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Mike Barnes on his favourite places to read

The author, who was once a janitor, hunkered down with his books in a “freighted elevator”


 

To see the shambles that the wealthy commonly make of the core arts of living is good for more than schadenfreude: it can make you grateful for the little but ample you’ve got, and acquaint you with your real, as opposed to implanted, tastes and desires.

I received this kind of welcome reality check courtesy of a recent visit to “Libraries of the Rich and Famous” on the Book Riot website. It was fun to ogle the galleries and spiral staircases, the bespoke shelving and lighting and floor coverings; the Kubla-Khanish opulence of William Randolph Hearst’s library (which really was pleasure-domed, featuring, down its incredible length, ornate painted scenes covering the panels of its arched segmented ceiling); the bizarre SMERSH–Kelmscott amalgam concocted by Jay Walker, the founder of Walker Digital and Priceline.com, with its traditional wood-and-leather lower half giving way abruptly to a blue-lit upper region in which dangles an original Sputnik 1 satellite, models of NASA’s X-29 jet and Saturn V rocket, hanging above a priceless miscellany ranging from originals of the 1535 Coverdale Bible, Robert Hooke’s 1665 Micrographia (and, yes, a Kelmscott Chaucer) to the Enigma code machine, an Edison kinetoscope and phonograph, an IBM processor circa 1960, and a Sumerian clay cone used to record surplus grain; the sheer colossality of the library of Harlan Crow, Texan real estate magnate, which, with its columns the size of ancient oaks, looks like a part (a large part) of the Library of Congress moved inside a private residence; Sting’s prim and coldly austere marble and wrought-iron alcove atop a staircase, with three absurdly pompous busts of composers surmounting one bookcase, inevitable glowering Beethoven in the middle (the whole matching wonderfully the homeowner’s faux and uninviting music)—it is immense fun to pore over the details of these ostentatious assemblages, a delight unimpaired by even the slightest tinge of envy, since none of them is a place where I could actually read or even be tempted to read. With lavish ingenuity, they repel the activity of reading as I’ve known it.

(The note to the Biltmore House library supplies a sort of meta-gloss on the idea of futilizing grandeur. Perpetrated by one of the Vanderbilts, the largest privately-owned home in the United States—at 135,000 square feet and 250 rooms—seems like an almost mathematical solution to a bizarre problem: How may a structure be designed that while conforming to the accepted meaning of the word “residence” is for all practical purposes unlivable?)

The few more shambolic or cosy entries—the retreats of Julia Childs, Woody Allen, Keith Richards, and Professor Richard A. Macksey (its intricate omnidirectional clutter like an autopsy of erudition)—are exceptions that prove the rule: still far too perfectly staged settings for the reading experience for me to think of cracking a paperback in.


MORE ESSAYS FROM MIKE BARNES: 


And so, post-website, the question comes naturally: where have I read most happily?

So many, many places. Reading has been the most portable of pleasures. As a child, under tented bedclothes with a flashlight. Later, in canvas then nylon tents, the flashlight constant. In crooks of pines, in close cedar groves. In small, cave-like circles of rocks with leafy, sky-shot ceilings. As an adult, in waiting rooms—almost any kind is good. On-the-way places: buses, trains, planes. Coffee shops, cafeterias or diner-type eateries (not upscale cafes or restaurants, where inhospitable auras come between me and the page). A favourite chair in the kitchen or living room, preferably by a window, in every apartment I have occupied. In bed, of course, the stack on the floor beside ranging from picture books and sheer fluff to the most abstruse and impenetrable science and philosophy—offerings for any degree of alertness or insomnia.

The common denominators on this far-from-exhaustive list are obvious to me. Private places, or private-in-public. Humble. Unexceptional.

Unsanctified.

