Monday, July 10, 2017

#237: "My House Wordship" by Richard Kostelanetz

~This piece was previously published in Home & Away (1991).

I sit here in this old house alone.
–Edmund Wilson, Upstate (1971)

My apartment became famous for a day, early in September 1985, when it appeared at the top of the front page of the widely read New York Times's Thursday "Home" section. Accompanying a feature article on "Living with Too Many Books" was a photograph of me sitting beneath towering shelves tightly filled with paperbacks. Whereas most features in the Times are forgotten a few days afterwards, this one is often remembered, mostly by those likewise crowded. The article said I had ten thousand books, which seems too high, for the only figure authorized by me was "956 running feet" of shelves containing books. Those more experienced insist that the count must now be closer to fifteen thousand, which is the result of reading roughly a book a day for forty adult years.
            What the size of this library mostly reflects–a point missed by the writer, specializing in interior design–is not that I "collect" books, because I don't, but that I've worked my way through several intellectual fields. After taking degrees in American civilization and American history, I became interested in literature and literary criticism; more recently, I've written about other arts. By contrast, no one pursuing a single discipline would need so many books at home. A second fact shaping the size of the library is professional independence. Whereas professors can rely upon a university library, I can use only the New York Public. However, not only is its stocking erratic, but even the famed research central at 42nd Street is missing many items listed in its catalog.
            A third, more personal fact is that my books are extensively annotated, not only with marks on their pages but also with sheets of paper filled with handwritten notes. When I want to find something that I remember being in any book of mine, I first consult these sheets. In a practical sense, these sheets and annotations are more valuable to me than the books; for unlike the books, they are irreplaceable.


