On Checking Out a Book from the Library on a Day When Over 3,000 People Died of COVID-19

I work some days in Gleeson Library on University of San Francisco’s campus; there’s a handful of study rooms in the library USF has allowed faculty to reserve for work purposes while the administration keeps closed every other building on campus to save money. There’s a lot of talk about how it’s to save lives, prevent transmissions, but the science isn’t there. It’s to lower USF’s costs of electricity and paying custodial staff while it weathers the financial sides of this health crisis.

The semester is over. Our Class of 2020 graduated today via Zoom webinar. I spent this afternoon reading interviews with John Cage, to find some inspiration about other forms of artistic processes I might use for my Nonfiction Studio course in the spring. I sit, when I’m on campus now, in 235 Gleeson, a windowless study room with dimmable overheads and a door that can close. It’s a room that in normal times could seat 12 students, though maybe not comfortably, but which earlier this year was converted for just 6 people safely distanced from one another. Naturally, I’m the only person in the room. I sit all the way in the far corner so that I can face the glass wall that looks out into the 2nd floor stacks.

Standing surrounded by high library stacks is among the safest feelings I can summon. As much as I try to accept and even embrace chaos, standing surrounding by high library stacks always brings an order I’m grateful for. It’s a swaddling blanket. I’m a baby there.

Anyway, John Cage and his interviewer were talking in 1990 about the Gulf War and intention in art-making, and either the purpose(s) of making art or its function(s) in society—I was indulging myself in unfocused reading after a semester just full of it. His interviewer mentioned some ideas of John Dewey’s that I found myself responding to, and she mentioned they came from his book, Art as Experience. I kept reading. Interviews are like podcasts but better, in that you can read at your own pace and it’s easier to skip through the gab. Soon, I felt continually distracted by gab, wanting to get back to the ideas, and I thought: I should just go to the source.

And then I looked up at the stacks and realized I could.

Dewey’s book was N66.D4, which was on our library’s 3rd floor, and so I got my mask on and walked upstairs and found it, a tiny 6×4″ hardcover from the book’s 3rd printing in 1938. Here’s what it looks like:

It’s a perfect book shape.

That morning, walking to work, I thought about people who won’t wear masks these days because they see it as an affront to their civil liberties. Americans should be free from the tyranny of having to wear a mask, seems to be the idea. I’ve written about these ideas before, and my friend Beth put my laments in similar terms in a recent reply-tweet to a Post story I’d tweet-linked about South Dakota:

Beth’s right. Or, at least, I agree with her, and this morning I wished that more of us had opportunities to be encouraged to check in and see if we were really thinking for/from ourselves or others, which is another topic I’ve written about recently. One of the men quoted in that Post article, I could see, felt that his refusal to wear a mask or take any vaccine felt very much like thinking for himself. When everyone around you is doing one thing and telling you that you have to do it too, it feels very much like freedom and independence to decide Not Do That Thing.

But “I’m Not Wearing Any Mask” isn’t thinking, it’s feeling. It’s another received idea that, by speaking it aloud, shows evidence of not-thinking. Which to me is evidence of being not-free. And this morning I wished we were talking about forms of personal freedom that didn’t involve obedience to the state or abandonment of it.

I was clearly the only person in library today. I knew because the positions of the stall doors didn’t change every time I stepped back into the men’s room, nor did the levels of the paper towels hanging out of their dispensers. I rarely see anyone across the 6 or 8 hours I spend there. There’s always lots of silence, and Cage was big on silence.

I put aside the book of Cage interviews the moment I got back to 235 with Dewey’s little book in my hand. His main task is to posit a(nother) theory of art, and his claim in the opening chapter is that any theory of art can’t begin the way art usually begins today—i.e., distinguished in arenas separate from everyday life. We put art in museums, we make opera expensive and keep it in distant theaters, etc. It’s an old argument, but still a useful one. Art comes from the desire to embellish everyday experience, says Dewey, and so we must look at that experience to understand art’s use and forms:

Direct experience comes from nature and an interacting with each other. In this interaction, human energy gathers, is released, dammed up, frustrated and victorious. There are rhythmic beats of want and fulfillment, pulses of doing and being withheld from doing.

