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February 27, 2008

Well, I Guess That Didn't Work

Control of tone in writing is not easy, and I have an uneasy feeling about how my column about bookshelves worked out. It's obvious that Ezra Klein's post was tongue-in-cheek.

Probably not so obvious is that I was using it as a springboard for a kind of self-caricature. If he risked the appearance of being a poseur -- or rather, played with that risk -- then I was going for a portrait of the columnist as melancholic hermit and uber-nerd. Whereas, of course, I am the soul of gregariousness, a hipster bon vivant, and the life of every party, as everyone knows....

Oh, damn. That's not going to work either. Tone is so hard to get right. One day someone will quote it to prove the depth of possible self-delusion.

Anyway, yes, I do get that Klein's post was humorous. Really, I do. Being po-faced in reply was meant to be part of the game.

I have got to get out more.

Posted by smclemee at February 27, 2008 10:56 AM


As far as this self-display thingy goes, there's a screaming need for How to Blog about Books You Haven't Read.

Posted by: nnyhav at February 27, 2008 6:59 PM

Tweak the tone, if need be, but that one belongs in any collection of your essays.

Along with one of the comments, I still rely on Harlan Ellison's rejoinder:

Gaspar leaned his closed shooting stick, now a walking stick with handles, against the bookcase. He studied the titles of the paperbacks stacked haphazardly on the shelves.

From the kitchenette came the sound of water running into a metal pan. Then tin on cast iron. Then the hiss of gas and the flaring of a match as it was struck; and the pop of the gas being lit.

"Many years ago," Gaspar said, taking out a copy of Moravia's The Adolescents and thumbing it as he spoke, "I had a library of books, oh, thousands of books -- never could bear to toss one out, not even the bad ones -- and when folks would come to the house to visit they'd look around at all the nooks and crannies stuffed with books; and if they were the sort of folks who don't snuggle with books, they'd always ask the same dumb question." He waited a moment for a response and when none was forthcoming (the sound of china cups on sink tile), he said, "Guess what the question was."

From the kitchen, without much interest: "No idea."

"They'd always ask it with the kind of voice people use in the presence of large sculptures in museums. They'd ask me, 'Have you read all these books?'" He waited again, but Billy Kinetta was not playing the game. "Well, young fella, after a while the same dumb question gets asked a million times, you get sorta snappish about it. And it came to annoy me more than a little bit. Till I finally figured out the right answer.

"And you know what that answer was? Go ahead, take a guess." Billy appeared in the kitchenette doorway.

"I suppose you told them you'd read a lot of them but not all of them."

Gaspar waved the guess away with a flapping hand. "Now what good would that have done? They wouldn't know they'd asked a dumb question, but I didn't want to insult them, either. So when they'd ask if I'd read all those books, I'd say, 'Hell, no. Who wants a library full of books you've already read?'"

Posted by: Shane Taylor at February 27, 2008 7:33 PM

Thanks, Shane. I like that and might have worked it in, if I'd known about it.

My impulse now is to answer, "Yes, all of them. Twice."

Posted by: Scott McLemee at February 27, 2008 7:52 PM

Klein and Seligman seem to share a belief that book ownership can, and indeed should, serve as a medium for displaying something important about yourself. They signify either what you already know or whom you would like to be -- and (this is the major point) they do so for someone else. By this logic, bookshelves are a medium of social interaction. As a format for the "performance of self," they transform one's books into a way of attaining, or at least claiming, status. Hence the need to come up with rules, however informal, for what is permissible.

I quite like this, and the phrase "jaunty expression of dandyism." But then, I do agonize over whether I am buying too many books and leaving them unread, and I have my paperback shelves organized by color.

Posted by: Sisyphus at February 28, 2008 12:45 AM