In late 2008 I was offered a position for which I later realized I was not qualified. Since I needed a job, and since no background or credit check was required, and since it paid nineteen dollars an hour and was as close to a dream job as I could imagine, I took it. The task: compile a list of the 1,500 most important works of literature, catalog them, buy them, and install them in my new employer’s private library, a tastefully converted attic space lined with empty, dedicated shelves in an old Austin house not far from the University of Texas. JB, my employer, a man of some means, explained that he wished to retire early from medicine, a job of some means, and have immediately at hand all the literature that matters. The Victorians would have classified this a gentleman’s library; that’s to say, a large number of books, ideally first editions in fine or original bindings, collected according to some principle or subject (genre-definers, Shelley and his circle, horae, really big books, unica, whatever), shelved eccentrically in a charming, crepuscular space, then read, one after another, at leisure, until boredom or death ends the endeavor.
JB—late forties, smart, mysterious, inquisitive, enthusiastic, a gentleman—seems unlikely to yield to death or boredom, and so in a couple of decades he will surely be among the most diversely well read persons in town. That his library will have been compiled by one of the most ill read persons in town is a humiliating personal irony I’ve withal suffered alone.
The thing is, I hadn’t known of my steep deficiency when I started the job. I thought I’d read selectively and widely. After all, I’d finished the Hergé corpus as a boy, devoured a respectable portion of the world’s prison-escape literature as an adolescent, read the sci-fi impresario Jack Vance’s thinner books in high school, devoured the free galley proofs and advanced readers that were the only perks of my many bookstore jobs, and, during the long summer of 1995, when the greedy, infantine federation of professional baseball players and their owners fucked everybody out of a regular season, I read Ulysses, a long, novel-like work composed by an unstable Irishman, only two words of which I remember, the first and last: Stately and Yes; the rest of the book was a kind of summer-long literary blackout.
The breadth of my reading, combined with my bookselling and book-restoration experience, would, I thought, surely be enough to compile a list unassailable in scope and selectivity. At our first meeting, I told JB I’d have it ready for him in a week or so, an estimate he greeted with delight, as he was anxious to have the library stocked and ready.
A week later, stupefied, I informed JB that it might take closer to a year to put together a passable list. Disappointed—crestfallen—JB asked why. I told him that I hadn’t realized there might be more to the project than noting Pulitzer Prize winners, scanning the classics wall at Barnes & Noble, and consulting my dad, the best-read person I knew. I told JB I hadn’t realized that the Chinese had produced more than just the Art of War guy; the Nigerians, Achebe; the Colombians, Márquez. I told JB I hadn’t realized that there lives a woman named Patricia Grace who was the first Maori woman to publish a short-fiction collection, that a certain Ayi Kwei Armah was the first Ghanaian to produce an existential novel, that one Amos Tutuola was the first Nigerian magical-realist, that something called El Güegüense, composed by an unremembered Nicaraguan around 1550, is considered the oldest work of theater in the Western Hemisphere. I informed JB that I’d discovered that Gilgamesh is not the oldest known work of literature (four centuries saltier is The Instructions of Šuruppak, a work of Sumerian wisdom literature); that the Dark Ages were not too dark to write in; that the European Renaissance of the fourteenth century started in the twelfth; that an Arabian fellow named Ibn al-Nafis wrote science fiction in the thirteenth century; that Margaret Cavendish, a British lady of the seventeenth, also penned sci-fi; that some anonymous fifteenth-century Balochistani literati composed an epic ballad, Hero Šey Murı¯d, a folkloric drama on a par with the best Elizabethan tragedies; that 1989’s groundbreaking lesbian children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies, was eight years preceded by the Danish Mette bor hos Morten og Erik. I told JB that there was simply far too much to learn, so much that it would be impossible to establish the relative importance of individual works; impossible to avoid the unknowing omission of gems and the inclusion of chaff. I did not tell him that deep down I felt the production of his library would be not a yearlong project but an utterly unfinishable one, doomed to imperfection. He might end up with tidy rows of indisputably important works, but they would be everywhere muddied by the miserable daubs of impostors, and everywhere pocked with unforgivable lacunae—books that should be included, except that I don’t know where or what the hell they are.
After my melodramatic pessimism died down, we began again. At Spider House, a local coffee joint that plays Social Distortion at eight o’clock in the morning, JB and I met to discuss exactly what his library was to be. What kinds of books, what editions, what. How much time to spend, how much money. Two hours and three cups of pitchy coffee later, both JB and I were surprised to discover that JB wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted. I began to get the feeling that he wanted me to tell him.