Reading that passage reminded me for the first time today that I was lonely.

When I finished the chapter, I grabbed my laptop charger out of the wall plug and wound the fraying cable around its tines, and I packed my laptop and travel mug and Cage books into my backpack. I left the door open behind me as I walked out to the hallway, because I’ve found through experience that it helps regulate the temperature such that the room doesn’t get too hot or too cold when I return. And when I return, the door is usually open, even days later.

Downstairs, I walked up to the circulation desk opposite the library’s entrance. “Can you still check out books?” I asked, even though I knew from previous circ-desk interactions that the answer was yes.

The only person sitting at the desk was a gal younger than me by ten years, with a mask and a cast on her left arm swaddled in a sling. “I’m sorry?” she said, getting up from her desk.

“Can one still check out books?” I said, revising my approach.

One could. I handed over the little Dewey book and my ID and took a couple steps back to about 6 feet. I saw a nearby bottle of hand sanitizer, and I squirted its goo in my palm as an extra show of civic-mindedness. There was a problem with my barcode, so she had to enter my number manually, typing slowly with the only hand’s fingers she had at her disposal. I loved everything about how long this was taking. As much as I wanted that book back in my hands, as eager I was to feel the freedom of being allowed this thing, if only for a while, I would have happily waited seventeen hours while she worked this barcode issue. Instead we had a short chat.

“How’s your day going?” she asked.

“Pretty good,” I said. “Just doing some of the reading I want to do, now that the semester’s over and students are all done turning in work.”

“Right? It’s nice to have a little break I bet.”

“Yeah, I imagine it’s like how parents feel when the kids go off to college. Like, ‘Ahh, we can finally focus on ourselves.'”

She laughed at this, and typing it out now I regret the simile, its inaccuracies, but that’s why I’m a writer and not a public speaker. She took the book and ran its spine two or three times along the scanner, demagnetizing it, and told me it was due back on May 28th 2021. I took Art as Experience and held it in my hand all the way home.

It had rained while I was in there. I’d had no idea.

R.I.P. Randall Kenan

News came this morning of the death of writer Randall Kenan, who came into my life twice and made a lasting impression. Once, as a graduate student, I had to take him to the State Office Building to get a replacement Social Security Card, so that my school could officially pay him for the guest lecturing he was there to do. It was a ludicrous, silly task, and he took it in an only lightly bewildered spirit—I’ve had similar chores with visiting writers and usually they’re quick to get vocal about their being inconvenienced. Randall had this buoyant, sparkling laugh that he wasn’t ever stingy with.

Eight years later I was honored to be his fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I was there with my story collection, but I wasn’t writing fiction then, and so I didn’t take up his time with a one-on-one conference about my work. I immediately regretted it. I regret it still, but I remain fortunate to have watched him talk about fiction in class. His co-lecturer was a notorious blowhard, well-meaning but exhausting, and it was such a delight every time to watch Randall gently and insightfully step forward, so to speak, and center our focus and concern.

If you don’t know his work, I can recommend his debut novel, A Visitation of Spirits (or his forthcoming one, If I Had Two Wings). To help remember Randall, I dug up this old post/review of Visitation, from 2016:

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Wayne Koestenbaum’s Figure It Out

Picture the brainy friend you like to accuse of overthinking things and to whom you often say, “That’s maybe a bit of a stretch” visiting you for the weekend, and it’s Sunday, their last day in town, and while you both woke up hung-over, drugs or some other remedy have eased the hangover pains enough that your friend is now talking in comfortable monologue about things you’re only partially familiar with, commenting on your art on the walls while you find another record to put on, discoursing on the aspects of his discourse that surprise him as you pay only partial attention.

If that sounds like a perfect afternoon, go buy this book.

“My new idée fixe is asemic writing,” he writes in “Corpse Pose”—”writing that doesn’t use words or signs.” Koestenbaum’s a painter, and throughout the book fall essays that read like lists of writing prompts, or art prompts, or both, which essays urge us to let ourselves get reckless and productively aim-less with our artmaking. Though as an essayist, he’s stuck with language and its trap of signification, much of the pleasures of the book come when he leaps about his subject in attempt to slip that trap. These are essays so horny for signifying’s decay, if not writing’s total dissolution, and Koestenbaum knows language itself can do the job, the way silicone lube tends over time to eat away at silicone sex toys.