Walker Percy, in novels like The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman and The Second Coming, talks about discovering—necessarily by accident, though a yearning quest makes the accident possible—of places that are “dispensed.” Places where one may actually look at or listen to another person or thing, whereas before even the simplest communion was obscured, encumbered by personal and social conventions, dissolved behind a haze of expectations. He imagines an art gallery where the masterpieces are invisible behind a screen of “ravening particles,” until an earthquake wrecks the building and there, amid the rubble, one might blow the dust off a painting lying askew and, for the first time, actually see it.

Ezra Pound gets at the same thing differently:

            I had over-prepared the event,

            that much was ominous.

            With middle-ageing care

            I had laid out just the right books.

With reading, as with any romance, unless it is redeemed by extreme naïveté, over-preparation is deadly.

And so it came to me this morning, jogged by Book Riot and by a scene in the novel I’d just finished writing, that the paradigm of all my favourite reading places is a freight elevator stopped between floors.

It was 1980. I was working as a part-time janitor at the YMCA, steady on weekends and on-call during the week (though I was seldom called, and even more seldom answered). The bathrooms were the worst, and Saturday and Sunday mornings their nadir. Long-overflowed or simply ignored garbage cans. Liquor bottles, many smashed. Condoms, used. Urine and excrement, the latter often diarrheal, bewilderingly far from either urinal or toilet bowl. Some of my regular duties were so obviously impossible that they could be ignored without remorse, nor did anyone ever chide me for ignoring them. The cathedral-like windows in the main gymnasium, for instance, so grime-caked that staring up at them, into a nimbus of wan rays that forced their way through the crud’s minute cracks, the same lines always entered my head, from Carroll’s musing Walrus and Carpenter: “If seven maids with seven mops,/Swept it for half a year…?” No! Not seventy maids with seventy mops, plus scrapers and sponges and vats of Mr. Clean.

Wandering the vast, echoic, filthy place, I invented little games. Tying my rags into as close to a basketball shape as I could manage and taking shots from the free throw line and around the court. Curiously, I made more of them with my lopsided rag-ball than I ever had in gym class or as a bench-warmer in Midget basketball.

Like any loosely-supervised worker, I found places to hide.

At some point I discovered that the freight elevator could be stopped halfway between the ground floor and the basement, and that there was a lever that jammed it there, so that it was unsummonable by someone pushing the button from above or below. A 60-watt bulb glowed gamely overhead. That bulb I always carried a replacement for. And, of course, I always had my book, either in the back pocket of my baggy uniform pants, or, if the book was a little bigger, under the cleaning rags on my cart.

Céline. John Fante. Charles Bukowski. Knut Hamsun.

All the writers just-right for me then. And, now, the just-right place to read them in.

Just-right for reasons so clear to me now (not clear then probably, since they didn’t need to be) that I can set them down in a compact list:

  1. I was 24. I’d just been discharged after two years on a psychiatric ward, narrowly escaping being sent to the old city asylum for warehousing, a fate we long-time wardees called “bagging.” I’d been a prize-winning, straight-A student in high school: now I was no one, of whom nothing—nothing good—was expected. It was morning in all senses of the word. Still my favourite time of day to read.
  2. A nowhere place. Hanging in space between floors, suspended from the belly of the building like a ball turret gunner, the war finally over. A place of zero expectation. Zero chance of over-preparation.
  3. (Really 2 b)). A humble place. Much-used. Scarred wooden planking around and beneath my extended legs (I sat against the back wall). Scratched gunmetal-gray walls that didn’t repay a first let alone a second look (though—recalling better now—I did come up out of the trance of reading to study them with a kind of battered wonder). The wire mesh gate I’d pulled down at the front, with its fraying, oatmeal-coloured canvas strap. A place in which even the shyest author would genie up out of the pages, pace about (restless after the long bound journey), then settle against another of the walls, mocking while adoring this chapel free of distraction in which nothing but a grateful reader awaited.
  4. Stolen time. The Y was paying me the minimum wage at the time: $2.25, I think. Which, by a happy accident—though in the chapel of pure reading there are no accidents, only joyful revelations—is exactly the same price (I just checked) of my Avon Bard edition of Hunger, one of my staples at the time. Getting paid to read—from 70 cents to almost 8 dollars (sometimes I got rousted after twenty minutes, but there were blissful three-hour interludes too, the supervisor off chasing busted pipes or shorted circuits or, who knows, finding his own ways to make love to the pooch)—was luscious. I’ve never managed it since. My two stints on literary juries don’t count, since to earn my honoraria I had to make notes, opine on who should win and lose
  5. (4 b)) Time stolen from someone in particular. I can’t remember his features. Can say with certainty only that I hated the zeal of his short haircut and large, veined biceps. When he found the stalled elevator, he shouted and shouted my name. After the first time not answering, I couldn’t answer, ever. Delicious. He knew I was down in there, or up in there (he ran between floors), knew beyond a doubt, but also beyond proof. His flashlight beam zig-zagged over the front of the cage floor. Then he extended his arm down between the gap, far enough that I saw the tips of his fingers, and the light spasmed like an epileptic Tinkerbell around and over my sneakers and socks—but, of course, his eyes weren’t out at the end of his arm, so he could only make the light jerk about, not see what it discovered. Sooner or later, despite his zeal and youth, he tired of shouting and flashlight-waving, and ran off to find the other supervisor—they worked in pairs—to witness my insane malingering. As soon as I heard him run up the stairs, or down, I jolted the clanking elevator back down, or up, in the opposite direction. He, or they, would find me, moments later, mopping the hall with energetic swipes, or down on my knees with a rag and spray bottle at some pernicious stain. Their faces: red or gray-white with rage; slit- or pop-eyed. Mine: bovine with dumb diligence. Only once, strangely, did he get inventive—and I think one of my authors must have whispered his small game in my ear, for I evaded it perfectly. He ran loudly up the stairs, then must have tiptoed back down to the basement, for after a few silent minutes his beam played over the roof of the cage, and he recommenced bellowing. Throughout, I hadn’t budged. Hadn’t even shifted the book in my lap.

My perfect reading room came back to me recently in an unexpected way. I’d thought about it from time to time over the years, always with a smile, but less and less with the attrition of distance. It was thirty-six years ago.

It came back to me by the transmigration of images that, for me, is one of the big joys of writing. The way the soul of another time—its people, its things, its places and situations, its tone-colour and feeling—can return in another context that is not overtly about them, set down by a scribe unaware that he has become one of those Star Trek screenwriters who make universes interpenetrate, bits of each poking into the other.

I had no notion of calling back my freight elevator when I wrote the scene in question in my novel The Adjustment League. I didn’t even realize it during multiple re-readings of the manuscript or during the editing or proofreading process. It just popped into my head this morning, during a withering heat wave they’re calling, for some reason, a “dome.”

Unsanctified. Unprepared. Dispensed.

Avoiding spoilers, in the scene the protagonist takes a special book into a special dark place and reads it by flashlight. Acutely desolate at that moment, he hopes, by this ritual, to reunite with a time and person he believes lost to him irretrievably.

I added the handful of lines only late in the writing. I didn’t ponder what I might be channelling in doing so. It just felt right. When I re-read it during the editing it made me think of reading in a tent or in bed as a kid, except the emotional tone of that, which was pure pleasurable absorption, didn’t match the dark high stakes of the novel’s passage.

When I recalled my freight elevator, the scene’s real origin clicked into place.

Morning after the blackest night. A tenuous, surprising dawn. Among its cool, pink scents, the acrid pong of a thief’s wild hope. This thief will conduct the raid of raids. Armed only with a cone of light, surrounded by utter dark, in a spirit of such mingled exaltation and despair it needs stolen privacy to flower, he will invade the past, he will journey outside time altogether, and reach, by means of daring and occult symbols, the single spot where the cherished lost was lost, and is now found, and found.


 
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