            The books in my library are grouped by subject and by size; so that the first requirement for finding any title is remembering how tall it is. Small paperbacks are gathered into shelves made to my design, cut to 7 1/2" or 8 1/4" high and 5 ½” deep, to accomodate the two most common sizes for paperbacks. Smaller hardbacks go onto shelves that are 9" and 10" high, while larger shelves are mostly for illustrated art books. As a result, books on a single subject could be in three or four different places. The fasting growing section is devoted to books and spine-bound cultural magazines containing works of mine–well over a thousand in sum–prompting me to move books off adjacent shelves in order to keep this category in a single place.
            The only rational reason for having such a large library is that I prefer to do research at home, with my own annotations, as indeed I do; but the logistical problem now is that I no longer always know where to find a title I want. If the book has been mine for a while, and it hasn't been moved, I can probably locate it; but if the book is new to my library or has been moved to make way for the expansion of something else (such as tose books including me), it can escape my search. Whenever this happens, I swear that if I can't find books I need, there is no reason to have this humongous library; the whole thing should go. I haven't yet done any radical deaccessioning, as they say in the museum biz, though I'm always on the verge of doing so.
            A diminutive tradesman once fixing a chair of mine looked around as I paid him. "A lot of books?" he said. I nodded agreement. "Have you read them all?" Pretty much, I replied, trying to seem modest. "All in one language, eh?" Recognizing that he has set me up for his put down, I was speechless. "I talk fife," he said in a thickly accented voice, as he moved to leave. My library shows that, not unlike other over-educated Americans, I never learned to read comfortably any languages other than English.
            Most people entering my house for the first time will exclaim, "So many books." A few will say, "So many records," usually indicating that they are accustomed to seeing a lot of books. Since records are slimmer than books, they take up less space per capita, and the last time I measured there were 35 running feet, which I suppose amounts to 3,000 records, or a fairly reasonable figure of one hundred per year for thirty years. Nearly all these discs fall into four large groupings–contemporary music, mostly in the avant-garde traditions; baroque music, mostly J. S. Bach; sixties rock; and folk.
            In the past two decades I have accumulated many audiocassettes that have their own shelves. Some of these cassettes contain music; others transcriptions of classic American radio toward a projected book that never gets sufficient support. On one wall, in a crevice between two bookshelves, is a vertical stack of plastic cabinets of sound poetry/audio art; on another wall is a stack of the great modern writers reading their work. As I live alone, no one is bothered if I play music and speech nearly all the time. I have perhaps several hundred compact discs and even a single videodisc (though no machine for playing the latter). More recently, I've been recording, on the slowest VHS speed, movies that I consider part of my personal culture; and my collection of these videotapes is beginning to fill another wall. The abundance of culture, let me confess, makes me feel comfortable. More than once I've rationalized that I'm squirreling away for the time when I get ill. However, as a fulltime artworker, I can't afford to be ill and so I never am.
            I moved here in 1974 and have lived here almost uninterrupted ever since. It represents the third house of my adult life and my sixth in New York City. For the first three, I lived with my parents, initially in the neighborhood around Yankee Stadium, then in Inwood at the northern tip of Manhattan, finally on Riverside Drive. The first place Irented on my own was a four-room bastion in a Harlem housing project just down the hill from Columbia University where my (ex)wife and I were graduate students. With a rent of fifty-five dollars a month, including utilities (and a monthly exterminator), it became a place where we could afford comfortably to spend all day and all night reading and sometimes writing. I might have stayed longer than four years, had not the New York City Housing Authority required that residents be a nuclear family, which by 1966 we weren't any more.
            The second place of my own was the top floor of a brownstone in the East Village. By the time I left, after eight years, its six hundred square feet had become so cluttered that no more than three people could fit into it comfortably. This current space, approximately three times the size of its predecessor, is part of the third floor in a SoHo building that once housed factories. The fact that the paint on my concrete ceiling looks as though it is peeling reflects the vapors from the jewelry business that was here before me.
            The space itself has become a kind of factory, all of it by now organized for the production of what I do. Since nothing currently manufactured here is particularly remunerative, there is no one else to be the janitor (or the boss). Way in the back is a windowless space, between ten feet by twenty, in which are located five desks. The one with the typewriter was for writing but is now used only for correspondence; the second with a drawing board tilted up at an angle is for editing and proofreading. A third and a fourth seem to have accumulated papers in progress. Whatever function I once had in mind for the fifth now escapes me. It seems mostly used to support my feet when I want to lean back in a chair.
            In the corner of this back room is an extra bed that was meant for naps but is now hardly used. (When I first lived here, there was someone else; now, prospects tell me, there is insufficient room for anyone else.) Along one short wall are deep shelves that house my biannual accordion files of professional correspondence (implicitly waiting for an archive’s offer that cannot be refused); beneath it is a deep shelf of mailing supplies. Next to the typewriter desk are four tall filing cabinets containing projects still in progress. As a steam pipe runs upward through this room, it is also the warmest space, especially during winter nights, when the rest of the apartment cools down; and since I usually stay up late, I tend to gravitate here in the middle of the night.
            The next room, likewise windowless, was meant to be the "reading room," which accounts for why it has always housed a television and the central telephone. On one side of my favorite butterfly chair is the dialing machine and an answering machine; on the other side is a radio-amplifier attached to both a cassette player and a new CD machine. Across the room is a television that I watch more often than before, now that I've acquired a VCR that enables me to see programs I would have missed and incidentally fast-forward through commercials and promotions. It is here that I put the two-piece projection television that was given to me by someone with insufficient space for its six-foot screen.
            Behind the chair is a wall full of unread books, my assumption being that a new book cannot be shelved with others of its kind until it has been "processed," as I say, with annotations and a sheet of notes. Along side walls are yet more shelves which extend under a tilted table that I use for drawing. Underneath yet another table, now filled with towers storing dozens of compact discs, is my grandfather’s brother’s 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is one of the few books I inherited, as opposed to acquiring on my own initiative. On the door to this room are tacked two pieces of paper, one forbidding smoking, because there is no natural ventilation, the other a publisher’s royalty check for one dollar, reminding me that my literary business is scarcely profitable.
            On the other side of this door is the dining room, or what was once a dining room, because it has a long table, surrounded by several chairs (and bookshelves on all the walls behind it); but since I haven't entertained recently, the table tends to contain a miscellany of things that I'm currently moving in and out of the house. Across from it on a large desk are two computers–the fifteen-year-old Kaypro that I still prefer for writing, and the new one, an Apple, which is for rewriting because its keyboard always feels alien–in addition to two computer-driven printers that give the boss (lacking a secretary) far neater typescripts and business letters than he could ever produce at the typewriter. Beside the printer is one of the dozen radio receivers distributed throughout the house, so that sound will always be within reach. Here too is a second telephone that is usually unplugged, because even if I'm not sleeping I'd still rather not have my concentration interrupted and, better yet, would rather not seem impolite if it were.
