Oh, Powell's! I've had a lot of fun blogging here ? it also nearly made my hands detach from the wrists, and strange white steam appears to be pouring out of my ear-holes. I finally seem to have hit my stride with the last two posts ? i.e., I got rather obsessed, the prerequisite for good bloggery ? and now it's over!
But it's not over between us, is it, Powell's? No. I will see your brick-and-mortarness on June 17, when I'm scheduled to read from Personal Days. (Portlanders: Please swing by!) This sounds fine in theory, but I think we need to prepare for the possibility that I'll be lost among the bookcases, in a browser's happy fugue state, immune even to the intercommed ED PARK PLEASE REPORT TO THE READINGS AREA IMMEDIATELY... If any of you see me, palpating the spine of, say, this book, gently lead me by the elbow, make sure I've gotten enough nutrients, and simply put my novel in front of me and clap twice. I'll start intoning from Chapter 3 presently.
Oh, Powell's. Could it be that I was predisposed [Cue "Mysteries of the Mind" theme song] to liking you even before visiting because you share a name with one of my favorite writers, Anthony Powell? His work continues to exert its spell on me, one that's grown stronger over the years. I first read Powell in my late 20s, picking up Afternoon Men (1931), his first novel, at a second-hand book and oddments store in Montana, one mostly given over to musty airport reads of yesteryear. I'd heard of Powell, but I don't know when I would have started reading him had I not been hungry for something new to read while on vacation.
I'll refrain from further Powell proselytizing ? I do that enough on my blog. My point is: How would I have discovered Powell, a writer who has come to mean so much to me, had I not not known what I was looking for? There is an art to wandering the bookcases, letting associations form in the mind, triggering memories and obscure readerly desires...
I like Anthony Powell's work so much that he has basically obliterated that chunk of the bookstore or library shelf for me, as it were ? by which I mean, I have somehow failed to generate any interest in the works of Dawn Powell or Padgett Powell. Now that Personal Days has landed, I wonder if there will be readers who will be resistant to its charms ? not for any reason grounded in taste, but simply because, like me, they have secret surnominal allegiances, and can only commit to the work of fantasist Paul Park, or the Irish writer David Park, or the poet Cathy Park Hong (if she happens to be misalphabetized). Maybe Tim Parks fanatics will shun me, though I lack that terminal sibilant. The madness might even extend to Robert B. Parker adherents...
Shelf position has been on my mind this week. Personal Days, being a new release and commingling with the other new titles (whether fiction or nonfiction, hardcover or trade paperback), has variable neighbors. (Since Tuesday, friends have been sending me photos of my book in stores, and I've been rather shamelessly posting them on my blog.) A store in San Francisco positions PD between the new Andrew Sean Greer and what appears to be a MAD Magazine compendium; in New York I am, variously, between Kate Christensen and Alexander Waugh, Chuck Palahniuk and Paulina Porizkova, and to the left of James Patterson's admirably titled The Quickie. Crawford Doyle, an independent bookstore on the Upper East Side, has PD tucked with the rest of the standard fiction lineup ? I fall between the works of Orhan Pamuk and a title by the aforementioned Mr. Parks. At Chicago's 57th Street Books, my novel is next to Joyce Carol Oates's The Gravedigger's Daughter ? a nice coincidence, since Oates hails from the same area of Western New York as I do.
I think I have two more stories to tell you, stories that have to do with literary wanderings ? not pilgrimages to authorial birthplaces, but the kind of life-changing shuffling through the stacks that I'm prone to. When I was a student at Columbia (I got my M.F.A. there eons ago), I took a terrific class in modern Korean history, and for one term spent roughly half my life in the school's Starr East Asian Library. While searching for a book on some exiled Korean patriot, my eye snagged on a title: Pale Ink. For no other reason than that Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is my bible, I pulled down the jacketless, pale blue volume ("Swallow Press"?), expecting to replace it a second later.
But wait. What was this? The author, Henriette Mertz, was proposing that America had been "discovered" not by the West, but the East ? that a Buddhist monk from Afghanistan, Hwui Shan, had voyaged with his brethren to the New World at the end of the fifth century, and returned to tell the tale to the Chinese court. His account was derided as fantasy, and no one took it seriously ? until the 19th century, when assorted European sinologists began debating whether the voyage was fact or fancy. The grand synthesizer of this information was an American named Edward Payson Vining, a former railroad executive whose myriad obsessions (Peanut gallery: If he were living now, he'd be a blogger!) included Hamlet (who was a woman, he deduced) and Genesis 32:28 (the dubious translation of a single verb). Unsurprisingly perhaps, Vining came down on the side of the believers.
His gargantuan 1885 work on the Hwui Shan controversy, An Inglorious Columbus, was also in the Starr library, and for the next I-am-not-kidding five years I immersed myself in it. The attraction wasn't so much in what Vining asserted (I'm not entirely convinced Hwui Shan made the voyage), but in how he did so. No detail was too small to be endlessly prodded, illuminated, elevated; despite having no Chinese, he did a character-by-character analysis of the disputed account, with running columns of all the extant translation. Minuscule linguistic points became grounds for a history-shattering worldview. I took notes. I filled binders. I chased down Vining's other books through interlibrary loan, pored over any text I could find that invoked him or addressed the pressing issue of pre-Columbian trans-Pacific contact. Somehow it was very important to me, for no reason I could discern at the time.
I had no horse in this race ? yet I couldn't stop thinking about it. Edward P. Vining... I am Edward P., yes... my thoughts were "vining" around the topic, as it were... My absorption in Viningiana led to one of my first literary essays for The Village Voice, "Chinese Whispers," still a favorite of mine.
Maybe that chance glance in a cramped library stack, that split-second link to Nabokov, and those years of lucubration was a way of putting me on the right track. I knew what I was doing, even when I didn't.
The laundry room in my apartment building in New York has a "lending library," which mostly means people dump their unwanted books onto the two crammed bookcases there: Zagat guides from the mid-'90s, German books grimy with age, career advice books whose directives now must read like science fiction. Still, any room with books is a room I'm happy to be in ? that's me looking at titles in furniture stores ? and recently my investigation into the heap yielded results.
As they say on Friendster, it's complicated.
Waiting for a dryer to stop, I thought I'd dip into a copy of The Catcher in the Rye that I hadn't noticed before. But then I saw, rising up from the back tier, Gossip Girl, the first installment of Cecily von Ziegesar's YA juggernaut. I watched the show ? after some initial resistance, I found it highly addictive ? and thought it might be worth a look. Then my laundry was ready. I went upstairs.
Opened the book around 11 at night.
Closed the book a little after 1 in the morning.
Went to the computer, searched eBay. Contemplated bidding on multi-volume Gossip Girl sets. No, I said. No. Don't do this.
I successfully resisted, and the next time I was in the library, I headed straight for... what was the author's last name again? All the computers were occupied; there was no card catalogue. It begins with a... V? Z? W? I couldn't remember. I strode through the young adult section, feeling decidedly uncomfortable to be doing so, keeping an eye peeled as I passed the latter letters of the alphabet. I checked the Vs, the Ws, the Zs ? nothing.
Maybe the Gossip Girl books were shelved in the adult section? I walked, with great purpose, to the Vsâ€¦and the Ws... and ? what's this?
THE LOGOGRYPH, read the spine of a small book, barely the height of my palm. It looked like no other book on the shelf, in the case, in the room.
Logogryph. What does that even mean? As if in a dream I reached out for the book, half convinced it would turn to dust, and the room itself would curl up in the sunlight and waft away. Letterpress cover, a becoming shade of beige. Strange gnomic device. The protective cellophane wrap on a book so small reminded me of a cigarette package. The author was Thomas Wharton, the publisher something called Gaspereau Press, in Nova Scotia of all places.
The contents of the book were exactly as mysterious as I'd hoped, a sustained Borgesian conjuring act. It was a book about books ? impossible books, Atlantean books (which are made of water), destroyed books. Books that can be used as ships. Stories are ingested. Characters fall out of books and get stranded in our world. The Logogryph is a spell-book, one of those rare narratives that are almost too rich to read ? even the briefest entries practically left me gasping.
I worked through the book slowly, renewed it from the library, turned to it before going to bed. It was a midnight book, a collation of fantastic thoughts about books, and existed best in proximity to sleep.
I didn't want to break the bibliophilic spell by Googling "Thomas Wharton," but eventually I caved in. He turned out to be the author of Icefields, a popular book in Canada (and one which, in fact, I had bought long ago, though I'd never read it). He kept a blog called... Logogryph. I was weirdly dismayed, as if having a website gave him a face, made him human, whereas I wanted him to be a ghost, disconnected from the word-wild-web. There are the kinds of books you want to tell the world about, and the kind that work their magic the less you know about them.
Well: I got over it, and began reading his blog on occasion. My favorite entry is about notebooks ? their uses, their mutable forms, the way gaps in time become incorporated into their aura, the ones that failed. He ends by contemplating how his blog ? The Logogryph ? is like a notebook, albeit a public one; this seems to me the definition I most agree with. It's meant to be composed on the fly, a place to get things down, an impression, a connection; style can be good but lack of style is not necessarily bad. I recently edited a piece for the Poetry Foundation by Levi Stahl, in which he considers the recently published daybooks of George Oppen, Campbell McGrath's Seven Notebooks, and Gabriel Gudding's Rhode Island Notebook. But Levi had further thoughts on the subject ? and he put them up on his (excellent) literary blog, I've Been Reading Lately.
All this great writing on writing, rendered legible as colored light, makes me wonder how long any of it will last. Print is dead, people like to say; but links go dead over time, and no machine lasts forever. Henriette Mertz got her title from Confucius: Pale ink is better than the most retentive memory. This has all been a roundabout way of saying I'm glad that my book, carved largely out of kilobytes and pixels, now exists as that simplest of technologies: Dark marks on paper, bound at the spine.
See you on June 17!