“I’m not retired yet,” he said. “In order to retire early, I must work constantly. Which leaves me little time to devote to the development of the library. That is why I hired you.”
You know, I really don’t know what I’m doing, I thought, and said instead, “I’ll do my best.”
JB told me there were a few things he was certain of. One, diversity was to undergird the entire project. That meant all nations, cultures, eras, and genres were to be quarried. Two, all works must be in, or have been translated into, French, English, or Spanish, the languages in which he is most comfortably fluent. Three, books were to be critical editions, not specifically first editions. Four, spend no more than one hundred dollars on any one book.
“Anything else?” I said.
“I supposed we should define literature,” I said. “And important.”
“Let me know what you come up with.”
JB paid for our coffee and we parted. A homework panic the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since junior high seized me by the trachea, dragged me thirteen blocks to my house, placed me before a laptop, and commanded me to define this library.
Literature, I decided, because there was no one else to do the deciding for me, would comprise fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and orature. In other words, everything. To refine this, I came up with exclusions: musical theater, shadow plays, declarations, manifestos, speeches, periodicals, constitutions and bills of rights, statutes and codes, patents, lyrics, broadsides, single poems, single letters, journalism, boilerplate, recensions, revisions, and exegeses of major works, and scientific/mathematical papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Why these? I don’t know. But I’m the decider.
But what would constitute important? Must a work have won prizes? Conquered best-seller lists? Piqued extremists? Must it have been panned by Kakutani, clubbed by Oprah, criminalized by Congress? Those are all fine things, but ultimately I decided that a candidate work must satisfy at least one of the following criteria (though qualifying per se wouldn’t oblige inclusion, since we were limited by our shelf space):
(1) Caused serious and/or lasting controversy, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe, the Tridentine Council’s Index librorum prohibitorum, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Of course, the words serious, lasting, and controversy are all as ambiguous as literature and important. It is here I realized that striving for objectivity was futile; that this library was going to be shelves and shelves of a literary simpleton’s guesses.
(2) Was instrumental in causing or stopping war, revolution, or genocide, such as Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger’s Malleus maleficarum, Seymour Hersh’s My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath, the anonymous Programa zavoevaniya.
A little more concrete.
(3) Launched a genre, or is considered its definitive work, such as Jorge Luis Borges’s Historia universal de la infamia (1935; magical realism), Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness (1928; lesbian fiction), Yoshida Kenko¯’s Essays in Idleness (1332; essays—two and half centuries before Montaigne!).
Hopelessly un-concrete. For instance, no less than a hundred different works are regarded, by one expert or another, as the first novel written in English: Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Sir Philip Sidney’s Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and a profoundly obscure sixteenth-century work called Beware the Cat by one William Baldwin.
(4) Had exceptional and inimitable circumstances surrounding its coming-to-be, such as Anne Frank’s Het achterhuis, Leonora Christina Ulfeldt’s Jammers-minde, Henry Darger’s History of the Vivian Girls.
The production of any work of any kind is, in its way, exceptional, and of course inimitable. Still, some twenty books in the library were chosen as a result of my interpretation of this criterion.
(5) Markedly changed the understanding of the world, such as Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, Kurt Gödel’s Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze, Baruch Spinoza’s Ethica.
Every bit of research suggests that many existential drawers were up got in a bundle because of these books.
(6) Was censored, suppressed, banned, or resulted in the author’s death, such as Miguel Servet’s Christianismi restitutio, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja.
(7) Is the foundational work of a religion or movement, such as the Vedas, Martin Luther’s Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum, The Book of Mormon.
(8) Has shown great longevity, such as Hesiod’s Theogony, Eleventh-Dynastic Egypt’s The Tale of Sinuhe, the Mayan Codex dresdensis.
(9) Is prominent within a culture, class, or age underrepresented in mainstream literature, such as
David Unaipon’s Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, Briton Hammon’s Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues.
Here we go again. Every adjective, and some of the nouns, can be interpreted in so many ways. Underrepresented literature, to me (in light of my previously mentioned ill-readness), amounted to nearly a quarter of the library.
(10) Transcends literary and cultural boundaries, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Pai Hsien-Yung’s Nièzıˇ.
(11) Is a perennial subject of discourse, scholarship, or syllabi, such as Xueqin Cao’s Hong lou meng, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologica.
