Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Bound for glory

My friend Adrian is shedding books. Not all of them, just some.

About 10 years ago, my friend Doug, on the other hand, got rid of all of his books. He now has a Kindle. But when he’s come to visit, he has stood and reviewed and admired my bookcases crammed full of books — and I don’t foresee my ever standing back and admiring whatever books he’s read on his Kindle.

The opposite example is provided by post-punk legend Tom Verlaine, of Television fame, who died some months ago and left 50,000 books. The brilliantly inventive singer and guitar-slinger seems never to have let a book escape his grasp. I might be willing to say that that’s overkill, having 50,000 books, but for my jealousy. My son tells me it’s accepted wisdom that if you have 1,000 books “you have a library.” I went and counted and although I’m drawing closer, I’ve just missed the mark. But I’ll never reach the heights of Verlaine, dammit.

My whole life, books have been my friends. Although I’ve argued with them at times, they’ve never argued with me. They’ve gone away for weekends with me, and had dinner with me, have gone camping with me, and have even climbed into bed with me. They are endlessly loyal and interesting.

Moreover, I’ve made friends through books. I met Doug of the Kindle 22 years ago this October when we were both at a conference and bonded over a book we’d both read. (And, yes, some whiskey.) Since discussing David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, Doug and I have talked about books for months and years, in California and in London, over the Internet and in person over bourbon and cigars. But through it all, I’ve been unable to keep myself from wondering where his books went, and where they live now….

A couple of years ago, when I was in England and stayed over at the house of Adrian and his lovely and smart wife Kathy, I knew I was in the right place when I saw the guest room: not just stuffed with books, but well-equipped with smart books, safe for me to say because it was mostly books I’d read, tastefully chosen to be sure, and the ones I hadn’t read I’d wanted to read but hadn’t gotten to yet. And on the nightstand? A book that Adrian was gifting to me, a book I hadn’t heard of, a great big thick wallop of a book, seemingly several thousand pages, which I found completely unputdownable. Adrian not only knows books, he seems to know me.

Thomas Jefferson so loved books that he shipped barrels of them back to Virginia from France. In fact, he so loved them that he died indebted — but some wise graybeard of the time had the brilliant idea of bailing out his estate by having the nascent U.S. government buy them, thus creating The Library of Congress. Or: Did Jefferson brilliantly plan that all along anyway, costs be damned? If you’ve been to the Library of Congress, you’ll note a much-deserved bust of Jefferson right at the entryway; this is why. No books? No Republic.

Even the thought of getting rid of books pains me. I know that times change. Case in point: So far as I know, no one is emptying their chamber pots into the street any more. So maybe we should be trading in our bound books for digital versions, so much more easily stored, so environmentally responsible. Maybe it’s a good idea for a good future. I just know that the one time I parted with books, when I was a penniless college student and sold my books back to the college bookstore, two things happened:

  1. My favorite professor happened by at precisely that moment as I was exchanging my hard-earned books for pennies on the dollar and looked at me sorrowfully and said quietly, “Monsieur Wochner, you are selling your books…???” Quel dommage, I was.
  2. I missed them so much that later I wound up buying the fucking things again, and at retail again.

I don’t want to judge my friends. If you have to prune, I get it. Doug went on an around-the-world motorcycle trip and couldn’t exactly have dragged hundreds of books around behind himself in a cart while traversing sub-Saharan Africa. Adrian is donating books to a good cause, keeping armsful, and will no doubt be stocking back up. As for Tom Verlaine, well, like Tom Jefferson, he died, so his books should go to someone else.

And, no doubt, when in 2025 I probably vacate the house I’m living in, it’ll be me trimming and purging. If I can bear it.

2 Responses to “Bound for glory”

  1. Adrian Burns Says:

    Nice piece Lee. Who would have thought Tom Verlaine and I would end up sharing a blog post!

  2. Dan Says:

    Okay a little over a year ago, I got married for the 2nd time, which involved my young bride of 70+ years moving the furniture, books, and sundry personal effects of a lifetime into a house already filled with the detritus of my seven decades of certified eccentricity.

    It involved a lot of sacrifice on both parts, but the happiest relinquishment was the two days I spent manning a Dealer’s Table at a local old Weird Movie Buff’s convention, filled with posters, videos, and old books, and festooned with signs that read “GOING OUT OF EVERYTHING MUST GO.”

    I turned a nice profit, but the greatest pleasure was chatting with fellow fans and collectors, and seeing the looks of pleasure on their faces as they carried away their plunder.

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