By John Rose
I once set out to buy, with what scant funds I had at the time, the
best available copies of every book I loved. The list was long. The
project required some knowledge about what constituted a good copy,
so I studied the used book stores. I would spend hours looking at
different editions, comparing prices and conditions and sizes and
weights. I considered for a while trying to memorize ISBN numbers,
to see whether they might yield any valuable clues. I ended up
deciding against it. I’m not crazy. I nevertheless know from
personal experience: the warehouse district in West Oakland is one
of the few places left in the Bay Area where large formerly
industrial spaces can be rented as living quarters for a reasonable
price. The light was fine for African Violets, but the cacti never
seemed entirely happy.
I accumulated a fair number of books, and encountered organizational
problems. At first I automatically gravitated toward clumping books
by a single author together. This is a collector's instinct: the
acquisition of an example of every work by certain authors. By
shelving them together one can keep track of what one lacks.
has a couple of great used book stores, though in one case the
incessant quarreling of the owners must be endured. The treasures
are often worth the struggle.
were, naturally, many authors in my collection represented by only
one work, so beyond the author arrangement some organization by
topic became necessary. So I separated History from Theology from
Biography from Fiction, just like the better stores do. Don't they?
I boldly made no distinction between Fiction and Literature,
figuring that if a book had found a place in my collection it
automatically qualified as Literature. No sense casting aspersions
and creating those little jealousies which crop up from time to time
in the literary world.
Great Books were no problem, they look alike and they're numbered.
It occurred to me one day on the Bay Bridge that there might be a
way to understand the period through part of which I had managed to
live through the medium of my literary enthusiasms.
loved the Bay Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge was beautiful, and led
to magnificent places, but it had a claustrophobic feel for me. On
the Bay Bridge I always felt as though I were almost home. It was
from the lower deck of the Bay Bridge that I saw the most
breathtaking color I have ever seen, when a truck carrying liquid
nitrogen missed it’s exit and crashed into a concrete barrier. I
bought a piece of paper and hung it on the wall. It was 4 feet high,
10 feet wide. I drew a straight line 10 feet long across it's
middle, and measured it off to get the maximum even space per year
while still encompassing the entire millennium. A time-line. I added
to it gradually, and in different ways, depending upon whether it
was a life or work or event I was adding. Periods of time, of
course, had to be added with horizontal lines encompassing the
period. Single works could generally be placed on a vertical line,
either above or below the axis, depending upon the author and his or
her religious proclivities (or lack thereof). I only added those
works or events which had had a particular significance to my life.
I felt justified in adding my own birth.
millennium seemed a little arbitrary to me, but what can you do?
These are the times we live in.
1536 was listed the "Mystery of the Acts of the Apostles",
a sung theatrical presentation notable for the stage direction
"Adoncques se doit resonner une melodye en Paradis" (“Now
shall a melody be sounded in Paradise"). Not long afterward, in
1542, Ahasuerus of Jerusalem was said to have appeared in Hamburg at
a church. Ahasuerus was the man who denied Jesus a rest against his
house as he carried the cross to Golgotha, and who was therefore
condemned to live eternally. He was also one of the models for the
title character in Melmoth the Wanderer by the Irish priest Charles
Maturin. Ahasuerus, Melmoth, and Maturin all found their place on
the time-line. There was a horizontal line designating the life
of Shakespeare, with vertical stems designating works of particular
interest to me, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, and another
designating the life of Cervantes, whose death date turned out to be
the same as that of Shakespeare: April 23, 1616. There were the
reputed dates of the reputed Thomas Malory, supposed author of the
Tales of King Arthur during a sojourn in prison.
the 20th century there was a forest of lines both vertical and
horizontal designating all kinds of works and people, from Henry
Miller to Philip K. Dick to Kurt Vonnegut to Lawrence Durrell to
Richard Brautigan to Walker Percy to W.S. Merwin, and an enormous
aesthetic confusion. The time-line became altogether too full and
too concentrated. Either I needed to change my reading habits or
give up in despair. I chose the latter.
the coincidence of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes haunted
me. It seemed like a clue to the organizational principle I had been
seeking. I also felt that this mania of mine might be somehow
striving to redress a gap in my education. Why had I not had any
idea that these two men lived, let alone died, concurrently?
Because, I decided, I had been educated in geographic straight
lines. England from zero to present. Spain from zero to present.
France from…well, it was possible I just hadn’t been paying
attention. Gertrude and Leo Stein may have been the most
famous people of our century to have been born in Oakland, which in
my view inextricably links the wondrous healing powers of the Bay
Bridge with the Paris art scene of the early 20th century. At least
it suggests that my African Violets would have failed to thrive had
there never been a Picasso or a Diaghilev.
day, listening to a quarrel in the bookstore, I realized that the
time-line on the wall had been nothing but a sublimated attempt to
organize my book collection chronologically. I had never had much of
a talent for visual art anyway.
I leaped into the breach. I gave the largest bookcase to the most
recent works, since that was and is the way the collection is
weighted, and organized the rest in some semblance of a circle
around the room. The chronology was purely personal. A fictional
work which seemed to belong more to the period of its setting than
the time of it's publishing was whisked off to the Dark Ages (or
whatever seemed appropriate). Works of history were generally placed
at the beginning of the covered period. Collections, for example of
poetry, were generally placed at the time of the earliest
composition, but this rule turned out to be flexible.
