I was forced to move a month ago. Such is the casual cruelty of a housing market. In my latest pad, I have lots of room. So much, in fact, that I am able to dedicate an entire room — albeit a very small room — to my books. I even added a comfy chair, ottoman, reading lamp (with a bulb whose color I can change), and small table for my cocktail and such.
Anyway, I found myself sitting in that chair just gazing at my books, my eyes scanning the spines, reading both individual titles and taking in the gestalt — a gestalt that remains radically particular to these books and me (gestalt is always the particularity of a generality, isn't it?). And I was struck, nearly knocked over, by the complexity, volume, and variety of what I was taking in — the sheer volume, yes, but that coupled with the velocity of commingling, of relationships between and among all those ideas, people, phrases, feelings, images all conjoining, colliding, cruising by, forging networks and associations of every sort and all through time, all these narratives of my becoming, of their becoming, of my trajectory, my present, all these narratives of them and me at once possible, mythical, actual, and always multiple — a body without organs, a Matthew Ritchie painting.
As my eyes followed the line of books, each one stood up as a thing, an object that's been in my world, inflecting it just so. I was inundated with fragments of images — how I carried it around (or didn't); where it laid its head, Husserl's "Ideas" suddenly in my back pocket (I selected it for its size), on a bar, on a desk in that studio on 22nd St. All these things crisscrossed with memories of places, feelings, people, experiences, each book a metonymy, a point continuous with other points, with a life rife with romance, ideas, bodies, things — where I was living, who I was dating, what I was drinking, what I was doing and feeling. This is of course the way of all things — books are not special in that way: they are not just reminders. They are our memory externalized, right there. (A metonymy is something that is continuous with a thing or event. In films, we see someone raise a knife and in the next shot, we see blood dripping down the wall: that blood is a metonymy, continuous with, and constitutive of, the murder via knife. Should you care, synecdoche is a part that stands in for a whole — as in "I have 50 head of cattle"; metaphor bridges distinct trajectories — rather than seeing blood after seeing the knife, the film cuts to lightning.)
But books are not like other things. For example, we put them all together on shelves so we can see them all at once. The fact is I don't have many things in general — and certainly not that I line up like this. I have a good bar, it's true, where my booze beckons; I do like to sit in front of it, too, as I consider my appetite and the possibilities for an evening. Other than my booze, though, I have a few sweatshirts that hang on some hooks; shirts on hangers I rarely notice; several works of art hung here and there; and a few knickknacks from my son scattered around the house. Books on a shelf stand out in our lives, creating this intense condensation of things and memories and more, this panoply of associations and thoughts splayed before us. I imagine that this is what some people, famously some women, must feel when they scan their closet of clothes — I've seen it in movies! — all these memories along with all these inflections of themselves, all these possibilities for the day, for the night, for life. (Books and clothes are in fact similar in the way they inhabit us as we inhabit them.) Bookshelves, like closets, are dizzying.
Just perusing the spines, I was enthralled. Delirium lurked as this undulating, near-chaotic flow of images, ideas, and sensations poured over me. But there was this other force, this other event, happening at the same — I was sorting, connecting, making myriad connections at infinite speed, this juncture of memory and intelligence. Standing in front of my bookshelves, I experienced these two registers at once: a torrent of images and affect alongside the event of sense making. O, it's humbling to experience the speed and prodigy of sense making that carries on elaborate operations without my control. Standing there, I remember and process — I make sense of all this data, both visible and invisible, past and present — just as I breathe.
So many layers, speeds, and trajectories. So many arguments being made, unmade, remade. Multiple senses being forged, new and old, coherent and not — some with me, most without me. To stand there before these shelves is to be taken up by these forces and events — and, I have to say, it feels downright decadent. What a luxury, what a treat, to let all this play over me without purpose, without telos: to just bathe in the teem.
This experience is not just memories but memory itself. That is to say, these are not just recollections; this is memory. Memory is not a repository; it's an organizing and processing of events, ideas, feelings, bodies, a mode of making relations of varied durations. Memory is not in the past per se; in fact, memory is necessarily in the present. How else could you remember? Memory is the duration of things from the past, those events still happening now. If they stopped, you wouldn't remember. Memory is the present experience of the duration of past events.
