Not long ago the top shelf of the pine hutch in my bedroom collapsed under the weight of its books. I stared at it, helpless. Fortunately Tami (she lives near me, not with me) advised me to remove the slumped books and put them, for now, in a pile on the floor; later we’d see about getting the shelf fixed.
And that — unfortunately — is where the matter still stands, weeks (months?) later. I haven’t had the motivation to fix the shelf, and the heap of books doesn’t significantly worsen the disorder of the room.
This pile is, however, on the way to my clothes closet, so I pass it a few times a day. And I spy titles: Twelfth Night; William Carlos Williams, Selected Poems…. It is, you see, a literary pile. Of the hundreds of books I still have, and have carted with me — I’m never certain why — from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to Beersheva in recent years, a considerable portion are literary books.
That, in turn, is because literature was the main thing in my life from before college until about ten years ago. Both reading it, that is, and attempting to write it. Even while working as an editor and translator of nonliterary works, and so engrossed by Israel’s affairs that I moved here from the U.S., I somehow continued in what I saw as my main calling: writing fiction (and, as a byproduct, some poetry), and exploring the literary treasures that it behooves a serious fiction writer to explore.
What changed? I wasn’t publishing my stories anywhere too impressive, or attaining a name. I had lost my foreground of American people, places, and language; the stories I wrote seemed more and more abstract — even sort of lonely and pointless. Meanwhile the intense drama of Israel surrounded me, and when I wrote about that — in the form of an op-ed in a newspaper — I got real, immediate reactions; I felt alive, instead of like some relic washed up on a shore.
So I finally made my break from literature, almost ten years ago; I decided to focus on political writing — and reading, more or less dismissing great fiction and poetry from my life. Looking back, it was a good decision; I no longer write in a near-void, my articles are a means of connection to people instead of ever-growing isolation.
The break, not surprisingly, has not been total. In these years I’ve read a few literary works, basically when enthused friends demanded it; I’ve also written a few stories and poems, basically when urges were irresistible. But, considering what those earlier decades were like, it has been about as total as such a break can be. That, naturally, entails loss.
I carted my books — all of them — with me in my two recent moves; in my Tel Aviv apartment and in this current one, I set them up as well as I could — including the old, no longer relevant ones, the ones that still impart a thrill of beauty when I glance at them. Now it’s they that are relics; while I’m current, engaged and writing about the country I live in. This was, unfortunately, a zero-sum game; either those books were going to turn into a still, forgotten pond or I was.
These days, of course, I have trouble even getting to the sort of books — on Israeli and Middle Eastern politics and history — I see as a necessary nurturer for what I’m writing. A bewildering profusion of news and commentary comes out on the internet every day; I have to decide what not to read. Even late at night — when once I might have borne down on some gems by Frost, Dickinson, Wordsworth — I tend instead to hang around on Facebook, or browse YouTube with a glass of something day-ending and universe-justifying in hand.
And the books, the old ones, surround me with their silence. I don’t keep up with the world literary scene; but I understand that the book market in general is drooping, and don’t get the sense that literature plays a huge part in people’s lives. And that desultory heap is still there in the corner of the room, unresolved and, I fear, all too symbolic.
More on literature at PJ Lifestyle: