Monday, May 16, 2011

The Battle of the Books (and Other Nocturnal Emissions)

by Stephen J. Gertz

Until recently, I would, from time to time, awaken in the middle of the night to a murmured commotion emanating from the living room. Not unlike the sound of whispering children engrossed in play, the music of merriment would waft into my bedroom like dancing notes adrift upon a zephyr.

Clad in only a knee-length nightshirt and long pajama cap with fuzzy ball at its tail, I would silently ease out of bed, light a candle, and, like Ebenezer Scrooge on recon for Christmas ghosts, cautiously, with no little trepidation, make my way to the living room, concealing myself at the doorway so I could espy the goings on without being caught.

And what did I see? All of my books all over the place, relaxed, with their jackets off, refugees from confinement on the shelves, and mingling, working the room, chit-chatting with other volumes, gossiping, laughing, having a bookishly good time. Over to the right, for instance, Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is whispering to Jane Eyre and Jane appears abashed; a liaison dangereuse is obviously taking place, for sure, and here’s hoping that Jane has protection - and not from Mickey Cohen or a USC-type Trojan. Near the curtains, a copy of David Ebin’s The Drug Experience is huffing a bottle of leather dressing for the fumes that refresh. The Story of O, A Man With a Maid, and Lolita are behind the couch and the less said the better.

Joseph Forshaw’s classic, Parrots of the World, is mimicking every word that Leaves of Grass is reciting; Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is talking money with Chernow’s John D. Rockefeller, the two marveling that they have a friend in common; Barry Paris’ Louise Brooks is closer-than-this in confab with Lee Server’s Ava Gardner and who wouldn’t want to be the text block between either of those alluring covers?; Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York is on the lam and out of control; and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is desperately trying to escape.

Last week, however, I awoke to a clamor. Throwing fears aside I dashed into the living room only to find that all my books had gone berserk, were at each other’s throats, rending dust jackets to shreds, cracking joints, throwing spines out of alignment, deckling edges, springing signatures, dislocating shoulder notes, rubbing each other the wrong way, and generally causing mayhem where merriment once reigned.

The Battle of the Books  (1704).

I took a picture with my new digital camera with software that auto-adjusts the snapped image  so it appears as a vintage engraving (see above). While I futzed with the hi-tech Kodak, a crew of mercenary knights on horseback charged in, further thickening the plot, which had now sickened into a sanguinary battle of the books. The blood ran like ink; it was not a pretty sight. And I swear I saw a  mounted horse, flying. Don't ask about the flying chick blowin' Miles' So What.

Curiously, Jonathan Swift had written about this Verdun of the volumes way back in 1704, part of the prolegomena to his satire, A Tale of the Tub, the author's first published work. He saw it as a battle between ancient and modern books in St. James Library, which was very kind of him; I’m no saint, my name ain’t James, and if my collection of books qualifies as a library then libraries are in even worse shape than reported.

Authors and ideas go toe-to-toe, and the entire tableau is worthy of a segment on Oprah, with members her book club, viciously and without conscience or care for the consequences (no free car!), throwing tomes at each other. The psychopathology of book love/hate is now recognized and bibliopath has entered the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as a standard axis sub-sub-category.

Then the doctor switched my meds. Swift relief was not, alas, forthcoming; the next night I awoke to the reason why my mother routinely lights a match for no obvious reason and Beano was invented.

Attributed to Jonathan Swift.

I went into the living room and for the next hour was transfixed while Jonathan Swift explained the benefits of the wind in the intestinal willows, or the fundament-all cause of the distempers incidental to the fair sex enquired into, proving, a posteriori, once and for all, that most of the disorders in tail’d upon them, are owing to flatulence not seasonably vented. When he finished reading from his book of no ifs, ands, yet butts I felt like I might explode.

'Next morning I called my proctologist. He moonlights as a chimney sweep. My flue swept and thoroughly vented, I slept like a baby that night, which is to say I woke up  four times, crying, hungry, and with a diaper-full.

On the positive side, I no longer awaken in the wee hours with books in the belfry. The meds passed the brain-book barrier, now my books sleep through the night and the bibliographical soap opera that once broadcast while I slumbered has, evidently, been canceled, along with All My Children, One Life To Live, and, due to budget cuts, Reference Desk, the daily serial that ripped the curtain off the scandals, sensations,  raw passions, and illicit desires within a deceptively tranquil suburban library in Liberty Valley, USA, a nice place to raise the kids the American way.

1 comment:

  1. I now understand why my copies of A Moveable Feast and That Summer in Paris, both once pristine, are beginning to look a bit beat up. I've moved them to separate rooms.


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