I have never noticed the view from the Flatiron Building before. Manhattan, if you tilt your head just right, is a strangely compelling piece of sculpture.
“It’s a good thing,” my editor says, “that your book isn’t being published just now.”
“Because” — he leans forward — “Harry Potter used up all our paper.”
He looks at me, a little crestfallen. “I’m telling you the truth. There’s two major paper producers for New York publishers, and with a five-million print run of an eight-hundred-page book, well ... everybody else has to wait in line.”
I leaf through the glossies for the photo insert to my book. It has been less than 36 hours since I finished writing it on the other side of the continent, in a home that I now no longer own. I was still writing as the movers cleared the furniture out of the apartment, still writing as Jennifer packed the luggage and nursed Morgan to sleep, and as she double-checked that we had my British passport and her and Morgan’s visas. I was writing at midnight, at one o'clock, at two o’clock. The computer was the last thing to go into a box, its plastic housing still hot, just five minutes after I had e-mailed the manuscript to my agent.
“So,” — I set down the glossies — “publishers are fighting for scraps of paper?”
“So to speak.”
Like any editor, he has at least two office walls covered with books; slick stacks of summer catalogs are slipping off his desk; and outside in the editorial department are boxes of books and bound proofs, and yet more walls covered with more books, right down to an incongruous set of old encyclopedias.
A paper shortage? You’d think he’d welcome it.
But one gets the wrong view from the Flatiron Building. For I live in a very small world. So, reader, do you. At this moment, it is just you and I, and it does not matter if you are reading this 200 years after I have died, or translated into languages unknown to me. We have an understanding. But there are not many of us, and there never have been.
If you grew up in a rural area, you have seen how farmhouses come and go, but the dent left by cellars is permanent. There is something unbreakable in that hand-dug foundational gouge into the earth. Books are the cellars of civilization: when cultures crumble away, their books remain out of sheer stupid solidity. We see their accumulated pages, and marvel — what readers they were!
But were they?
Back in the 1920s, booksellers assessed the core literary population of the United States, the people who could be relied on to buy books with a serious content, at about 200,000 people. This, in a country of 100 million: a ratio of about 500 to 1. It was this minuscule subset spread out over a three-thousand-mile swath, this group of people who could fit into a few football stadiums, that thousands of books released each year had to compete for. Perhaps the ratio has gone higher since then. You see, literary culture is perpetually dead and dying; and when some respected writer discovers and loudly proclaims the finality of this fact, it is a forensic marker of their own decomposition. It means that they have artistically expired within the last ten years, and that they will corporeally expire within the next twenty.
Readers always seem scarce. Before we left San Francisco, my wife and I went on a neighborhood house tour organized by our block association. Our stretch of Waller Street was crammed with Victorian flats, and we all oohed and aahed over each other’s wainscoting, box ceilings, and carved mantels. Yet, walking away from the whole thing, stuffed with architecture and potato salad, I felt a nagging doubt.
“Did you notice,” I asked my wife, “ours was the only house with books?”
We rounded the corner of Cole, where a broken TV lay in the sidewalk.
“I noticed you made a beeline for their bookcases.”
It is the oldest and most incorrigible trait of the booklover.
“Yeah, I know. Here’s the thing: all those beautiful built-in bookshelves? They don’t hold any books.”
And maybe they never did. If you turn the yellowed pages of a volume of Temple Bar magazine back to 1881, when these homes were built, you find this:
“It really is an APPALLING thing to think of the people who have no books… It is only by books that most men and women can lift themselves above the sordidness of life. No books! Yet for the greater part of humanity that is the common lot. We may, in fact, divide our fellow-creatures into two branches — those who read books and those who do not.”
Times have not changed much. A recent survey found that half of American households did not buy a single book in the previous year. I knew this statistically, even as I toured my neighbors’ houses. And I knew it viscerally when our real estate agent looked around our own flat a few months later.
“You have too many books in here. Home buyers don’t like books.”
He saw my expression, and shrugged helplessly. “Really. You should hide them.”
We did hide them, in the end; we were desperate to leave, because we couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco anymore. I tried to imagine a life in the British countryside instead.
“It'll be great” was what I told Jennifer as the Muni bus roared by outside the nursery of our flat. “We'll sell this place, go abroad, and live in an old, old house with old, old books. I'll write books and play piano in the parlor, you'll write books and paint in the garret, and at night… we'll drink Horlicks and listen to the BBC.”
And then I spread my hands out to indicate what a grand idea it was.
Jennifer pondered this, tapping a pen on a dire bank statement while our son, Morgan, struggled manfully to free himself from his diaper.
“Hay-on-Wye?” she said.
“Hay is a small town.”
“You won't miss the U.S.?”
“I won't miss guns.”
“And Britain has national health.”
“And the countryside’s a good place to be a kid.”
“That’s true,” she said.
“And Hay has a castle right in the middle of town.”
A skateboard rumbles down the pavement outside.
“But,” she adds, “if we sell our place here, we can never afford to live in San Francisco again. We can’t come back.”
“And we'll have to move all our books.”
“Ye — oh, god.”
So I went to Haight Mail. Haight Mail is a little shop crammed with PO boxes and copiers off the corner of Masonic, and I had to fax some stuff to my magazine editor anyway. As their fax machine dialed, I tapped my foot and stared at the wall, and then at the store’s proprietor.
“You sell shipping boxes, right?”
“Yeah. What are you sending?”
I paused to make the calculations. “About ... two thousand. Maybe three.”
His eyebrows rise. “Sent individually?”
“No, no. I’m moving.”
He is silent for a long moment. “How,” he finally asks, “did you get so many books?”