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Millennium Mélange

                                                                                                 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. 

Eventually 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. 

Oakland 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. 

There 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.

The 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.

I 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.

One millennium seemed a little arbitrary to me, but what can you do? These are the times we live in.

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.  

In 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.  

But 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.

One 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.

Hastily 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 publishing.  

Chronologizing 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. 

The 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 coincidence.
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.  

Having 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 those. 
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.  

On the other hand, an obsession sometimes results in a reality which exists only for the obsessor. The Bay Bridge was no longer any comfort.
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.

Rode 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. 

I 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 Euphrates rivers.  

It’s 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.

So far, that is the end of the story.  

Copyright 2002. All Rights Reserved.