“It was the summer that men first walked on the moon. I was very young back then, but I did not believe there would ever be a future. I wanted to live dangerously, to push myself as far as I could go, and then see what happened to me when I got there. As it turned out, I nearly did not make it.”
-Paul Auster, Moon Palace
In the novel Moon Palace, Marco Fogg receives his uncle’s entire library as a gift upon his admission to Columbia University. Packed into cardboard boxes, these books spend some time as ersatz furniture in his Upper West Side apartment until his uncle, the last of his family, dies suddenly. Being young and therefore stupid in a way that tends to fill novels, he sells off almost all his possessions and slips into what is basically an emotional coma. But he can’t bring himself to pawn the books until he’s read them all, paying down the debt to his uncle. He reads them quickly, uncritically; pulp mysteries and huckster travelogues as well as Dostoevsky and Shakespeare. As he sells off each box and loses a chair or part of a bed frame, his life begins to empty out. Eventually, he ends up homeless in Central Park during the bad old days, at the mercy of weather, stray kindness, signs and portents (signs especially because all of these books are at least partially concerned with being an asshole English major.)
We still have 250 pages to go. Moon Palace ends up being about America in a gray, myopic, New York sort of way. But I didn’t see those pages when I first got the book, a gift from my own uncle. I stopped reading it. It kills me to abandon books for the same reason I never reread them. Because otherwise I’m not making progress; it’s all about getting literature done. When I walk through bookstores or libraries, I always feel oppressed by the weight of all the books I’ll never read. Granted, most of them (like most of anything) are total shit (and when we’re talking books written prior to this century, all of those shit books have proven themselves better and more important than the even worse shit in their own time.) But that’s why Marco’s project appeals to me. Because after he reads those 1492 books (another of those Auster coincidences), he can stop. It’s mania, but also, at the end, peace.
Over the years, I’ve picked up a ton of books I’ve barely cracked. I’ll receive some dubious ones as gifts or my father will leave huge stacks of science fiction he wants me to read in my room at home. I’ll buy long, boring 18th century novels, guides to North American Wildflowers and massive, omnibus collections of poems, and then forget why I ever thought I had the fortitude to read them. Because whatever else it is, reading is hard. Rilke will turn you inside out. Reading Gertrude Stein is viscerally painful. And I have a deep, primordial fear of the first volume of Das Kapital (with accompanying David Harvey life preserver Understanding Marx’s Capital, thank God) and anything Wittgenstein. All these dense, forbidding books have such a rep for laying would-be students low, but I’m always surprised at the extent to which even the most theoretical of texts are grounded in lived experience. In any case, all these tomes gotta get read. Let’s take em down like Dan Brown.