“You know what happened to him after everybody read him — yeah he went right up on the shelf.”
Bob Dylan, from Tarantula
When I was eighteen years old — a grand age, a tough age, a man, yet a blank slate — having just graduated from a public high school where I learned more about French kissing than French literature, I decided to educate myself about these strange and powerful packets of high learning called books. I had somehow not assimilated them in school — whose fault this is it is hard to guess. I have a vague recollection, though, like something from a dream, of coming across Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly risking absurdity” in my 12th grade textbook, a verse Mrs. Reid opted not to teach, but which, magically perhaps, had turned a key in me. Possibly it became a pea under the mattress of my still pliable mind that would not let my curiosity sleep.
One sere summer day in 1973, I sallied forth to the Raleigh, Tennessee library, which is about the size of a Quonset hut, and stood in front of its wall of fiction and spoke these words aloud, like an incantation: Teach me.
The wall answered that day with a transformative, though silent smile, and continued to answer me for years to come, never asking for something in return, just giving and giving, until, a couple of years later, I wandered just as innocently, just as luckily, into what would become my lifelong profession, bookselling, and I began at an obscene rate, though with a 30 percent discount as a buffer, to build my own library.
That first, fateful day, with an instinct born like Mozart was born, that is, seemingly come from nowhere, I reached into the wall like a small boy in a fairy tale, and pulled out three slim novels to begin my journey down the mist-shrouded road of literature: Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Albert Camus’ The Stranger and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Lord knows what recondite power put those particular incendiary devices into my sweaty palms but all three of those authors remain touchstones for me today, lo these many years later.
Vonnegut opened my head and heart, made me laugh, made me get up at all hours and howl at the moon. Camus taught me my guiding principle: the absurd is the first truth. And Kafka, poor, perspicacious and sickly Kafka, the century’s lightning rod, taught me that the Castle is in my head. The route to the Castle is in my head. And the Castle, no matter which route you take to it, keeps moving, keeps shape-shifting.
I was, as they say, off and running. I began to check books out as if I had a time limit on this new ID called a library card, tertiary identification only preceded by Social Security and driver’s license. I read more books by these three magi, found new authors who spoke to me personally — one I particularly remember was a book by James Leo Herlihy, the author of Midnight Cowboy, entitled Season of the Witch. It seemed so hip, so today — this is early ’70s, keep in mind, with its pop music references, its confused teens, its earnest restlessness. I fear to go back today and re-read this book, my memory of it is so fond. What if it is as insipid as The Bridges of Madison County and was actually just one of those lucky congruencies, coming to me at the right time in my life? Nabokov said there are no great readers, only great re-readers, and though he is the master, I rarely read a book twice. My three score and ten only allows a finite number of pages and they keep producing them, month after month, season after publishing season, new ink-stained paper, new ideas, new stories. I have to keep moving.
I remember checking out Portnoy’s Complaint — perhaps the great American novel everyone seeks like a grail — and being carded. I was safe because I was 18. I could fight in Vietnam and I could also, thanks to Lamar Wallace, the valiant head of the Memphis Library System, and his toughness in the face of a wrongheaded mayor, read Portnoy’s Complaint. But, wait, I thought, literature could be dangerous, troublesome, challenging, as deadly as liquor — something for adults only. How intriguing, how consummate.
Now, middle-aged, and owner of a bookstore, I live in a house of books, married to another reader, a house made of books, a world, yes, a world made of books. This is where I center myself. A reader-wife, two beautiful children surrounded by Twain and Updike and Alcott and Murdoch and Baum and Roth and 1,500 square feet mostly taken over by towering stacks of literature. Will I ever get to them all? I must. I must stay alive; there are books to read.
I still love pushing big fat novels into unsuspecting hands, knowing that when they get home the ideas therein stand a better than halfway chance of eliciting some small change, some infinitesimal alteration in the bedrock of the reader’s lifeview. I still get a little teary-eyed when someone is buying John Barth’s The Sotweed Factor, about to discover its wonders for the first time. Or Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Or John Fowles’ Daniel Martin. Or Keri Hulme’s astonishing The Bone People. Or Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. Or John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. What magic is about to happen in homes throughout the city that very night as readers turn to page one of these and other books of wonder! What enchantment!
But that’s the best part of this business of selling words, the evangelism if you will. I love to endorse good books. Email me, call me, I’ll tell you what’s grabbed me lately. I never tire of talking good books. And to illustrate my readiness in offering opinionated recommendations here are my top five favorite books of all time. Write them down: James Joyce’s Ulysses (of course), John Crowley’s Little, Big, Nabokov’s Lolita, Kafka’s The Trial and Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse. Go on. Go home and get busy reading them. Time’s awasting.
And, friends, here is the kicker, the bookseller/reader’s apogee: In 2002 I published a novel. A little packet of wisdom and wit, cobbled from my fairy faith, from the deeper parts of my steppenwolf psyche. It is called Talk: A Novel in Dialogue, and when it appeared from Livingston Press, in Alabama, it received nice encomia from the likes of Lee Smith, Frederick Barthelme, John Grisham, Robert Olen Butler, Suzanne Kingsbury, Debra Spark and other enlightened souls. Apart from my children it is my proudest act: I suddenly had an ISBN!
So, here, past the midpoint, I still pick up a new book, weekly, now Updike’s Licks of Love, later Gogol’s Dead Souls, approaching each one humbly, innocently, metaphorically hat-in-hand, and, before spreading it open like a pair of hands playing “here’s the church,” I whisper my “open sesame” over it: Teach me.
I am currently reading Edmund White’s Hotel de Dream.
My (email) door is always ajar. Talk to me: email@example.com
– Corey Mesler is the owner of Burke’s Book Store in Cooper-Young