(12) Provides the only substantive account of a period of history that would otherwise have been lost, such as Gregory of Tours’s Decem libri historiarum, the anonymous The Secret History of the Mongols, and Herodotus’s Histories.
And so, from these foggy axioms, which JB approved, a list could be compiled that required only research, extrapolation, presumption, and guessing, obviating well-readness altogether. I would not have to read books; merely read about them. A relief! I could do this. I could do this on the couch in my underpants. I would consult other lists, then run each title through that first protocol of dilettanti, the variably learned, ever-inflating, ever-infuriating speculum maius of the lay: Wikipedia.
A list began to form. Patterns emerged. Numbers mounted. Statistics resolved. Such as: 60 percent of the books were originally written in languages other than English, 7 percent were available only in paperback, 20 percent were by women, 3 percent were by Anonymous (and here I paraphrase Virginia Woolf: “Anonymous was a woman”), Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft both had a record four books on the list. Three books had the same title: The Red Book. The thirteenth-century mystical poet and juridical thinker Rumi was represented by a five-volume shelf-warper titled The Big Red Book; the other two just happened to be the largest and smallest single volumes in the library: the larger by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and the smaller, whose title is prefixed with Little, by the psycho-Leninist Mao Zedong. Also curious: six books were titled in the interrogative: Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s Chto delat?, Vladimir Lenin’s Chto delat?, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Ivan Bloch’s Budushchaya voina?, and P. K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The longest work—not counting the Yoˇnglè Encyclopedia—was the Gesar Epic, a twelfth-century central Asian chant-fable, at some twenty million words. Meanwhile, the longest novel (and the only as-yet-unpublished work in the library) was Henry Darger’s aforementioned The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion: 7.5 million words, less than half of Darger’s lifetime output, yet five times the length of Proust’s infamously wordy À la recherche du temps perdu. The shortest work was Lucy Terry Prince’s “Bars Fight,” a moving ballad at a mere 183 words.
Plenty of exceptions to our forthset charter of axioms ultimately found their way into the library. Le code civil des Français, for example, is a code of very civilized civil law so elegantly and economically composed that the entire text of the first edition formed a volume about the size of a hardcover of Gone with the Wind. This tidy body directly influenced the civil codes of most European nations, most of Latin America, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Quebec, and the state of Louisiana. I learned all this from a rare-books dealer who specializes in both French law and returning email queries from total strangers. For many works I came across, I would simply write to the person who’d committed the most scholarship on the book in question, explain the library project, and pray for a return email. Often that prayer was answered.
Another exception: Valerie Solanas’s 1967 SCUM Manifesto, a radical anarcho-feminist tract that called for the wholesale annihilation of men, either satirically or literally (a close reading will support either interpretation). Certainly the most influential work whose entire first print run of two thousand was by mimeograph. Also excepted: Einstein’s letters to Roosevelt, the charter of the nuclear arms race.
Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”—word for word the most powerful antislavery speech ever delivered; Emile Zola’s J’accuse…!; the anonymous Manden Charter; Columbus’s Carta escrita al escribano de ración de los Sen˜ores Reyes Católicos, announcing the discovery of the New World; Abu Khabbab al-Masri’s Explosives Course. All exceptions to the exceptions.
And, bucking the no-technical-stuff rule, we included Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s last theorem, a 106-page solution to the most famous unsolved problem in mathematics, at least up until 1995. Evidently only two or three people understand it. (It is unknown whether Wiles is one of them.) As such, it has been crowned the most unreadable work in a library swarmy with them.
Perhaps this is a good place to open a brief parenthesis on readability. As I slowly began to get a feel for the calculus above, it grew clear that some—lots—of the qualifying books might not keep the average reader’s attention for very long. Though Chanakya’s treatise on polity, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, and the Annotated Code of Canon Law might all in fact be un-put-down-able, brief synopses found on the internet suggest they are not, that the mere cracking-open of any of these works would put one to bed, if not kill one outright.
“JB,” I said, “I don’t know about some of these. Do you really want Paul the Deacon’s Historia langobardorum? It looks boring.”
“Does it meet the criteria?”
“Then I want to read it.”
And there you have it.
