Browsing Broadens the Mind

As I said yesterday, I don’t have the collecting gene. I don’t collect photographs, I don’t collect cameras, I don’t collect books.

I do have a collection of books, I’m just not a collector. That’s an important distinction. There’s also an important distinction between a collection (a bunch of books, what I have) and a collection (a curated, lovingly assembled bunch of books, not what I have). Maybe we should capitalize one of the two uses of the word to make the distinction clear.

I do enjoy used book stores. In some ways browsing a used book store is like what browsing the paper version of the Sunday New York Times used to be—an experience you set aside much of the morning for, going first to what you came in to look for, wandering around through the other sections as your interests suit, coming across all kinds of things that are important and useful that you never would have discovered with a more directed and practical approach. The browsing broadens the mind.

I don’t look for first editions or rare books, I look for books I want to read. Sometimes I buy a book I want to read and it ends up being something more.

Take for example A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I first learned of Anthony Burgess through Kubrick’s movie of the same name. The movie is one of those films that young males are drawn to for its rebelliousness and violence but in my mind, though it occurs in Kubrick’s filmography after his 1968 Ascension, is the least of his Mona Lisas, to borrow a quip from Ansel Adams.

To say I’m a fan of Kubrick is like saying St. Augustine was a fan of God himself. Somewhere here I have a wallet card that confirms I am a legitimate priest of a religion that I founded: The Church of Kubrick. Apparently, I can legally wed the faithful.

When I was dirt poor, which is to say all during the time I was an artist during my twenties, I traded an original theater poster of A Clockwork Orange with a friend. I don’t now recall who originally purchased it—my friend was a big fan of ACO, too, but not so much of Kubrick’s work generally—but at some point one of us would need money (me for photo supplies, he for beer and drugs) and we would buy the poster from the other. Back and forth it went over the years at the fixed price of $50. Like a no-interest bank account or a merciful pawn shop.

One year he called asking if I wanted to sell. I hadn’t seen or spoken with him for a year or two and we had grown apart and I was, by that time, even fonder of the poster, now framed and hanging on my crappy apartment’s wall across from a blow-up of a panel from the Doonesbury comic strip. I’d had it so long that I felt ownership of it, felt it was part of my character. I told him I wasn’t ready to sell. We made a little small talk and then hung up. I don’t think I’ve spoken to him again over the past twenty-five years.

The essence of the Church of Kubrick, its guiding principle (they make you fill out this text field when you buy the card) is that Stanley Kubrick is the One and True Artist whose work floats in heaven, above us all, offering humanity hope and, indeed, salvation. That’s all true, of course, down to the letter, but when you put it into words like that it does sound a little goofy.

One of the responsibilities of the faithful is to read the source material behind Kubrick’s films, to gain whatever deeper insight can be gained.

The source book for the holiest of holies, 2001, is often thought to be, quite logically, the book 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke but that isn’t the case. Clarke and Kubrick initially planned to co-write the script and the book and they did work toward those goals for a long time. But then, something changed in Kubrick, the miracle had occurred, and he started stripping away dialogue from the movie, stripping away explanations and voice-overs. He started to diverge from what Clarke and he had together envisioned, started to diverge from anything that had gone before. He let Clarke write the book on his own, based on the movie but informed by the earlier scripts. There is, it turns out, no source material for the movie, only source material for the book.

Barry Lyndon, surely one of the most underrated films in film history but in truth ranking not far below 2001 in its beauty and perfection It has a similar relationship with its source material, in this case in the form of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1884 The Luck of Barry Lyndon. If you read the book and watch the movie you will see that Kubrick really did base the movie on the book. But sometimes the characters’ lines in the book come out of other character’s mouths in the movie, the story rearranged, the movie seeming a large departure from the “script.”

There’s a story I read somewhere that I can’t now locate of Kubrick, after the poor ticket sales of Barry Lyndon and after the sad little sniffs from the movie critics, accustomed to being spoon-fed their columns as is ever the case, Kubrick wanted to find something that he could make into a movie that would make money. The story goes that he holed himself up in his office, door ajar, and started in on a pile of the bestsellers of the day. Book after book would be read to the end of the first chapter and then flung with force, with disgust perhaps, against the far wall. His assistant outside the door, only hearing the bang of the books as they failed the test, sensed Kubrick’s growing frustration. Then the banging stopped. And stayed stopped.

Kubrick had come across The Shining by, of course, Stephen King. Then he and novelist Diane Johnson took a deep dive into the essence of the horror story and trimmed the book to its own essence. The book is there, in the movie, but the movie is so much more. King was right to be upset by the result—it wasn’t anything like his book anymore. Not at all.

The source for Full Metal Jacket is said to be Gustov Hasford’s The Short-timers. That’s largely not true—much of it comes from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, represented on my shelves by a first-edition copy I came across for one dollar in the Friends of the Library fundraising section of the Foster City Library. Finding a copy was thrilling—I had always wanted to read it—but far more thrilling was what I found inside. A Marine who had fought in Vietnam—who had fought in many of the same battles and in the same locations as described by Herr and who knew many of the people mentioned—had gone through the book twice, years after returning to the States, quite apparently a challenging emotional experience for the man on both occasions, and he had annotated the margins with his thoughts, the first reading in black ink, the second in blue. There is no name inscribed in the book, just this anonymous Marine, struggling with his memories of the war. I was so powerfully moved by his handwritten words and the juxtaposition of Herr’s typeset text that I scanned many of the pages and used it for my own art project, The Annotated Dispatches. I need to get that one back on the web someday.

