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A Life in Books

For Henry.

When my father-in-law passed away in January he left behind a life in books: written, read, collected. There were stacks of psychology studies in his office, sea yarns in the living room of the beach house, and poetry anthologies in the guest bedroom. But most were in the built-in bookcases in the family room on the second floor of the house he lived in for forty years, sequentially and topically arranged to span his interests as he crisscrossed literary borders. It was this room that I was indirectly put in charge of processing when my mother-in-law decided to move out of that house. “Thank goodness you’re here,” she’d say whenever I arrived on a weekend to help clear. “You can deal with the books.”

books on a shelf

Over the course of the next few months we gradually dismantled the room, sorting everything into piles of Keep, Sell, Donate. There were classics I’d read in familiar and unfamiliar editions: that high school Signet Classic Wuthering Heights (50 cents) with the brooding Heathcliff emerging from a dark tree in the background, in contrast to the simple orange Penguin edition with its British price tag of 2/6. George Orwell’s 1984 (35 cents) turned up with a lurid cartoonish cover boasting a tale of “Forbidden love…Fear…Betrayal.” We sold a few first editions to the Strand Bookstore but we gave away hundreds of well-loved volumes: to friends, to professional colleagues, to our community book swap, and many more in weekly stops at Goodwill. They left in clear recycling bags, cardboard banker boxes, and paper bags from Trader Joe’s, hauled by hand.

cover of Wuthering Heights

The earliest books, at the far left of the room, were hardbound volumes inherited from his parents and parents-in-law (his mother-in-law had annotated hers with notes like “very good!” on the flyleaf). Here were the multi-volume Library of America classics, the histories of the Jews, the Anchor Bible, and the Tao Te Ching. It was a corner little used, I think, but foundational: like a rock upon which the rest of the collection was built, with gifts inscribed from early teachers or saved from courses at City College. There were books like these scattered throughout the room, familiar to me from the home I grew up in and those I visited as a child. Everyone I knew on the Upper West Side of Manhattan had some of these same books: Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization, Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in its own slipcase, and important relics of the 1970s, like All the President’s Men and Silent Spring. And, somewhere, you’d find the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Freud (the classic Strachey translation in 24 volumes) along with Ernest Jones’s three-volume biography, its gilt numerals bright against the rigid spines.

cover of 1984

Those were books to be owned and displayed more than read, although the psychologists in my circles (including my father-in-law) knew Freud deeply and could quote him like a Bible. But these were the common elements of a generational identity. The distinct chapters of my father-in-law’s life appeared in the waves of books as you turned the corner of that family room: the fat, yellowing Russian novels bleeding into rows upon rows of contemporary fiction from Roth to Lahiri. His life path could be traced careening through the multi-shelf section on Shakespeare, which his mother used to teach, on an eclectic route through Homer and Herodotus, Beowulf, and Don Quixote. He read at a breakneck pace—to learn and to travel vicariously through Ireland, African deserts, South Sea islands. And he read to write, writing books and professional papers in his field as well as essays on metaphor in poetry and psychology. He self-published his own volumes of poetry, as well as transcribing and editing his immigrant grandfather’s journal.  All of that output seemed to require a massive input of raw material. Or maybe it was the other way around. His appetite for words filling him up until it overflowed onto his own pages.

Books were a bond between us, though sometimes a vexed one. He had strong opinions before I could frame my own, and I often hid mine from him. But I recognized the way his reading had shaped him, how much he had invested himself in them, because I did the same. Sorting the books became a way of continuing and deepening a conversation that had always been somewhat indirect and also a way of processing his loss, as the books moved through my hands and disappeared. It enacted a metaphor he would have loved to have talked over, thought through, written about. “What do your books say about you?” I might have asked, wondering whether there was a book or an essay there. And he would have replied with an example and a quote from something I hadn’t read, urging me to write something on “library as metaphor.” He would have smiled at the ironies of turning this lens on himself, a little abashed.

It’s no surprise that books are always physical objects as well as abstract representations of something bigger and baggier. They create the volume (or volumes over time, in my father-in-law’s case) of a life, shaping the inner contours of the mind as well as the walls of a living room. The life visible in this collection was both a particular generation’s (Abba Eban and Arthur Schlesinger) and his own, inflected by authors he knew (Gerald Stern and William Zinsser): it was thoughtful, engaged, and endlessly curious. He would have been pleased to be part of another kind of reading—his books read to reveal their reader—in a context he hadn’t foreseen.

