind of praise. Books are life, and life is books. They are what's handy. I'm sure there's plenty a thirteenth-century monk who would keel infarcting to the floor to see it, but I am daily overjoyed to live in an age in which it seems perfectly reasonable to use a paperback King James Bible as a heel rest for the piano sustain pedal.

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