It was frigid, slate-skied, while afternoon gusts—droning through alleyway corridors like lips over the top of an icy bottle—drove snow into curved coves along lifeless sidewalks. And though the weather itself may not isolate a specific calendar segment for the city of Chicago, I’ll go ahead and tell you this was February, 2001.
Block-by-block, brownstone-by-brownstone, for months I’d enjoyed getting to know the city and its outlying neighborhoods, and found an excuse to formulate scouting missions whenever I could. On this particular day, I’d gone exploring again, forgoing the warm nest of my modest apartment in Uptown and layering-up, shrugging into my peacoat as I headed out on foot to the south and west for a (cheap) place to get a haircut. I’d wound up down on Fullerton, settling for a spot that seemed comfortable, competent, and wouldn’t wither my frail stack of cash.
With the haircut over with (read: no longer a shaggy savage), I headed back east, face pinched against the wind, thinking about school, thinking about the books I was reading—the books I wanted to read. I was also thinking about how a person becomes a writer—how they practice…how they obtain affirmation that they’re on the right track. Is the skill ingrained, developed? Bit of both? In all aspects of the things I aspired to be at the time, I was rather rough around the edges (we have some people trying to verify this, but I believe I still am), young in age, unseasoned in both academics and in undertaking genuine endeavors.
The previous November, I’d devoured a paperback copy of Dan Simmons’s Summer of Night. (That novel continues to be one of my top-treasured reads—partly for sentimentality, I admit it. Part of it was simple character identification: I knew the wonder and uncertainty of Simmons’s eleven-year-old composites; and it was the first time that I remember reading, leaning against the window of a Greyhound bus (my favorite mode of transportation when visiting Indy), looking up from the paperback and peering out at the legendarily macabre Wolf Lake, and thinking: How can I do this? How does a person pull off this trick?) At the time, and as an obsessive byproduct of my newfound absorption, I used my free time (some evenings, but mostly Saturday and Sunday mornings) wandering the aisles of used bookshops, seeking out any hardcover editions by the authors I wanted most to emulate (Simmons, Matheson, Bradbury, King, F. Paul Wilson). I had indeed discovered a pair of signed, hardcover first-editions of Summer of Night (one at Bill’s on Belmont, another up in Evanston); alas, the appended price tags were, for my meager budget, out-of-bounds.
Hands shoved deep in my pockets, I was stalking down thesidewalk on the northside of Fullerton, nearing the L depot, when, passing by the Lincoln Park library branch. I veered off the sidewalk, off-handedly grateful that, while browsing, I could temporarily knock-off the chill. I’d had not, at that time, yet applied for a library card, so the books would be for browsing only, and, of course, nothing “for keeps.”
Almost immediately I spotted a cart parked askew near the entrance. Curious, and knowing this to be a cart containing discard books with a cheap price tag, I appraised the cart, but only for a second or two before freezing. Amazingly, there it was: the black spine containing the white-lettered title—the cover, I’d memorized from months of pining. It was, of course, a hardcover specimen—if only slightly battered—of Summer of Night. With the cost of $3, and with five cold singles in my wallet, the price (as one lauded author once put) was right.
This one would be mine to keep.
I understand it smacks of smugness, but before signing on to the ambience of Facebook back in 2014, the public library—my public library branch, to be precise—was an environment which not only served as a simple source of comfort, but was a locale of private indulgence. (Make no mistake: the ye olde F-book has provided, and will surely continue to provide, connectivity and camaraderie to a community and an audience that would otherwise go neglected. I’d be missing out on a lot, in other words. And for that, hell: I’m grateful. I also understand that expecting total extrication is just as unrealistic, and perhaps mentally unsteady, as the type of disconnection on which I’m commenting.) But the library provided yet another, perhaps more profound purpose.
Before slipping off the synthetic shore and wading into the (more often than not) brackish stream of social media, I used alternate (perhaps even considered antiquated) mediums to measure my progress as a writer.