When the sale of that house finally closed my mother-in-law instinctively returned to the connection between houses and lives and books and how they live on in memory: “It’s more like a book is closing than a chapter,” she emailed. “But what a memorable book!” That closing had been long delayed and evoked all the poignant associations with “closure”—along with the reassuring reminder that “to close” can mean both to end and to bring nearer (a paradox my father-in-law would have enjoyed). It’s an adjective for proximity and connection, here kept alive in memory and on the page.


I have the impression that most literary types didn’t like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby this summer…. but I enjoyed it. I liked the super-saturated colors, the dizzying camera angles, the speeding cars, the glamorous costumes, and the anachronistic music…. I love it when the man in the pink suit explodes into violence (see below). [youtube] I love the book too, but they are two different animals. As Daisy tells Jay, “this world is made entirely out of your imagination,” and that’s what both book and film pull off. That willed act of imagination is the essence of the novel that any adaptation should try to get right, and Luhrmann has the gift. Like Gatsby, like Fitzgerald, Luhrmann dives in to his story wholeheartedly and believes in what he has made. I think the film’s attempt to show some background by cutting to Gatsby’s dustbowl childhood and war service was a mistake for the same reason: it should stick with the fictions and leave the “reality” for us to imagine. Does the film represent the book?  It interprets it — as it is supposed to, through Luhrmann’s extraordinary lens.

A Mind Diseased



There’s a novelty element to the latest Macbeth on Broadway: the play is set in a mental hospital and Alan Cumming plays a patient who acts out all the roles. It’s a tribute to the production and performance that you cease thinking about that novelty while sitting in the theater, immersed in the pathos heightened by this setting. We learn nothing about the “main” character, the patient, but much about Shakespeare’s characters.

After all, Macbeth does lose his mind during the course of the play. He turns from a man afraid to consider murder to one who can slaughter a whole family. The voices and visions all find an uncanny home in this production, and the directors can be economical in suggesting them. The weird sisters and the visions of ghosts and bloody daggers appear organic in this context and so the production doesn’t bother with many special effects. It uses surveillance cameras and three TV screens to show close ups of Cumming that exagerrate his strangeness and the disorienting action.  Cumming’s impersonations are all implied with a few gestures or simple props: a blanket turned into a cape for MacDuff, a baby doll for Malcolm, and even more simply, a shift in voice and body language for Lady Macbeth. You can see from the clip above that Cumming doesn’t play Lady Macbeth broadly, so to speak, but saves the melodrama for the lines themselves.

By the end, when Macbeth reaches his elaborately foretold fate, the interpretation of reality, the sense of sense-making, has become crucial to the play as a whole. Macbeth was led into his tragedy by one weird sisters’ prophecy and he is brought down by another one. But in both cases he reads (or misreads) the prophecies very literally: he will be king, Birnum Wood will never move to Dunsinane Castle, no man is not born of woman. His literal interpretations of his visions are equally destructive, and seem to suggest a “fatal flaw” in the old terms of character analysis — or madness. It is this inability to understand and interpret the reality around him, to be instead driven by an urgent inner reality, that makes Macbeth, the play and the character, tragic.

Black and White and Read All Over

I’ve been reading, and writing, about characters set against backdrops of texts, and here is a wonderful visual example of that juxtaposition. Photographer Carl Van Vechten often took portraits against geometric backgrounds, which creates a complex formal composition. It seems to set human variety within a grid of some kind.

Here the grid is especially interesting because it too is man made, or written. Yet Van Vechten disrupts our expectations that culture will be predictable and regular by making the words all aslant and senseless.  Against that background of torn posters and mangled phrases stands another photographer, surrealist Man Ray, also at an angle. The effect is disorienting in the best way — Ray’s tie appears to hang sideways, disturbing gravity; the words appear to climb and fall. Van Vechten, best known for his portraits of Harlem Renaissance figures, was both an artist and author himself. This photograph seems his attempt to be both at once: both writer of image and photographer of text. It particularly suits Man Ray’s own art of surprising juxtapositions. The artist here, conventional in shirt and tie and profile, also borders on the absurd–as if that black and white frame can’t quite contain him.

To see more photographs by Van Vechten check out the Library of Congress’ collection.