Here we go again, me and the books. Some of them have been with me for almost four decades, decaying perceptibly and imperceptibly as they were dragged from hills to seashores, from wintry cities to tropical rooms. The cold stiffened their spines and froze their pages, but that was nothing compared to the humidity of Louisiana that tried to dissolve them page by page, word by word. And if that wasn't enough, there were the bugs: the miniscule paper eaters of New York that left little black spots in odd spaces, making some words look like they had been translated into Finnish; and then the book-spine-glue-loving giant cockroaches of Louisiana, the euphemistically-named "palmetto bugs," who find the substance so delicious they can work their way through an academic library of hefty books in one summer. All this they survived, my old books, but the one thing that kept them going, tattered, bitten, vampirized, was the hope that one day, I, their owner, would actually read them. Some of them I did read, and enjoyed, and these live on in the hope of being reread. Others I merely leafed through and put down after a few pages or paragraphs and never picked up again. Still, just for having touched them, they keep on struggling to stay together.
I still have some old-style French books that required cutting the pages as you read them, but such books are no longer published. It was entirely too revealing, when looking through someone's books, to see just how much of the book they'd read. The libraries of many French intellectuals were full of books cut up to a point, then abandoned. I know, because I made it a point to look during a time in the seventies when I visited French intellectuals (for fun). Some of these intellectuals, the not-very-good-ones, actually cut all the pages of new books to make it look like they'd read everything. This, in fact, is how you could tell a phony French intellectual from a real one in those days: the phonies had all their books cut. The real ones only cut as much as they actually read.
But back to my books: they are being moved once again, an event that in the life of a book is the equivalent of a major human tragedy like divorce or cardiac arrest. Books don't like to move much after their first big move, equivalent to human birth, which is out of a bookstore into a house. They don't mind being dragged from a shelf to a couch, but that's their maximum allowance for distance. Books are bourgeois, like cats, they mostly like sleeping and being leafed-through. (In cats, that's scratching.) My son, who also had a lot of books before he moved to Portland, Ore., preceded me in the agony of deciding which books to take, which ones to store, and which ones to get rid of. It was instructive to watch him agonizing over each and every book, as if he had actually read it. Well, he may have. He suffered so much he might actually have. It was instructive to watch him going through this process, but it didn't help me a whole lot. For one, I have more books than he had, and for two, I am a professional book-guy, which implies a certain duty toward books, especially those written by writers I know, real friends of mine, some of them, who lovingly signed their work for me wittily, lovingly, or tartly. These books don't only call out to me in a personal way, but they are loaded with guilt. Some of them I've read and I thought marvelous (all my friends are geniuses!), but others I've only pretended to read, and while the writers themselves don't know this, their books do. This is why I sit here, writing this SOS, in a crawl space between towers of reproachful volumes. I listen to them cry piteously in several languages, a low, monotonous, heart-breaking plaint that can mean only one thing: somewhere, in a different house, someone is moving the books I wrote, thinking exactly the same thoughts. Andrei's last book, New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years Of Writing From the City, likes to move no matter what its author says.