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Three Translated Paragraphs of Huysmans’s À Rebours

I picked this book up again last night, a favorite from grad school, a germinal novel of French decadence. You may know it as the book that corrupts Dorian Gray halfway through Wilde’s novel. Quick precis: the final scion of a long decaying, inbreeding aristocratic family leaves society and shuts himself up in a large house where he lives, eats, and breathes decadently. Nothing really happens. It’s a beautiful book.

I read it in the Robert Baldick translation, from 1959 and put out by Penguin, and as I’d earlier this summer loved Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary, I thought maybe I’d see about rereading a newer translation. Searching The Booksmith, I found two: one from the 90s by Margaret Mauldon, and one from the Oughts by Brendan King.

King reviewed Mauldon’s translation for the TLS, favorably, calling it an improvement on the Baldick, so I originally assumed I should go get his translation, which is even newer. Also, I had this feeling that I wanted a queer’s translation. Des Esseintes, the “hero” of Huysmans’s “novel”, screws around with women (as you’re about to see) in his fall into decadence, but once holed up becomes, in ways, a queer hero.

At least, the paper I wrote in grad school about the novel argued so.

I have no idea on King’s sexuality or gender expression, or Mauldon’s for that matter. Or hell, even Baldick’s (queers existed in the 1950s, I sometimes forget). But mostly I was favoring King because his was newer. I have this idea that people are translating old texts better now than they used to; for one, translation studies is growing in academia, and for two, translators are less interested in “smoothing over” some roughnesses or X-ratednesses to attract “sensitive” readers.

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Bjørn Rasmussen’s The Skin is the Elastic Covering that Encases the Entire Body

After a teenager enters into a passionate, devoted BDSM sex relationship with an adult, what remains? What is the aftermath once the teenager is an adult himself? That’s what Rasmussen’s … I’m going to call it an essay (though the publisher calls it a novel) seems committed to evoking. The assumption of course is scars—emotional and in the protagonist Bjørn’s case literal, as one of the things he does is cut lines, shapes, and words into his skin. What I liked about the book was how it always complicated the narrative of abuse, and kept the lines between love, lust, devotion, and subjugation evocatively blurry.

Plus the language is sublime in places:

When the weed kicked in, you waded into the pond. I watched you standing there, the red remains of evening winking in the water that surrounded you from the hips down. The pronounced V of your Apollo’s belt reflected in the surface, ripples caressed your public hair, the insects flitted around you.

You were crying. I’d never seen you cry before. You’ve cried many times since, and with good reasons; my two hands aren’t enough to count the times you’ve been pained to the bone, but at the time: your chest heaved, snot ran from your nose, the sound you made was like a stag maimed by a botched rifle shot. You roared.

This, of course, is a translation from the Danish, so I’m talking less about the words/sounds themselves, and I’m talking much less about the sentiments or emotions behind these words (this, too, isn’t beautiful because it depicts a man crying, or because it depicts devotion and beauty), I’m talking about Rasmussen’s choices of how to build this moment, and where to take the sentences. I’m talking about that roaring stag. Maybe this bit does a better job of capturing his imaginative talents:

Believe nothing of what I say about feelings. I only have the rudiments of anything genuine. And if anything genuine does come along, it always falls to pieces: talk to me about implosion, about atoms. You chase a frog for hours and when finally you get your hands around it, it dies of shock. And if I really get you someday, I won’t want you anymore. I’ll want something else instead. What. Tell me the difference between want and need—I don’t think there is one. What is there then. Capitalism, talk to me about capitalism. No, human nature. Oh, listen: it’s black as night inside my ass; inside my ass, about 6cm up, there’s an erogenous zone equivalent to the clitoris or the head of your dick. Fact. When this point is touched, vibrations go through the spine, the hammer, the stirrup, and listen: the asshole is dialectical, the asshole is a dead man’s flower, a dead woman’s flower, the asshole is a fugue, a theme with variations; feelings, on the other hand…frogs, mothers, riding instructors, and feelings, they’re the same old story. Suck my plot.