Facebook is, of course, a sort of virtual scrapbook. (I was visiting with a childhood friend, one who’d endured each level of school with me, from elementary to secondary. Our conversation drifted into the To-Be or Not-To-Be of participating in our twenty-year class reunion. We ultimately agreed: What would there be to talk about? I mean, the revelation of almost every small-talk chatting point could be obtained via Facebook—career…spouse…ex-spouses…exotic vacations. The consensus: prior to reified organisms like Facebook, ritualized events like reunions may have been sincere, but they are bygone as our personal relationships have been whittled to a select few while we revel in our thousands of “friends.”) In other ways, Facebook is a bathroom wall where just about anything goes. Some of it’s ugly. Some of it’s harmlessly inane. Some of it’s fucking hilarious.
But I have, in these past two years, come to understand the contortive effects of such an insulated environment. To put another way, social media—as its personality is wont to do—alters awareness, subjectively contorting and gently rending the scope of reality. From the “friends” you make to the publishers to which you submit, the virtual realm possesses the capacity to warp how we approach our craft. This is not a novel observation, and each emergent technology has instigated these sorts of suspicions; but having been slightly seduced by the ease of its connectivity, I am still attempting to come to some sort of rapprochement with the platform.
In the January / February, 2016 issue of Poets & Writers, Frank Bures contemplates the dilemma of self-promotion vis-a-vis social-media platforms. “It can feel like a crushing weight, like social media has become a giant pyramid scheme in which we are all selling some idea of ourselves, even as we struggle to believe our own marketing” (94). Bures goes on to examine where the intersection of the “self” and the “work,” asking, “Does the brand encompass both?” (94).
Fortifying the discussion, Bures cites psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990): “When not preoccupied with ourselves, we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are. Loss of self-consciousness can lead to transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.”
The library was (is) a cynosure as I “felt” my way through the formative stages of apprenticeship, possessing guidance which had a palpable gravitational pull. And even as that apprenticeship continues to makes its tectonic, sometimes imperceptible shifts, the library continues to reveal clues about its role in my life. Mainly, it’s a sobering reminder of my smallness and how much work (if I’m as serious about the craft as I claim) I have yet to do.
In his essay, “A Defense of the Book,” William Gass is infinitely more adept at framing what I’m attempting so say:
The aim of the library is a simple one, to unite writing with its reading . . . yes, a simple stream, but a wide one when trying to cross. The library must satisfy the curiosity of the curious, offer to stuff students with facts, provide a place for the lonely, where they may enjoy the companionship and warmth of the word. It is supposed to supply handbooks for the handy, novels for the insomniacs, scholarship for the scholarly, and make available works of literature, written for no one in particular, to those individuals they will eventually haunt so successfully, these readers, in self-defense, will bring them finally to life. More important than any of these traditional things, I think, is the environment of books the library puts visitors in, and the opportunity for discovery that open stacks make possible.
Though a dull observation, a book is a simultaneously simplistic and convoluted device: a companionable chimera of, among other things, entertainment, tutelage, and time-bound tradition. And while much of this is owed to the stories themselves and how they’ve wainscoted the curving corridors of my life, still there’s indelible residue associated with cover artwork, with the elementary innocence in learning of a place called Loch Ness—of the scaly, snake-necked thing which subsists beneath the black-glass surface.
Even as I wrote that last line, I felt a low-level thrill (what I’ve come to privately coin as an “Echoshiver”) at the mere memory of the era I first encountered some of my favorite books (think about those deliciously lurid covers from the late 70s and early 80s—those ghastly, Pocket Book, TOR, and Signet tableaus which still, for me, elicit gut-centered giddiness).
It’s Pavlovian at this point, something akin to mental-murmur-litany: when I enter my library, I call up that line from Updike, which encourages me to hang my head a little lower—to think about that cluelessly ardent kid on the Greyhound bus. “When I write,” says Updike, “I aim in my mind not toward New York but a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano’s are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf.”
It is a place to visit old comrades from childhood—The Cay…The Wishgiver…the aquiline outline of Sherlock Holmes…The House of Dies Drear—before moving on to check-in on more nascent though earnest influences: Straub, Mark Frost, Shirley Jackson, Isaac Babel, Carver, Hawthorne, William Gay, Nathanael West, Leiber, Charles L. Grant—companions whom I’ve never had the compulsion to send a “friend” request.
A few days ago, I had to part ways with, and return to the library, The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. I happened to be accompanied by a travel partner—my five-year-old daughter.
