The Gentleman’s Library, a Nowaday Redux
Notes Toward the Creation of a Collection of the Most Important Works of Literature of All Time, Including Tales of Crippling Self-Doubt and Possible Eternal Damnation
In late 2008 I was offered a position for which I later realized I was not qualified. Since I needed a job, and since no background or credit check was required, and since it paid nineteen dollars an hour and was as close to a dream job as I could imagine, I took it. The task: compile a list of the 1,500 most important works of literature, catalog them, buy them, and install them in my new employer’s private library, a tastefully converted attic space lined with empty, dedicated shelves in an old Austin house not far from the University of Texas. JB, my employer, a man of some means, explained that he wished to retire early from medicine, a job of some means, and have immediately at hand all the literature that matters. The Victorians would have classified this a gentleman’s library; that’s to say, a large number of books, ideally first editions in fine or original bindings, collected according to some principle or subject (genre-definers, Shelley and his circle, horae, really big books, unica, whatever), shelved eccentrically in a charming, crepuscular space, then read, one after another, at leisure, until boredom or death ends the endeavor.
JB—late forties, smart, mysterious, inquisitive, enthusiastic, a gentleman—seems unlikely to yield to death or boredom, and so in a couple of decades he will surely be among the most diversely well read persons in town. That his library will have been compiled by one of the most ill read persons in town is a humiliating personal irony I’ve withal suffered alone.
The thing is, I hadn’t known of my steep deficiency when I started the job. I thought I’d read selectively and widely. After all, I’d finished the Hergé corpus as a boy, devoured a respectable portion of the world’s prison-escape literature as an adolescent, read the sci-fi impresario Jack Vance’s thinner books in high school, devoured the free galley proofs and advanced readers that were the only perks of my many bookstore jobs, and, during the long summer of 1995, when the greedy, infantine federation of professional baseball players and their owners fucked everybody out of a regular season, I read Ulysses, a long, novel-like work composed by an unstable Irishman, only two words of which I remember, the first and last: Stately and Yes; the rest of the book was a kind of summer-long literary blackout.
The breadth of my reading, combined with my bookselling and book-restoration experience, would, I thought, surely be enough to compile a list unassailable in scope and selectivity. At our first meeting, I told JB I’d have it ready for him in a week or so, an estimate he greeted with delight, as he was anxious to have the library stocked and ready.
A week later, stupefied, I informed JB that it might take closer to a year to put together a passable list. Disappointed—crestfallen—JB asked why. I told him that I hadn’t realized there might be more to the project than noting Pulitzer Prize winners, scanning the classics wall at Barnes & Noble, and consulting my dad, the best-read person I knew. I told JB I hadn’t realized that the Chinese had produced more than just the Art of War guy; the Nigerians, Achebe; the Colombians, Márquez. I told JB I hadn’t realized that there lives a woman named Patricia Grace who was the first Maori woman to publish a short-fiction collection, that a certain Ayi Kwei Armah was the first Ghanaian to produce an existential novel, that one Amos Tutuola was the first Nigerian magical-realist, that something called El Güegüense, composed by an unremembered Nicaraguan around 1550, is considered the oldest work of theater in the Western Hemisphere. I informed JB that I’d discovered that Gilgamesh is not the oldest known work of literature (four centuries saltier is The Instructions of Šuruppak, a work of Sumerian wisdom literature); that the Dark Ages were not too dark to write in; that the European Renaissance of the fourteenth century started in the twelfth; that an Arabian fellow named Ibn al-Nafis wrote science fiction in the thirteenth century; that Margaret Cavendish, a British lady of the seventeenth, also penned sci-fi; that some anonymous fifteenth-century Balochistani literati composed an epic ballad, Hero Šey Murı¯d, a folkloric drama on a par with the best Elizabethan tragedies; that 1989’s groundbreaking lesbian children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies, was eight years preceded by the Danish Mette bor hos Morten og Erik. I told JB that there was simply far too much to learn, so much that it would be impossible to establish the relative importance of individual works; impossible to avoid the unknowing omission of gems and the inclusion of chaff. I did not tell him that deep down I felt the production of his library would be not a yearlong project but an utterly unfinishable one, doomed to imperfection. He might end up with tidy rows of indisputably important works, but they would be everywhere muddied by the miserable daubs of impostors, and everywhere pocked with unforgivable lacunae—books that should be included, except that I don’t know where or what the hell they are.
After my melodramatic pessimism died down, we began again. At Spider House, a local coffee joint that plays Social Distortion at eight o’clock in the morning, JB and I met to discuss exactly what his library was to be. What kinds of books, what editions, what. How much time to spend, how much money. Two hours and three cups of pitchy coffee later, both JB and I were surprised to discover that JB wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted. I began to get the feeling that he wanted me to tell him.
“I’m not retired yet,” he said. “In order to retire early, I must work constantly. Which leaves me little time to devote to the development of the library. That is why I hired you.”
You know, I really don’t know what I’m doing, I thought, and said instead, “I’ll do my best.”
JB told me there were a few things he was certain of. One, diversity was to undergird the entire project. That meant all nations, cultures, eras, and genres were to be quarried. Two, all works must be in, or have been translated into, French, English, or Spanish, the languages in which he is most comfortably fluent. Three, books were to be critical editions, not specifically first editions. Four, spend no more than one hundred dollars on any one book.
“Anything else?” I said.
“I supposed we should define literature,” I said. “And important.”
“Let me know what you come up with.”
JB paid for our coffee and we parted. A homework panic the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since junior high seized me by the trachea, dragged me thirteen blocks to my house, placed me before a laptop, and commanded me to define this library.
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.
An appendix to this essay can be found at believermag.com/library.