            Behind the space is the bedroom, with a queen-sized bed along one wall and a television along the other. I've kept this room largely free of books, for fear they would distract me as I was trying to get to sleep (just as the writing room in the back is also free of books), but on its walls are instead a painting by Hugh Lifson, a New Yorker now teaching in Iowa, and two sequences of geometric drawings that, in a certain sense, represent an apex of my own visual art. On the bedroom floor is a large metal cabinet whose horizontal shelves, three feet by four, contain prints of my own visual poetry and numerical art. Atop the cabinet, likewise lying prostrate, is a box containing a traveling exhibition of my work (even though it hasn't left this house in years). One of the two bedroom windows is completely covered, its sill used instead for storage; the other is customarily curtained, as it looks out on the back of another building.
            Adjacent to the bedroom, with four unadorned windows that look out over the roof of a single-storey restaurant, is the living room, the largest room in my apartment and, in a comparative sense, the least occupied. It has shelves not only along its walls, but an island of storage in the middle. It also has works of art that I've collected over the years–a black and white painting by Suzan Frecon, a kinetic sculpture by Einno Rutsaalo, a wooden car by Paul Zelevansky, and the magnificent six panels, six feet high and fourteen feet across, of ink on doors that are John Furnival's Tour de Babel Changèes en Pont. In this room are also visual works of mine: black and white canvases and prints, with either numbers or words, mostly mounted high above the bookshelves, just below the ceiling. On a revolving stand is the first of my two major holograms.
            The Furnival panels divide the living room couch and coffee table from a back area that contains an audio editing studio and a small viewer placed between pick-up reels for 16 mm. film. It is here that I and at times student interns worked on my principal creative project for the 1980s–separate Epiphanies for audiotape and film. In the corner of this room I put a reading area, with a strong lamp, a chair, and a radio/record player; but I haven't much used it. What I do use, however, is the couch, where I like to put my feet up for short naps.
            When I first moved to SoHo a quarter century ago, the neighborhood was still zoned as industrial. You could live here legally only if you petitioned a city commission for a variance. To get this certificate, you had to prove that you were an artist who needed space. Painters, sculptors, choreographers, composers, and even playwrights qualified, but writers did not. Fortunately, I produced visual art as well as writing and so could submit slides along with a résumé of exhibitions. When people came to visit at the beginning and marveled at all the space for my books. I would necessarily remind them of the visual art customarily placed above my bookshelves.
            When I arrived here, the industrial building had just been "converted," as we used to say; so that while artists filled most of the spaces, there were still factories on the fourth floor, the eighth floor, and the ground floor. A dozen of us owned the building cooperatively, as Good Deal Realty Co., with me getting four per cent of the shares and a proprietary lease that demands my paying four per cent of the building's monthly maintenance. One of the charms of our coop, in contrast to others around us, is that only three owners have ever moved out, which means that the place is still run by the original group. This makes us different from those coops where lines of conflict invariably fall between the old-timers and the better-heeled newcomers who, having paid more for their apartments, are eager to initiate fancier renovations than the old-timers can afford.
            To enter my apartment, I need four keys–the first to open the door to the building, the second to unlock the elevator so that it will go to my floor, the third to unlock my apartment door’s security, and the fourth to open that door. Just inside that door is a hallway with bookshelves running along both sides. Directly over the door itself is another shelf that runs to the ceiling. Beyond the hallway is a kitchen with the refrigerator on one side and a stove and a sink on the other.
            In the middle are two chains, their ends normally hooked together, from which, if I unlock them, I can display my more recent holograms. Exhibiting them, you see, required twenty feet of open space that by the late 1980s was available here only the front door and the dining table, beside the refrigerator and the stove. At the end of the sink is a pair of bookshelves that are stacked back to back and perpendicular to the wall. At the end of this shelf is a small table where I feed myself and keep my vitamins.
            A few years ago the Internal Revenue Service questioned the rather large percentage of the monthly maintenance that I deducted as a business expense. To justify my claim that so much of my apartment was used exclusively for professional work, my accountant asked me to shoot a roll of 35 mm. black and white film that was developed on a single contact sheet. Looking at the thirty-six little photographs of my loft, the accountant asked, "Does it always look like this?" I assured him that it did. "Oh, this will be no problem." And indeed it wasn't.
            In general, I'm reluctant to invite strangers here. The books are intimidating, I know, and as such are likely to have a negative effect on the spontaneity of some guests. Others come to regard the apartment as a kind of candy store, pulling things out without putting them back where they belong, thereby causing difficulty the next time I need a certain book. I could go on; but after all, the apartment is not a show place–it is really a factory/home for me.
            This is where I prefer to spend most of my days, rising late, refusing to answer the doorbell or telephone until I am finished writing, staying up well into the night reading and writing. Being in the back of the building, away from the SoHo street that sometimes has industrial traffic, it is unusually quiet. Even though I work nearly all the time when I'm home, it is here that I sleep best. At a party recently I was asked about my principal recollection of myself between the ages of seven and ten. When I replied “playing in my room with my toys,” I realized that is how I spend most of my time nowadays as well.
            My favorite “summer place” is my building’s ninth-floor roof, where I can read and nap undistracted, which we call “Silver Beach” after the color of its protective coating, so much a contrast to the “tar beach” typical of New York City’s flat rooftops. Each day that I can spend entirely at home, without ever leaving, I regard as a logistical success. I can imagine happily spending the rest of my life here.
            This devotion to my house is profound. It accounts for why I identify with other writers who were similarly devoted to the places in which they lived and worked–among them, Lewis Mumford in Amenia, Edmund Wilson in Talcottville, Donald Hall in Danbury, Stanley Edgar Hyman in North Bennington–and can’t understand why anybody would ever want to own a second home. For the same reason that I never go away during the summer, I sublet only once, because, as this apartment contains my life, damage it and you damage me. A few years ago, I gave it a name much like those given to British manor houses, because to me it is indeed a castle–Wordship–and christened myself its Earl.
*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
Peculiarities about my life are a recurring subject.
*****
ABOUT RICHARD KOSTELANETZ
Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of:
Wikipedia
Postmodern Fiction
Contemporary Poets
Who's Who in America
Contemporary Novelists
Who's Who in the World
Who's Who in American Art
Directory of American Scholars
Advocates for Self-Government
The Chronology of American Literature
The Facts on File Companion to American Poetry
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of American Writers
Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians
Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers
Who's Who in U.S. Writers, Editors, and Poets
The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
International Who’s Who of Authors and Writers
The Facts on File Companion to 20th Century Poetry
The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry
Honor Wall of Distinguished Alumni, Scarsdale High School, NY



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