Reference works were kept separate but this category dwindled
rapidly, as the only requirement to be included in the chronology
was that the date of publication, or some other obvious date
associated with the work, be somehow significant. In this way
several dictionaries found their way in easily, due to their
profound differences from latter-day versions of themselves. Some
dictionaries remained separate. Foreign language grammars remained
separate. Philip K. Dick, whose publishers often proved reluctant,
was placed according to date of composition rather than
1000 books (one for every square foot or so) was a great deal of
work, though lovingly performed, and I did it all over only a few
days, with breaks only for meals and the occasional unbreakable
obligation. Then I took a few months off. Gradually certain
questions about what I had hoped to accomplish began to clamor for
my attention. The chronology seemed like the perfect way to relate
the books to one another, but it suggested the possibility of
relating other materials as well, and it was to the other materials
which I of course eventually turned.
size of my domicile had nothing whatsoever to do with the length of
the millenium prior to the composition of this narrative. The
approximate number of books in my collection was likewise a
This is perhaps not the place to choke the life out of the details,
but suffice it to say that there was one bookcase in this moderately
dark 1000 square foot space which contained nothing but music, and
this consisted of music for the piano, the trombone, the guitar, the
bassoon, the violoncello, the banjo, the human voice, the tuba, and
the harmonica. Some instruments were of course emphasized. There
were a large number of song sheets from the 20's and 30's of 20th
century America, much classical music, many opera scores, fake
books, Real Books, photocopies.
At first I resolved to add only the opera scores. They were the most
book-like, and would hardly cause a stir if added to the shelves. I
was dead set against putting any photocopies into the chronology,
because I did not wish to accord to questionably pirated materials
the status which I accorded to bound, printed matter. But let's make
a long story short, shall we? It all wound up in there.
added the music, I discovered that the chronology had become a kind
of intellectual autobiography. My family history was depicted, the
history of my taste, or those parts of it which had withstood the
test of time, the history of my education and generation, all of
The chronology began to take on such a personal character that I
started to look upon it as being the natural repository for all
things personal. I also began to harbor the obsessive suspicion that
if complete enough it would acquire some meaning independent of it's
parts. This is the instinct not of the collector but of the
historian. If things can be put satisfactorily in order and held up
to the right other things, a new reality, even if only in
retrospect, might be achieved.
the other hand, an obsession sometimes results in a reality which
exists only for the obsessor. The Bay Bridge was no longer any
When packing books, it is usually advisable to organize them by size
first in order to get as many as possible into each box. Size,
however, turned out to have no bearing at all on the position of a
book in the chronology. Or vice versa. And let me repeat that it
took a long time to impose this kind of order.
and Horn Lumber, in Brooklyn, is a place to go for exotic hardwoods.
The wood is fresh from the mill and rough, so the planks don’t
match each other in width and the edges are not yet smooth. The
average thickness of the wood is 1”. Of the expensive woods,
poplar was the most readily available in large widths. Those who
have not been locked in closets for the majority of their adult
lives know that the end of the millennium is fast approaching (or
receding, depending upon where you happen to be standing). Those who
believe that human history will continue (or has continued) beyond
that arbitrary marker may agree that the end of one period
inevitably suggests the beginning of another, and that such
consecutive periods are seldom easy to differentiate from one
another. Even non-consecutive periods of time tend to contain
similar cycles, similar shapes, comparable events. We might in
retrospect occasionally wonder if history is a linear thing at all,
or if it just demonstrates to us how each mistake and each triumph
must be experienced anew by each new person.
loved the Brooklyn Bridge. The Manhattan Bridge was beautiful, and
led to…but…The serpent eating it’s tail model of history is
something that I had long wanted to incorporate into the
organization of my chronology, but the fact that books on shelves
automatically create lines rather than circles prevented me from
realizing this ambition. One of the visions I had was of a
free-standing group of double shelves in the middle of a large
space, so that the chronology could begin on one side and then move
around to the other, but visually that would have separated it in
halves, which I didn’t particularly want to do. Eventually I just
bought the number of shelves I could afford. The number was ten.
Five sections which were only two shelves high would of course have
been out of the question. Two sections would have been too high and
too narrow for the wall. I considered leaving two shelves out, but I
needed all the space I could get (and more, naturally). I ended up
arranging the shelves in three sections, the end sections having
four shelves each and the center section having only two, the top
one and the bottom one. A circle, if you think about it.
The chronology began at top left, and proceeded all the way across
the top shelf. When it reached the end it dropped to the second
shelf from the top and turned around, proceeding along that shelf
from right to left. Then it dropped again, went from left to right
back to the end of the shelves, and then dropped to the bottom
shelf. It moved from right to left all the way across the bottom of
the circle. And so on, until the end of the chronology was located
directly beneath the beginning of the chronology. After The River
Sound by W.S. Merwin, published in early 1999, there was no place
left to go but back to From the Tigris to the Tiber by Tom Jones,
concerning the rise of civilization in the region of the Tigris and
the East River which separates Brooklyn from Manhattan, but that
only seems significant to the degree that the chronologizing of
books represents the pinnacle thus far of Western Civilization,
which I believe it does not. Quite. What, then, is the higher
meaning which has been vouchsafed me by the completion of this
chronology? Well, it isn’t yet finished. The most recent
chapter concerns Egyptian Cedar, 96” high, in five sections. Never
again can I reside in a place with average ceilings.
far, that is the end of the story.