As the statistics and curiosities became more and more compelling, my original wrath and dolor began to subside. Confidence and optimism crept in. But so did new loathings, fresh biles, novel peeves. Ascendant among them: the lists of others. Have you noticed that lists of exceptional-in-some-way somethings, like books, really nettle people? That book shouldn’t be there, this book should, that list has no large-print YA spiritual self-help proto-horror, this one is all white guys, that one is gender-queer unfriendly, this one left off The Da Vinci Code, that one is for losers, this one is for prudes. I know the longer I worked on JB’s list, the more annoyed I became with other lists. Yet they were absolutely essential to the entire undertaking: the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century (plus its cognate list for nonfiction); like compilations issued by Le Monde, Time, the Guardian, the New York Times, Die Zeit, NRC Handelsblad, the World Library. Then there’s the Encyclopedia Britannica’s sixty-volume Great Books of the Western World, Thomas Jefferson’s list of essential reading, and, most of all, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Whenever my research dead-ended, whenever a knight’s tour of the internet met with oblivion, I went to Bloom, which includes a list of some 1,100 books by 900 authors. The best of the best. At times, I felt like my list was approaching Bloom’s in breadth and acumen, but then I’d remember that Bloom had probably read every single book in his list, whereas I’d read about one-tenth of 1 percent of mine. Maybe not even that many. Definitely S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, though, and some of the books with pictures.
After two years of list-making, during which I took many long breaks (to JB’s understandable frustration), it was finally time for the really fun phase of the project, and the one to which I felt best suited, given my vocation as a rare-books dealer and avocation as a collector: buying all the books.
Let me be precise: buying would be only half of this phase of the project, the other half being not fun at all: data entry. In addition to walls lined with books awaiting his retirement, part of JB’s vision for his library was an accompanying sortable database in which each work would be cataloged, described, summarized, reviewed, and appended with numerous tags. If, say, JB was in the mood for seventeenth-century Ethiopic philosophy, the ideal database would respond to a search for those three tags by returning 1667’s Hatata, by Yacob Zera, North Africa’s great ethicist. After testing numerous private, downloadable programs and finding them all wanting in one or another serious way, we turned to librarything.com, a social-networking site that functions much like Facebook, except that books, not friends, are the social coin.
Though LibraryThing is hardly ideal—it is buggy, slow, unfriendly, and resistant to bulk uploads (and downright impervious to bulk uploads from Macs)—its capacity for data appears to be without limit. And it can be made private so that others cannot pinch your work, slander your tastes, or try to make friends. But best of all, more than one person can work on it at a time, because I couldn’t do all the data entry by myself, certainly not within a year. Luckily, Austin filmmaker and fledgling rare-books dealer Joan Hendrix was available for hire. She would soon prove the more agile in all aspects of the enterprise, especially buying, LibraryThing wrangling, and assuaging JB’s polite frustrations at my general sloth and incompetence.
JB had had his shelves built long before he hired me. The available space would allow for 1,500 books—hardcovers preferred—calculating, as I did, the average thickness of a single volume at one inch, a dimension dictated by and extrapolated from measuring the books on my own shelves. Well, my estimation was a bit off. I had cleverly accounted for colossi like the Domesday Book, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and the Corpus Aristotelicum, but some works I did not take into account, because I’d never heard of them: Bjørneboe’s History of Bestiality (three volumes, eight inches of shelf space), the Obras of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (four volumes, nine inches), Wu Cheng-en’s Xi Yu Ji (four volumes, eight inches), Moses De León’s (attr.) Zohar (four volumes, six inches), others, many others. The projected census of the library began to shrink. It was rescheduled to 1,400 books. Then 1,300. Then 1,250. By this time Joan was in full employ and we had begun buying. As more and more books came in, it became clearer that even 1,250 would overtax the shelves. An expansion was necessary. So, in a room with nary an inch of naked wall available for additional shelves, JB called upon Roberto, his carpenter, a Vitruvian sorcerer responsible for much of the exquisite woodwork in the rest of the house, and somehow he conjured up enough extra shelf space to hold the projected 1,250—as long we bought abridgments or microprint editions of the really big books, like the Oxford English Dictionary, the Talmud, and Churchill’s The Second World War.
But a new problem emerged, this with the list itself. I began to come across other books, must-haves, no-brainers, imperishable DiMaggios of literature that I missed the first time round. For them to have room on the shelves, I realized it would be necessary to cull the herd. I would revisit books chosen early on in the project until I found one I’d erroneously esteemed, downgrade it to crap, pluck it from the shelves, and, in its stead, install a worthier book. At present there are some two hundred volumes of formerly timeless world literature piled up in my room at home, waiting for mug shots and sentencing to Amazon for recoup.
