Congratulations to Annabel Lyon on winning the 2009 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
It started with the doubles: Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Günter Grass, James Joyce. Do we need both of these? I’d ask my partner, holding up two copies of Cosmicomics or One Hundred Years of Solitude or Heart of Darkness, and he’d say, No, probably not, and then the trouble would start, because these were of course his-and-hers from before we lived together and who would have to blink first and give up her/his beloved copy?—with the different covers and fonts and assorted markings and traces that were intimately familiar to only one of us (the pages in my copy of The Good Soldier, for instance, with the faintest red tinge, spaghetti slurpings from a happy, solitary lunch with a good book).
Some decisions were easy: you couldn’t in good conscience get rid of the two different editions of Ulysses with different academic essays in each; that just wouldn’t be scholarly. And even though his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was bigger and cleaner and easier to read, I could remember reading mine in the basement lunchroom of the Calgary McDonald’s where I worked as a teenager (a less happy solitary lunch—I would bring cheese sandwiches from home rather than eat the free food, baffling and then pissing off management). And learning that he even had a copy of Wide Sargasso Sea had prompted one of the first inklings of love, so there was no way we were getting rid of that.
Eventually we kept all the doubles except, I think, a particularly grimy third paperback edition of King Lear and my Jesus’ Son, which was identical to his Jesus’ Son except for a large crease across the cover. I had used the crease to try to argue the clerk in the store where I bought it down from $1.99, but the clerk had stood firm. When she thought I wasn’t looking she had rolled her eyes at another clerk and the two of them had giggled at my cheapness. I had been poor at the time and the crease, as anyone who loves books knows, was sacrilegious; but the embarrassment stuck and I was happy enough to get rid of it when the opportunity arose. Finally I was making progress! Inspired, I managed to ditch three other books that day: cookbooks I had never used, including one from the 1950s on Chinese cuisine that included MSG in almost every recipe. Sprinkle on the MSG and serve! The rest went into boxes, because we were moving.
In the weeks leading up to the move, I got into the habit of visiting the liquor store daily, scooping up the empty Shiraz and Cabernet boxes, and then developing a surrogate affection for the boxes containing my beloved books. I grew particularly fond of the one that had contained a Chilean red, the one with the really nice drawing of the winery on the side—rolling hills striped with vine rows and a few shade trees in the foreground overhanging a long, low ranch-style hacienda—the box that now housed my Greeks. I could imagine peaceful hours on that veranda, but I could also imagine the winery as a setting for a Greek-type tragedy: the venerable Señor, the icy Señora, the sternly beautiful young Señorita, the brutal tragedy at the crossroads where the lane disappeared into the crotch of the hills, the blind, ponchoed seer, years later, revealing that the Señor had married his own madre and fathered his own hermana in the golden light of a Chilean sunset over the grapes . . .
“Beloved books,” I wrote a few lines back, though “nagging” might be a more correct term. I packed a lot of books I’d never read, though meant to get to: Isak Dinesen, Osip Mandelstam, Pynchon, the weightier DeLillo, the Viking Portable Walt Whitman, Things Fall Apart, Wolf Willow, A Way in the World, The Voyage of the Beagle . . . This column is lists, this column is ellipses. Libraries are lists, libraries are ellipses: everything you can’t bear to part with, everything you haven’t read, everything you don’t own and everything you’re surprised to find you do (National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky, the autobiography of Count Basie, Basho’s Haiku, Jeeves in the Offing . . .)
And if I’m being truthful, I missed very few of these books. Sure, I felt a pang putting them away—how many weeks, old friend, ’til I see thee again?—but it was almost a relief once they were gone. The apartment acquired instant echoes and a sudden monky minimalism it was hard not to like. The books had become objects, things of shape and colour to be arranged here and there. Whereas the objects—like the Chilean wine box—had become the books, the stuff of story.
The only reading material I never lost track of during the move was the current issue of the New Yorker (I share the subscription with three other people and owed them what lawyers call a Duty of Care); the kid’s favourite board book (The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton—zoo animals on a cruise ship—a work that, interestingly, predates Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi by over two decades); and After the Applause by Colleen and Gordie Howe and Charles Wilkins. I have never read After the Applause by Colleen and Gordie Howe and Charles Wilkins, but it (and a 1995 Vancouver White Pages, which I still haven’t located) has lain on my desk, propping up my computer monitor, through the writing of two books and countless articles. Books become objects; objects become books. After the Applause by Colleen and Gordie Howe and Charles Wilkins went into the box with my bank book, my passport, my extra fine black felt-tip Pilot Hi-Tecpoint V5 that cost five dollars—five dollars!—and my grandmother’s wedding ring, inscribed E. Sch. 21.2.37.