Books, Damn Books, and Statistics Textbooks

I'd call myself a book whore, but that would be getting the metaphor a bit wrong. I pay for my literary pleasures, and quite a bit, actually. I realized this today at Elliott Bay when the cashier put my purchases in a lovely store-logo tote bag (you know, the kind with a side pocket and a stately picture that's the next step up from the coffee mug on public radio donation bribes). When I expressed a bit of confusion, she pointed to the sign: purchases over $100 get a free tote bag. That was when the enormity of my deed sank in. I haven't read all the books I got in San Francisco yet (and I didn't even get all the books I wanted to read when I was there). I haven't read the book from the reading I went to last week. I didn't even buy the book from the reading tonight. I have approaching two shelves of books I've purchased in the last year and haven't read. But how could I possibly have resisted? An autographed copy of Margaret Atwood's latest? Yes, yes, appease my guilt for skipping her reading! Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel? But of course! A softcover volume of comics from the Snake and Bacon guy? Mais oui. And and and on it went. I have no shame. I also have no time to read, with the current almost-all-out push back here at work. But since when has that ever held me back from my booklust? It's a good thing I'm not in charge of the orphanage: I'd be siphoning off the gruel money for books.

And I thought I was being so thrifty by not buying Vollmann's book. At 800 pages and $40, it's a fairly hefty contribution to American arts and letters -- Vollmann himself claimed he was quite upset at the price his publisher decided to charge, and said that he couldn't actually recommend the book. I support the high price -- his displeasure with the cost might act as a useful check on his tendency to wordiness. He's in the middle of a 7-book cycle, each weighing in up there in the near-thousand-page range. He's also, he told the audience, sitting on a 4000-page novel about "the moral calculus of violence," but has been unable to find a publisher. To which, I'm really tempted to say that my faith in the American publishing industry has been restored by this fact. Vollmann's a perennial favorite with the disaffected late-high-school crowd, up there with his Manichean nemesis, the equally prolix Ayn Rand. And they were all over the place tonight, out from the woodwork, the people trying to think of something profound to say to their idol, some kind of intelligent question to ask. "This word, 'hardened,' what of it?" Or, my favorite, the guy who wanted to find out Vollmann's sources for the psychology of the pedophile characters, all the while trying to avoid implying that Vollmann might be a pedophile himself -- which wouldn't have been so hard if the questioner hadn't stumbled across the possibility that his words might have that implication and then gotten horribly flustered as his own embarassment started to seem like some kind of snide commentary.

What really got me about the reading, though, was that Vollmann himself is basically a shlump. Think Milton from Office Space. Also, except when he was actually reading from the novel, he spoke almost entirely in monosyllables. "I keep two or three books going at once. I don't want to get bored. It's bad for my mood when I have to work to a deadline." My mind kept on trying to put the bland middle-American right-wing call-in-radio-caller guy at the podium together with the crazed foreign-correspondent radical novelist of America's underbelly, and kept on failing at it. The audience ate it up. As I left, through the strange variations of crowds, Vollmann wound up right behind me, so I had to push my way through the people going over to Vollmann to tell him how great, variously, he, the novel, and the reading were. I guess what I'm saying is that I may be a book john, but there are still some things I still won't do.