Most critics hated Eyes Wide Shut—they had worked themselves up in the wait for the film, expecting a high-brow Debbie Does Dallas with big-name stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, then married, but what they got was this weird, not quite real, cryptic story of a doctor wandering through the city from one oddly sexual encounter to the next. Oh, there is nudity alright, including Kidman, undressing during the opening credits, maybe just so the critics wouldn’t have to wait, and there are dozens of nude men and women, especially women, throughout.

The source material here is the short novel TraumnovelleDream Story, in English—by Arthur Schnitzler, but it’s worth mentioning Blue Movie, a book by Terry Southern who worked with Kubrick on the screenplay to Dr. Strangelove (My copy: First edition, first printing, 1970, mint condition). Southern knew what surprisingly few people have pointed out: Kubrick liked to reinvent genres, liked to make the best films in whatever genre he was working in. It was not unheard of for Kubrick, in his pitch to the studio to support his upcoming project, to flatly declare that he intended to make the best movie ever made, the best science fiction movie, the best historical movie, the best horror movie, the best war movie. You can make a credible list of these bests just by writing in the names of Kubrick’s films. 2001, the best science fiction film, Barry Lyndon, the best historical drama, The Shining, the best horror movie, Full Metal Jacket, the best war film.

Blue Movie, a book written after a failed pitch to Kubrick, was intended to be a screenplay for a high-brow Debbie Does Dallas with big-name stars. Something that would reinvent the sex film, a genre that seemed to need reinventing. In the book a director, very similar to Kubrick, sets about to do just that. Splice together Traumnovelle and Blue Movie and maybe you have the foundations of Eyes Wide Shut?

I bought all of these books at thrift stores, bought them all to read, not to collect. Some, like a first edition of Charle Portis’s True Grit (which I had intended to talk about here but didn’t) or A Clockwork Orange, turned out to be valuable, although they are not for sale. Some, like the annotated copy of Dispatches I came across, turned out to be invaluable, and I will never sell.

I read, I borrow, I steal, but I don’t collect.

Except…

There is one book I long for, one book I scan every thrift store fiction section for, hoping to find it waiting for me, knowing I would one day come. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy was not a big seller, which confirms every cynic’s dim view of humanity. Most of the small printing run, it is said, was remaindered, perhaps pulped.

Back when there were still bookstores I found myself one day discouraged. Every movie I saw seemed to have been made before. Every song seemed created by a focus group, every book author dreaming of Hollywood or of the New York party circuit, or both. I was getting older and Kubrick had been dead for ten years or more and it occurred to me, with a feeling of great dejection, that I had seen all of the mountaintops, read all of the books that would change my life, listened to all of the music that would open up new worlds, seen all of the films that make life worth living. The rest was just filling in the blanks, poking a bit around the sides of those mountains, becoming more of an expert rather than an explorer.

Then I read Blood Meridian. I had gone to the Borders Bookstore with the express intent of finding something different, to take a blind shot outside of my canon of authors and outside of the cultural walls I had built for myself and to see what would happen. Maybe I would get lucky.

I’ve been that lucky only a few times in my life. I had one book in my hand (I forget which one, now, headed to the checkout) and decided as I approached to have a quick look at the corner area, poorly lit, next to the line of cashiers. I switched books and took home McCarthy’s, a writer unknown to me.

What were the words I used as a teenager? Blown away? Floored? I was blown away. I was floored. I had never read a book like this before, a book so aesthetic, a book so different from the sentence-masters of high-brow fiction and so different from the best-sellers. I often make the point that if you can meaningfully say, in words, what a work of visual art is about then that work has failed. Strangely, despite being made up entirely with words, I don’t think you can describe what is important about this book with words. It, like visual art, like music, is a book to be experienced.

I remember finishing the book, I was laying in bed at night, on my back, book held in both hands. I finished the book and then closed it, lay it face down on my chest and waited a minute or two, the book reverberating in my mind. Then for the first time in my life, I opened the book and started reading it again.

Used copies of Blood Meridian, as you might expect, are very expensive, It is not unusual to see them sell for five thousand dollars. I came across a copy at Bauman Rare Books, the famed used book store at its Las Vegas branch. I glanced around and then the well-spoken salesperson asked if there was anything I might be interested in. I was wearing clothes more suited to the desert and cross-country travel, which what was really going on in my life at that moment, but the best salespeople, especially in Vegas, know that anyone walking in the door could be a buyer. When I later chatted with the salesperson she told of a middle-aged man that had come in a few weeks earlier, wearing sweat clothes, a quiet person, a little disheveled. In other stores he might have been ignored, even discreetly tracked by wary store security. In Bauman’s he asked for a specific set of books—I believe a set of the Canterbury Tales—paid the one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars in cash, and then walked out, never even giving his name.

Bauman had a copy of Blood Meridian, there in the glassed display window along the wall of the main room. It was priced as expected, me standing there looking at it, thinking about it, weighing the cost in my head, almost calling to the salesperson. It was right there, right there in front of me.

I passed the test, leaving the store without a package in my hand, my head clear again of the fog of the collector’s urge, safely clear of the foolishness of needing to own the thing in order to have it.

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