Feb 26, 2024, 06:29AM

Booked It

The penny-ante conundrum of saving books and records. What year is it (#481)?

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Something I’ve never grasped is how many people—pre- and post-internet—breathlessly exclaim how they couldn’t live without their collection of books. “If there was a fire in the house, first I’d grab the cat and then as many books as I could carry,” is a paraphrase—perhaps verbatim, come to think of it—of a typical book fetishist, though maybe that diminishes other fetishes. In the modern era, it’s not uncommon to see photos of lovingly categorized and arranged volumes, stacked in expensive bookcases or metal milk crates, all saying—and maybe this is snotty—look at how smart I am! And then there are those who can talk for 30 minutes about how it’s vital to own an OED: we have one (a Christmas present long ago), and never use it, the print’s too small, and even with a magnifying glass I’ll skip to a run-of-the-mill dictionary.

Too harsh? Too soon? Over-the-top? More of a “perfect storm’ than you can handle? Excessively mean to the cultural middlebrow class that never tires of saying, “quite literally,” which still… still drives me to distraction, probably needlessly so. You be the judge and verbal executioner.

My wife and I have around 2000 books in our North Baltimore home, some in bookcases, others waterlogged in basement boxes, still more forgotten about in the closets of this ghost-ridden (built in 1928, before blacks or Jews were allowed in the neighborhood, and certainly not gay couples, although I suspect a number of “confirmed bachelors,” professors at nearby Johns Hopkins University, were allowed. Thankfully, that’s all changed) house. Anyway, when Melissa and I joined forces in 1990 and lived in sin in Tribeca, we’d carted around books for years, mostly put in storage. Now, especially after our two sons, enthusiastic readers, added to the piles, there are so many books that you better watch your step. There’s no curation.

I do read a lot of books annually, and have since I was a young teenager, but so what? That used to be common, even for rudimentarily literate people. I’ll finish a novel, place it on a shelf, usually sloppily, and rarely think about it again. We probably have—I haven’t checked—duplicate or triplicate, copies of Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist, Dickens novels, the standard Hemingway, Didion, Mailer, James, Martin Amis (six copies of Money; an inside joke between my kids) Dreiser and Fitzgerald, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Byron, Coleridge Keats, Yeats, Pound and so on. If, one day, in spring-cleaning mode (which has never hit me), I’d take a couple of days, root out the doubles or one-and-done political books, sports and rock star bios, and donate those in decent condition to a local bookstore. But that’s not so easy!

As a young man, I frequented used bookstores and traded in completed volumes for new titles, and it was a time-consuming process. I can’t imagine hauling 500 books to a local store and have the appreciative owner—I wouldn’t expect any compensation—hem and haw over which novel, book of collected comics or one of Theodore White’s Making of the President series would be acceptable. All friendly, mind you, but that’s an afternoon wiped out, and I don’t have the patience.

That brings me to another form of hoarding, at least for those who went to Sam Goody’s, Korvette’s or Tower, and bought records before CDs were invented (unexpectedly fattening the wallets of pop stars; I’ve owned Blood on the Tracks in LP, cassette and CD formats). When I was 18, off to college in a few weeks, I knew I wouldn’t have a record player, so I sold half of my 250 LPs and, before hawking them for a buck apiece, taped those I knew I’d still want to hear. It didn’t work out so well: the BASF cassettes, after a clean run for nine months, almost always got tangled up, and it was rare to save one or two with a very, very adept use of a Bic pen.

Turned out my roommate did have a cheapo hi-fi, and on a fall visit to my mom’s, after visiting friends in NYC, (and seeing Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Swan) I brought two armloads of records back to Baltimore. And when I visited Berkeley some months later, I bought 15 very cool—green discs, crazy art—Dylan bootlegs and they were stacked on the floor of my tiny dorm room. But each time I moved in subsequent years, which was frequent, I shed some of the records in favor—stupidly!—of tapes for my tinny recorder. I remember one day in 1975, at my office at the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, when I spent an hour trying to make out the lyrics to Dylan’s “I’m Not There,” on tape, from a low-quality boot, and though I could decipher lines here and there it was, except for the mournful vocal, fruitless. By the mid-1980s, I was more mindful, and had a large collection of LPs—and a custom-made stereo system with mammoth speakers—and they traveled with me to New York. But once the initial shitty sound of CDs was improved, that’s the route I went, and so the LPs went into storage, some of which were dusted off by my son Nicky.

In the picture here, my brother Gary, 20 at the time, sits in our “playroom” in Huntington, another time capsule, punctuated by Joe Dalessandro’s dick (cover of Sticky Fingers) in the middle, my brother Doug’s art on the wall, a hideous lamp and two ashtrays. I don’t remember if this was a candid short, or choreographed like the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, and anyone who can decipher the paperback placed on that Super Girls LP, must have eyes the equal of Ted Williams.

Take a look at the clues for the year: Joe Frazier remains heavyweight champ of the world; Lee Trevino wins the British Open; John Lennon records and releases his signature song; Jon Hamm is born and Audie Murphy dies; Pass Catcher wins the Belmont Stakes; Gay Talese’s Honor Thy Father and Iris Murdoch’s An Accidental Man are published; Sam Peckinpah scandalizes the world with Straw Dogs; It Ain’t Fair, John Sinclair; great year for music, but Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” inexplicably is #1 Billboard song of the year; Jeremy Renner is born and Van Heflin dies; the Fillmore East in NYC closes; Joni Mitchell’s Blue is released, as is Carole King’s chick record Tapestry; and the first Hard Rock Café opens in London.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023

  • Decades ago, I was at a party in my uncle's Manhattan high-rise apartment when the building suddenly filled with smoke and we had to evacuate down the stairs. My uncle grabbed a Picasso lithograph, and I grabbed a big tray of roast beef.

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