Meanwhile, the books carry on without me, indifferent to my memory, creating their own connections — Nietzsche talking to Socrates, of course, but also to Lispector, Houllebecq, Badiou, Hunter Thompson, Bruno Schulz, Frank O'Hara. Can you imagine what Ginsberg and Kant are saying to each other? Books speak with other books in all sorts of ways — through figures and phrases, ideas and notions, moods and affect. If I were not standing in front of these books, they'd still make all kinds of sense. Books always talk to each other out of earshot, enjoying conversations we can't imagine, in registers equally obtuse. (This is another way clothes and books are related, just as my books actively forge connections among themselves regardless of me, clothes in a closet don any number of ensembles to one's liking or not.)
Standing there, I become another conduit within the mix, another text with its own connective, textural, textual tissues. Some connections flow through me as I become their conduit, Nietzsche meeting Burroughs at the party that is my experience, metabolism, and sense making. My particular way of going opens up channels, flows that might not have existed without me. I am an inflection point as these connections use my flesh as their meeting ground, my neurons their stepping stones, their meeting place for mutual exploration. I am surely not the one in control here, even as I process and sense make at infinite speed — sorting, combining, connecting, rejecting.
Needless to say, books on their own — not even assembled on shelves — are odd creatures, unlike other things. Sure, they're things in as much as they're material we touch and feel. But they exist, mostly, to deliver something other than themselves — ideas, sensations, figures, styles. Which is one reason one's own books are so strange: their invisible offerings are made flesh. I know Gadamer's "Truth and Method" not just as set of ideas, not just as a style of thinking and writing, but as this particular book — this edition, sure, but this actual book with my scribbles, stains, tears. This makes my own bookshelves fundamentally different from a bookstore.
Of course, if I lose this book, I don't lose Gadamer's ideas. Books, then, operate in multiple registers — like Jesus, books are body and soul: when their body goes, their soul persists. Each book is an object and a set of ideas, a juncture of flesh and concept, and hence enjoys different, even disjunctive, temporalities — as a thing, the book is mortal; as ideas (and styles, moods, notions), it is immortal. Books flourish in multiple registers at once. They're these dusty, more or less beautiful objects, run through with associations, soy sauce, and sweat. And, in the same breath, they fall away leaving so much in their wake — perspectives, styles, modes, moods, notions, figures, ideas, gestures. A book is a bound infinity that undulates in multiple registers that may or may not intersect each other.
Now add the particularity of my books, these books here, and we introduce even greater temporal and affective complexity. I have associations with that particular edition of Husserl's "Ideas"
that are embodied — my body, that book, these places, these situations. And while Husserl's ideas may not be fundamentally tethered to these bodies, I nonetheless do have an embodied relationship to those ideas. That is to say, my reckoning of Husserl as a 28 year old in San Francisco is a memory that simultaneously intersects and diverges from my embodied experience of this particular book's thingness. While a book's ideas may be immortal, my experience of those ideas enjoy a particular duration, entwined and embodied by me.
So when I remember Husserl's book here and there and who I was dating and what I was drinking, I also have memories of my understanding of Husserl's ideas. And this memory mixes with those other memories but also mingles in another register, constantly interacting with my embodied experience of other ideas throughout my life. I may remember thinking Husserl was saying such and such — how I came to believe that, how that understanding of that idea mingled with all the other ideas I had from other books — even as my understanding of Husserl changes.
Now, if I were writing an academic essay, that memory of an understanding of Husserl may be more or less irrelevant. But standing in front of my bookshelf, those memories are all fluttering about. There are all these memories, these durations of things and versions of myself coming to all these different ideas, all happening at the same time at different speeds. As I stood there, I suddenly understood — which is to say, I experienced — the juncture of memory and intelligence, memory as sense making and sense making as memory, a chiasm among diverse eddies and spirals.
What an utterly odd, uncanny, and exhilarating experience it is to sit before these bookshelves, this stirring flood of flesh and feeling, of ideas and notions, the speeds and intensities of time as turns of phrase and interpretive techniques and ways of going flow through these versions of me in different registers and rhythms at once — all while the books themselves perform pirouettes of sense in my periphery. The effect is peculiar, beautiful, unsettling in the best way. Standing there, I am an active node within a vast network of networks, this precise juncture of memory and intellect, of recollection and sense making to which I am privy and not, where I am as much thinker as thought. To stand before my books is to stand with my very becoming as it vibrates with the becoming of the world — and it is sumptuous, vertiginous, delirious.