Wherever possible, Joan and I bought critical editions, or companion volumes, especially for the dense, smartypants stuff like Derrida’s De la Grammatologie (#1,087), an indigestible French sea biscuit in which something called deconstructive criticism is defined; Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (#990), a fundamental work on feminism and queer theory written in sentences of record-breaking length; and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (#1,235).1
The books came from all over. Joan and I purchased most of them through the standard online retail platforms of Amazon, Alibris, Biblio, and AbeBooks. We also bought from private dealers, browsed secondhand shops, rifled thrift stores, photocopied library books, shopped the shelves of friends and relatives. Most online purchases came from American vendors, but 20 percent or so were from abroad, mainly Europe, Latin America, Australia, and Canada, but also a goodly number from India. These last were generally excellent photo-reprints of British Raj-era translations of Indian and other Eastern classics, like the Panchatantra, a third-century BCE Sanskrit conduct book in the form of a collection of moralistic animal stories. (At the risk of offending through generalization, I would like to mention that many of the books shipped from India smelled of kerosene. And many books from France smelled of tobacco smoke, German books of coal smoke, Latin American books of the sea, British books of mildew, New England books of road salt.) A handful of books came from space: those with virtual imprimaturs I simply printed out and bound in library buckram.
One ebook was not so easy: the Liber Juratus Honorii, a thirteenth-century grimoire, an elegant modern-English translation of which can be found online, and only online. Why not just print and bind as before?, you ask. Because of the following proviso, which forms the web page’s incipit:
Permission is hereby granted to make one handwritten copy for personal use, provided the master bind his executors by a strong oath (juramentum) to bury it with him in his grave. Beyond this, whoever copies this sacred text without permission from the editor will be damned.
I’m not terribly superstitious, nor am I creeped out by the mortal consequences that a reckless attitude toward such paranormal warning systems threatens to foment, but somehow I felt that the estimable Joseph H. Peterson, translator of and final authority on the Liber Juratus, was not fucking around. So I wrote to him, explained about the library, and requested permission to write out one copy without suffering damnation. Mr. Peterson, who was polite and enthusiastic, assented. JB, however, has so far not granted permission, as it would take me an awfully long time on the clock to transcribe and bind the three-hundred-odd pages of the Liber Juratus. As of this writing, it is one of the few books whose acquisition remains in abeyance and in question.
Most of the books were easy to get. Just search, place in basket, order, and wait. Between three and eighty days later, the book would arrive, usually via USPS. Bryan, our mailman, suffered. At the height of his labors, during July and August, when the temperatures would reach 109°F—not a dry heat—he would sometimes be thirty parcels burthen per day. But he stuck with it without complaint or vengeance, whereas Joan’s mailman, a passive-aggressive cretin given to daily repine, quit midway through the project.
Delivery time was the best part of the workday, though the books delivered sometimes brought woe. Most arrived as described, but occasionally a book marketed as, say, “Very Good,” usually by some kitchen-table used-book start-up whose only profits come from shipping overcharges, would arrive looking and smelling like a pan-seared cod. I have noticed that a seller’s veracity with regard to a book’s condition is proportionate to the flexibility of the seller’s return policy. Books that have been, say, pan-seared, cannot usually be returned; there’s nothing to do but send the seller a snide note and let the cod lay where Jesus flang it.
The list is hopelessly incomplete, profoundly flawed, shot with errors: amateurism at its most arrogant. It is especially weak in drama, non-English nonfiction, Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian literature of every sort, children’s books, history, sociology, and oral tradition. If JB keeps me on the payroll, hopefully I’ll be able to feed some of these genres. But at this point, almost all the books that can be bought have been bought. All that remains is one last major schlep—Joan and I have between us some 150 recently received volumes that must still be brought to JB’s and shelved. The project will then be over. JB and his library will await the moment of his retirement, Joan will move on to her next film, and I will return to the expensive tedium of muttonthumping.2 Officially, that is. Unofficially, I will continue to work on the list. It’s become a habit, an irresistible one, though not nearly so wretched as, say, heroin or Sudoku. During the period it’s taken me to write this essay, I’ve found five more books that simply must be included in the library: Tacitus’s De origine et situ Germanorum, Wharton’s Age of Innocence (how many gimmes like that have I overlooked?), Shannon’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication, the anonymous Utenzi: Utendi Wa Tambuka, Utenzi Wa Shufaka, and Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite. And to make room for these worthies, five others must be fetched away.