I was all ready to run down there and blow it out myself, but it was deftly contained by ex-motorcyclist-turned-Buddhist manager John T. He simply reminded the fire of its impermanence. Only the employee bathroom was destroyed, and it already had a pretty post-apocalyptic feel all its own.
But it did get me thinking, in a Ray Bradbury kind of way, about book(s) burning. The booksellers have been making lists of what we’d save if the store really went up. It’s sort of a ridiculous question, since we could easily buy the book somewhere else, read it online, you know, etc. It’s not like we’re the only bookstore left (not yet, anyway). But it’s still fun to think about. What book would you save? Lots of people picked their favorite books. Some funny guys had raunchy choices. One person said Jung’s $195 Red Book, because it is beautiful and the most expensive thing we sell, and also because none of us are allowed to open it. Some jokers said The Girl Who Played With Fire and of course Fahrenheit 451, duh.
Because this hypothetical situation presents itself to me as little more than a riddle, I have an obnoxious answer of my own: I would pick the book that contains all books.
Which one is that? I have a few ideas. Borges, for sure. His stories and essays are some of my favorite things ever written, and they contain within them the possibility of all other books. Save the book that contains the Library of Babel, and you’ve saved literature. Right? Maybe. But, Borges aside, I started thinking about what part of the bookstore holds the most in the smallest space.
Turns out it’s a little known, visited, or shopped section called Literary Criticism and Literary Letters. Tucked back behind the overabundant Memoirs, right across from Poetry, these two bays of books are, though pretty unpopular, incredibly bountiful—they’re just brimming with other books.
Here’s where you’ll find Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a set of essays that recreates the entire Western tradition.
But you’ll also find the new book of Kerouac and Ginsberg’s letters. These are hilarious—they’re argumentative, complex, a little crazy, but I swear every other letter ends in the equivalent of “But I love you, man!” They’re great.
The book of Sylvia Beach’s letters to James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc, etc, etc is here, too. It’s full of great pictures of these two funny women and all their dark, brooding literary men.
Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters is in Literary Criticism, and it’s a fascinating look at the history of translated works and the struggles translators face today. James Wood lives back here, and so does David Shields’s strange and controversial mash-up Reality Hunger.
Francine Prose is here, which reminds me of one of my favorite bookstore phenomena: authors whose names reflect their subject matter. (Also on my list: Nancy Baggett, who writes about bread and Lucinda Holdforth, in Etiquette & Public Speaking)
If I could carry a whole section in my arms, this is the one I’d save. And while I was back there I’d probably grab Anne Carson’s exquisite Nox, because it’s definitely the prettiest book I’ve ever seen. What would you save?