Our stomping-grounds library location is the Franklin Road branch. (Notable digression: the Franklin Road branch resides on acreage which had, for a slim period in the nineteenth century, been allotted land for the town of Gallaudet, which then shifted north and became New Bethel, now Wanamaker.) It has, over the past three years or so, become a sort of ritual with us: she enjoys dropping the returns through the check-in slot before angling off toward the kids’ section, each time I whisper (still adhering to that accustomed social more), “I’ll be right there…don’t leave without me.” She typically provides acknowledgment with a reciprocal whisper, at least a thumbs-up, though I am already mentally shaping (read: steeling myself for) the day when Dad is a public anchor—that she’ll want to fly solo on these literary trips.
Unlike the behavioral adjustments and compromises we employ in order to adapt these to these protean shifts in technology and communication, the library is a place in which wonder can be renewed. Where modest awe has a chance for restoration. Where we can ponder the fragility of affirmation.
We walked in together, unlatching hands as the automatic doors opened.
Before checking out, we came to the consensus that she was old enough for her own library card; so what was originally a somewhat compulsive jaunt turned into a literarily monumental occasion. We were laughing, my daughter tamping a small squeal just beneath her breath, puffing up with pint-size pride at her “big girl” acquisition. Not then—holding her hand as we walked across the lobby—but now something has snuck up on me from Vonnegut’s narrator in the earlypart of Slaughterhouse-Five: “I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much of it was mine to keep.”
And there is one more significant anecdote about this trip.
Rounding the corner by the front desk, I happened to notice the discard cart filled with for-sale hardcovers.
Again it was the aesthetics of the spine that caught my eye.
Back in the spring of 2012, after years of engaging in a prolonged, three-pronged campaign of 1) aggressive accumulation of my own composition; 2) reevaluation / excavation of delinquent sketches and neglected stories; and 3) continued study of authors (contemporary, established) whose style I intended to, if not in some way emulate, simply learn from. Incredibly, in one case I’d discovered that many of them—namely Norman Partridge, Cailtlín Kiernan, William Browning Spencer, and Joe Hill—had contributed tales to an anthology titled Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 (Subterranean Press, 2011). Alas, while much had changed since that winter of 2001, my bookshop allowance had not; and, eyeing a price tag of $150, I found myself unable to acquire a personal copy. So, I settled for the next best thing: I placed a hold at the library.
For months I toted that gorgeous thing around, devouring it upon first reading before renewing it, dissecting the sections that most impressed me before renewing again…and again. Then, the inevitable: Some (perhaps) similarly-spirited soul placed their own hold on the volume, and thus my grip slipped from it.
Over four years had passed between the time I possessed and studied that book and where I currently stood: slack-jawed in front of yet another discard cart. I pulled the copy of Subterreanean—But this couldn’t be exactly the same copy…could it?—and ran my palm over the cover, scoured the pages. Now, the price of $3 was well within my wallet-bound wheelhouse.
My daughter asked what it was, and I proceeded to provide a condensed version of what I’ve shared with you in the preceding paragraphs. And just as I was marveling over the coincidence of happening upon a book I adored—flipping through the pages—I froze as a plank of paper fell from the interior, landing at my feet. My daughter plucked it up. But I suspected I knew what it was before inspecting it up close.
Stunningly, it was an index card which I had—upon what I thought to be an impermanent though extended era of ownership—utilized as a study aid in my private homework, adding words to my rickety lexicon, taking notes about language, descriptions, transitions. In four years, not one of the presumed owners or scrutinizing librarians had discarded the index card. Whatever the book’s Central-Indiana adventure had been in the interim, our erratic orbits again aligned.
For a poet, awareness compels connection. C. Day Lewis put it this way: the poet’s task is to recognize the pattern. And as little faith and belief as I have in anything, I stole a small, incidental assurance in this ostensibly meek anecdote. My daughter and I walked to the car, both with a prize from the library. I thought about metaphors and meaning. I considered coincidence and signs. I wondered about work and ink—pondered my daughter’s stretching shadow—these hand-in-hand moments. I wondered about what was ephemreal, what was concrete, and wondered how much of it was mine to keep. — CS
One thought on “Aesthetics of the Spine”
Very pleasingly written and enjoyable to read.