(This post first appeared on July 18, 2011. -- sdh )
Last week, my wife and I snuck away into the mountains. I packed only one book. The plan was to read the land—penstemon, aster, Indian paintbrush, lupin, aspen, lodgepole, spruce—and come back to the books and e-mails and blogs after a few days completely offline.
But in the lodge where we stayed two nights, the sign for the “Library” caught my eye, and I couldn’t resist a quick inventory of the shelves.
In retrospect, it makes sense: the lodge is kind of a toney place, and the library is stacked by or for the toney sorts who frequent it (this was my first time, and it’s hard to imagine when I’ll have the money to come back). The books fell into four categories: business books (art of the deal etc), mystery/intrigue novels (Tom Clancy et al), children’s books, and accidents. The business books took up most of the three-shelf library. The accidents were comprised by To Kill A Mockingbird, a book about Copernicus, and a Peterson’s Field Guide to stars and constellations—and I imagined these being left by elderly guests.
There was not a single book of poetry, nor a book that contained a poem—and though this was not a surprise, I thought about leaving behind the copy of Wind in a Box I’d brought along or the recent issue of New South I found in the car when we were unpacking, but I wanted to keep these books, and in general I’m averse to leaving behind or even giving away a book.Still, the idea has stuck with me, like any number of YouTube clips in which an author installs his or her own book on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble.
(See also: this.)
Here, it seems to me—however much anyone would say it’s just about getting seen—that this guerrilla placement, moraying on the sharks of distribution, is basically a way inserting oneself into some representation of authority or taste. To place one’s book this way—especially a title published by a smaller, independent press, or even a self-published title—is to make a statement about the book’s worth, even if it gives the particular bookstore too much credit. (Does anyone do this at The Strand?)
Inserting a book into the lodge library would not exactly be the same thing, but I think my impulse responds to some of the same desires—to see what is most valuable to me represented in some index of power—though it may also be implicated in my assessment of the lodge’s hospitality, my asking whether the place had everything I might need to be comfortable.
If I go back, if I leave a book there, will it be an act of valuation? Will it be a gesture, however likely to be lost or erased, to the next poet who stays there?
What would I leave behind?
On the drive down the other day, I thought about shipping the lodge a box of back issues of Copper Nickel—after all, the lodge has all these wonderful wooden buffalo carvings that would be nicely rhymed by the Copper Nickel logo—or sending them a gift subscription to Kenyon Review (on whose blog I’ve been thinking about books lately) or finding at my office the stack of duplicate and orphaned copies of books I often teach.
Though I wonder what the staff of the lodge would actually do with a box of poetry books if they have a library completely bereft of them in the first place?
I’m packing up to move, for a few months, across the country. I’m going to pack an “extra” book or two in the spare-tire well, to plant in just such a place—if not in a hotel or lodge library, then maybe in some public library, maybe even in my home town, which I’ll pass through in a few weeks.
A list of titles that might be appropriate to install in the cities and towns I’ll pass through soon (and so, a kind of mix tape for the road):
- Denver, Colorado: John Ashbery, The Mooring of Starting Out
- Hays, Kansas: Larissa Szporluk, Isolato
- Kansas City, Missouri: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Gospel of Barbecue
- Columbia, Missouri: Hadara Bar-Nadav, A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight
- St. Louis, Missouri: Tara Betts, Arc & Hue
- Paducah, Kentucky: Kyle Dargan, Logorrhea Dementia
- Clarksville, Tennessee: Noah Eli Gordon, Novel Pictorial Noise
- Nashville, Tennessee: Adrian Matejka, Mixology,
- Chatanooga, Tennessee: Brian Barker’s The Black Ocean
- Fort Payne, Alabama: Martha Ronk, In A Landscape of Having to Repeat
- Gadsden, Alabama: J. Michael Martinez, Heredities & April Bernard, Blackbird Bye Bye
- Atlanta, Georgia: Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City