The book is elliptical in this way, usually not my thing, but a friend recommended it after I told of my complaints about the writing in Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, where sex becomes in its slow detailed scrutiny utterly lifeless, and Rasmussen’s talents lie in all the ways he’s able to make sex come alive, all the things he can make of sex. A longer post than I have time for would get at Rasmussen’s and Greenwell’s different handlings of sexual submission, but all I’ll say here is that The Skin is the Elastic Covering… left me with the clearer sense of how submission can fill the self with warmth and strength that doesn’t necessarily lead (only) to a hardened core, a scarred shell.

Buy The Skin is the Elastic Covering that Encases the Entire Body at Two Lines Press.

On Amanda Goldblatt’s Hard Mouth

A gal with a sick dad and a lab assistant job leaves both to live (and possibly die) alone in the sort of off-grid cabin you need to be flown to. That’s the quickest summary I can give you of this book I loved a lot. It is not really an adventure book, and not at all a testament to the human spirit like you might expect from Wild or Into the Wild or Where the Wild Things Are. (Well, maybe that last one actually.) It’s a character study of somebody who sees her life wrong and feels (or pretends to feel) mostly untroubled by that.

The book’s big selling point is its sentences. I should say Amanda’s a good friend. I saw her read from this in Brooklyn when I was there seventeen years ago on this endless trip I’ve been on for seventeen years, and since August I’ve carried the book to Vermont and to Finland, and now here in Maine, where I just finished it. I kept emailing her about sentences I loved.

Flipping through at random, here’s an exemplary couple:

While walking I did idly wonder what animals I would find in the cabin, what disarray. It would be good, I thought, to confront the entropy. To embrace the surprise, to discover, to not know till.

Denise (our protag) is lyrically hypererudite, batting language about the way a cat does a mouse. That might be inaccurate. I just flipped through and saw “My temples hurt from squint,” and it’s probably more exemplary of her voice than the above. Note: not squinting. There’s like this pruning or honing that goes on throughout the book toward the kinds of constructions we all use casually, as though everyday language were shabby and unkempt and Denise wants to better capture her life and viewpoint not by dolling or gussying that language up, but by stripping and even malforming it into a way that makes us look more queerly as what we say and why.

It’s a pose and a mask, too. Language helps Denise focus on the how of her speech when the what of it might be too difficult.

Like I said, she exits her life for the woods. Perhaps the biggest gift Amanda’s novel gave me was getting to spent a lot of time with a woman on her own. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a novel where a woman departs on her own for the woods, and when I think about Women In The Woods, I feel like they traditionally fall into madonna-whore dichotomies of like a Linda-Hamiltonian Take-No-Shit prepper type on the one hand or a hubristic, silly trespassing horrorfilm victim on the other.

Denise, instead, is just a gal who commits to a stupid but important idea. She does her research on how to survive and does her best. She is strong and weak, shrewd and dumb, compassionate and cold. In her unreal voice she appears very real.

Plus there’s like these satisfying wisdoms she can voice in ways that make the unknown ring out as eternally true. Here’s a great ¶ that comes when she’s saying goodbye to the man who flew her to the cabin:

“Do you have headlights on that thing?” I asked. He laughed and said yes, that he’d get off and back fine, long as he didn’t have to land in the water, which he didn’t. What if I undid his overalls, I thought, though I didn’t move. We exist with sets of stories or lists: the ways we must feel during loss or solitude, the ways we must present the self to others, the ways we must act. But there are other and scarier ways to be.

One of my favorite things about Denise is how she’s horny, like a person is. Not horny like a frat dude or like a nymphomaniac (whatever that is). Her horniness is neither a comical trait nor a conflictual one. She just lets herself want sex and sometimes enjoy it and sometimes regret it. Like a person.

A nonpathological erotic mind is a pet concern these days, given what I’m writing about. Sex in non-pornographic art is more often terrible than good, and by “good” I mean It Helps Us See Sex For What It Is And Not What We’ve Been Told To Make It.

So chalk that up as the other great gift of Amanda’s book.

At any rate, you should buy this novel if you want an adventure story that’s always more human than an adventure story. Oh and it finds just the perfect image to end on. Really a treasure. Find it here.