8824 NE Russell St.
Portland OR 97220

Black Lamb

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Black Lamb was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Published monthly. (more)

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Nineteen years later

June 1st, 2003

BY STEPHEN STARBUCK

For well more than a decade, I lived without bookshelves.

There was a time in the hazy past before that when I lined my room with them. At one point, though, I boxed up my college books and put them in liberating storage, in the sweet fecund orwellcrawlspace of my grandmother’s basement, like burying the inconvenient child in some loamy orphanage. The books had been an attempt not so much artful as blunt-force to manifest my oh-so-interesting mind. Over the preceding years, many of them, often the ones I had never read, had been prominently — blatantly — displayed on various orange-crate and cinder-block shelves. I intended to, I promised myself. Even started to, on several occasions. Mine was the kind of intellect that surrounded itself with deep, serious, picaresque, yearning, exalted thought. People needed to know that. The bigger the book, the more outré or difficult the writer, the better. Finnegans Wake. Giles Goat-Boy. JR. Gravity’s Rainbow. That sort of thing.

It worked with records, too. You know the routine. You enter someone’s apartment for the first time, and in the interstitial moments when left half-alone while the screwtop wine is decanted, you peruse the spines and inform yourself of the breadth and depth of your host. You read, in the quirks and fixations, personality.
These illiterate days, I guess it’s furniture and accoutrements, the pornography of objects, how well one shops, and appoints. One gleans insight from that.

Confession: I took a coffee-table-book approach to literature. Not that I didn’t read or stock myself with favorite authors; I even finished the complete works of a few: Vonnegut, Chandler, Donleavy, Grass. But for many of my books, the jackets were decidedly more important to me than the contents. Mea culpa.

Recently, coincident with some other welcome changes, I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, that typical arc from cramped metro life to a more expansive domestic sphere. Tripling the square footage. Rooms with unique, specified purposes, separate from other rooms, with doors on them, including an office I can hide in. A guest room, even! Lapping up the luxury of space, breathing room… it’s been exhilarating and yet daunting at the same time, because it meant and means more rooms to fill.

Like the library. The new digs has a library, or rather a room, open to the living room, lined on three sides with built-in shelves, floor to well over head height. A whole lotta shelving.

We moved in and began uncrating. Those book boxes that had followed me around for years upon years, from one basement to another, to attic to storage center, finally opened, exposing their contents to the light of day. So many paperbacks, yellowed and imperfect, the cheap binding glue vitrified, the musty collection reaching back into heady junior high.

Ah, the treasures of my Cold War youth. Okay, I must admit, one of my favorite hoot and hollers back then was None Dare Call it Treason, a red-baiting artifact of the embryonic lunatic right, also widely available in ruined paperback though not assigned in school. It must’ve been given away. Used bookstores seemed tiled with it. It was strident, hysterical, so pure and narrow ideologically that it should’ve passed through the earth like some supercharged neutrino. I’d call it unintentional self-parody, but who’d’ve guessed that sort would have ascended to the imperial throne of what we used to call the presidency? And there was my last copy of it, floating on a pile of limpid tomes like the pond scum it is. Definitely back of the bookshelf material.

Funny, the books we read in the public schools, the ones touted to us (by our rather minimally waged overseers) as great and important literature, serious but worthy of agile young minds. Lord of the Flies. Animal Farm. 1984.

It was 1984 that told me about the world, in a way unintended by the author and certainly by the superintendents setting the course for the proper edification and enlightenment of the anarchically juicy young. We all read it. Assigned reading. How could a book so relentlessly and thoroughly spooked by authoritarianism be so roundly endorsed by the authorities? That Cold War thing, that’s it. Same reason the salacious and inarguably brilliant Lolita (okay, my favorite book in the universe) got a thorough hearing; Nabakov was a White Russian aristo, thoroughly anti-Soviet and anti-Red and chock full of Tsarist nostalgia. If some com-symp had penned it….

But 1984. I read it several times, for the sheer pleasure of its terrors and lapidary prose and inexorably and brutally sad ending — uplift in a world turned upside down. Inside the book, I’d be lost in something creepily familiar — the easy extrapolations from my views of contemporary life to its prophetic anachronisms. Knowing the dyslexia of 1948/1984. Knowing, in 1968 looking ahead, I would be a fully fledged adult when that bellwether year arrived (Reagan was larger than life, though more avuncular than filial. Big Uncle?). A warning, but not the one the California state textbook mavens had in mind.

Orwell’s book showed me that literature was powerful well beyond the realm of the emotional. That lives and possibilities were circumscribed by power. That language could be whored. That sex was political. That political art could be elusive and was essentially subversive even of its own ostensible ends. That the authorities were dim. That resistance must come early. That hope is love, and vice versa.

So there it sits, my old dog-eared 1984, on a bookshelf again, rather lonely since my untold boxes of books — the very old, along with others accumulated over a decade’s worth of book buying and book storing — barely filled a third of the waiting, welcoming shelves. Some intellectual I turned out to be.
So the bold stark typographics freely beckon, 1984, inviting yet another read. In an era when its fiction seems dangerously close to our oil-garchs’ coming fact, with Jeb the little brother in the wings for 2008…. Perhaps Orwell merely missed by twenty years?

“We have always been at war with Oceania.” •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Starbuck | Link to this Entry

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