In this new feature, we’re asking Booklisters to give themselves a “shelf evaluation.” The rules are simple: pick any shelf in your home library, take a picture of it as is (no alphabetizing, no dusting), and then . . . explain your shelf!
I’m not proud of the state of my bookshelves, but I will say that the haphazard and precarious stacking, the odd jumble of genres, authors, and subjects, the hectic disarray, is the result of a life of constant reading and writing. Sure, it may also be an outward manifestation of a cluttered, disordered, clangorous mind. But be that as it may, when I look at this particularly egregious shelf I see the tracks of many engrossing projects past and present. My Jamaica Kincaid and Edward Abbey collections are evidence of long bio-critical essays I wrote about these very different yet equally ornery, iconoclastic, provocative, and controversial writers for Scribner’s literary biography series, American Writers.
Edward Abbey, born in Appalachia and forged in the Southwest desert, was a wily curmudgeon and an outspoken nature lover and defender. He believed in freedom and wilderness, forthrightness and art. A man of profound convictions and complicated contradictions, a romantic and a skeptic, he fit no category and towed no line, and confounded friend and foe alike. Wildly inventive and unflaggingly energetic in his protest against America’s rampant governmental-industrial-consumer culture on the one hand, and the hypocrisy and triteness of political correctness on the other, he wrote scathing, hilarious, and poetic essays, the now classic Desert Solitaire (1968), and raucous, outlaw satirical novels, most famously The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975).
In “A Writer’s Credo,” Abbey declared, “The task of the honest writer–the writer as potential hero–is to seek out, write down, and publish forth those truths which are not self-evident, not universally agreed upon, not allowed to determine public feeling and official policy.”
Jamaica Kincaid, another literary fire-breathing dragon of dissent and exquisite lyricism, emerged as a potent protest writer from her childhood in Antigua, thanks to her epic battles with her mother, her sharp perspective on the legacy of genocidal colonialism—played out, in part, by her feeling both inspired and outraged by the classics of Western literature (she has a particular passion for the works of Charlotte Brontë), and her struggles as an immigrant in New York. Persistently autobiographical, whether she’s writing about family, colonialism, or gardening, Kincaid has acknowledged that she blurs the line between fact and fabrication in her writing, and that she finds traditional genre distinctions confining. “I am so happy to write that I don’t care what you call it,” she says. Over the years, from her first novel, Annie John (1985) to The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) to her most recent novel, See Now Then (2013), her self-referential fiction and nonfiction are charged with a sense of urgency and the need to come to terms with her place in the world. For Kincaid, writing is a cathartic act, and she willfully embraces ambiguity and contradiction: “Everything I say is true, and everything I say is not true.”
What else resides on this chaotic shelf? I spy George Saunders’ brilliant essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone (2007), which comes often to my mind during this season of toxic political bombast. I see evidence my ongoing fascination with Chicago literature in books by Stuart Dybek, Alex Kotlowitz, Joe Meno, and Thomas Dyja. Here, too, are reminders of an immersion in the work and life of the remarkably Australian writer Janet Frame. I need to keep Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones handy, ditto for Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. These books always seem to reflect the madness of the times, year after year, crime after crime, war after war. Annie Dillard is a touchstone. So, too, is Susan Sontag. Virginia Woolf appears in the rediscovered On Being Ill, and Marilynne Robinson’s Home indicates my ardor for her Iowan trilogy (Gilead, 2004; Home, 2008; Lila, 2014). Here are poetry collections by John Keats, Langston Hughes, Jane Hirshfield, Christian Wiman, and Kevin Young. I often search the dense pages of my old abridged edition of James Frazer’s landmark survey of mythology and religion, The Golden Bough. I cherish Patricia Hampl’s ravishing tapestry of memoir and reflections on art and life, Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime (2006), which resides close to Sharman Apt Russell’s Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist (2008) and Chang-rae Lee’s first novel, Native Speaker (1995).
On the diagonal is Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, edited by Mason Currey (2013), a zesty and inspiring collection of quotes about working habits and attitudes from 200 choreographers, comedians, composers, caricaturists, filmmakers, philosophers, playwrights, painters, poets, scientists, sculptors, and writers. Two writers on my messily eclectic shelf are present. Currey excerpts a letter Edward Abbey wrote to his editor,
“I hate commitments, obligations and working under pressure. But on the other hand, I like getting paid in advance and I only work under pressure.”
Currey found this in a Paris Review interview during which Marilynne Robinson, whose morally and religiously shaped fiction and essays are models of meticulously parsed thought and observations as well as beautifully crafted language, nonetheless declares, “I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me.”
Books certainly make “a strong claim” on me, and obviously I have a tough time giving them up.