We woke this morning to find the New York buses and subways on strike, and Madison Avenue, outside our windows, shut down tight even to cars, for some strange retaliatory reason, and so we are locked into our little Manhattan neighborhood. Fortunately we did the bulk of our Big Shopping yesterday ? stocking up at Toys R Us on huge pieces of brightly colored plastic with computer chips inside, which hide from kids or race when kids press their buttons or rock or roll or do battle, brightly colored plastic robot against brightly colored plastic robot, in fighting modes medieval or modern ? and then took it all home on what may be remembered as the Last Bus Ride. I am supposed to travel to Washington D.C. today to take part in a radio discussion tomorrow morning on C.S. Lewis
, but doubt that I will be able to find my way to Penn Station in the striking cold. My wife, still fluish, doubts the wisdom of any movement at all on the part of any thinking being on this day. So I spend the morning sorting through books and swearing that I will finally use this holiday to organize the piles and hills and small heaps of books ? some on bookshelves, most in piles or even hidden behind screens ? that are the result of a bad book-buying habit, and particularly the consequence of having spent much of the last two months out on a book tour.
No one, I think, has pointed out that the one problem with a book tour is books. I don't mean the book you're, well, exhibiting ? a suitably nineteenth century word; Barnum exhibited his midgets, he didn't promote or sell them, and that is what we authors do with our books. I mean the books you pick up in the bookstores along the way. Sending an author, or this author at least, from bookstore to bookstore, is like sending my six-year-old on a tour of chocolate shops: the pleasure soon gets drowned in the realization that you really can't have it all. At every bookstore along the long, long road I have traveled with The King In The Window ? the adventure story I have written for adults of all ages, including young ones ? I found a new book, or more often two, that I was desperate to own.
Everyone says that the book business has become codified and limited and to some degree of course this is true. But, blessings on the heads of all the independent book-sellers, Powell's among them ? and if every artist until the nineteenth century could lavish praise on his patrons, why not I on mine? ? I seemed to find a book everywhere I went that I just had to have and read. Some were local: accounts of Portland noir or of overlooked Seattle woman poets of the nineteenth century; odd corners of San Francisco history or strange facts from the San Jose past. I have a particular weakness for collections of columns by hard-drinking, bittersweet local columnists of the forties and fifties, of which there seem to be a lot, all including an "I'll Be Home for Christmas from the Bar" piece. Others were more cosmopolitan or even European or scientific and philosophical: I found Gerald Weissmann's book on Darwin and Audubon on a high shelf at Powell's, a book I'd wanted for a long time, and an old volume by the great Edward Marsh, the British wit, at I think Elliot Bay in Seattle. I even found in Portland an unknown (to me) book about the Montreal Canadiens of the nineteen-seventies, inarguably the greatest hockey team of all time, written by their play-by-play man Dick Irvin, and was so excited to find it that I put it down on a stray shelf when I went to read and never found it again; I feel about it still the way the man in Gogol felt about that overcoat.
The trouble is that by the time you get to the airport, the book bag feels achingly heavy, and then by the time you're ready to leave the next hotel ? with another score of books in the satchel from the next bookstore ? the idea of schlepping them all through the airport and hoisting them into the tiny overhead bin, and bringing them on home just brings tears of exhaustion to your already exhausted eyes. So, regretfully, but decisively, like a Russian aristocrat of the last centuries lightening the sled by throwing moujiks to the pursuing wolves, you toss books aside and leave them in the hotel room, for the cleaners, or next guest, to find. I left Cecil Beaton's diaries in Seattle, one of those long, encyclopedic plankton-into-people things of Richard Dawkins on my bedside table in Portland, a book about the onset of the Battle of Britain by Ian Fleming's much superior brother Peter in, I think, Los Angeles. Others leave their hearts in San Francisco; I left there a copy of a life of Genghis Kahn that had held me spellbound over one lonely dinner (the great Kahn turned out to be a pioneering multi-culturalist and thoughtful, broad minded ecumenicist, sort of Bill Moyers with a big mustache and a yurt) for the next pilgriming author to find. (My wife points out that I should have just had them shipped, but me finding a "shipper" while out on the road is pretty improbable; it's all I can do to find the bookstores.)
But people find what they need in books, wherever they may find them. My wife, Martha, still, as I say, fluish, has been re-reading Salinger's stories in her sick room. Fill to the brim with that great and still, if anything, insufficiently appreciated man's writing, she has paused as I come in and out of the sick room, to read out loud to me magical moments of description and dialogue. Nothing though quite equaled a moment she found in Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters when Buddy Glass stops and, caught in a traffic jam uptown, watches disconsolately the traffic going downtown on the same street. "You realize what this means," she said, her feverish eyes alight with a Harold Bloom-like glow of insight. "Madison Avenue once ran both ways!"
Madison Avenue, I should explain for non-New Yorkers, now runs, relentlessly, one way, uptown ? or did, until this morning, when not a car or bus can be seen on its lovely, pristine asphalt.