Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Homecoming for a Debut Novelist

Bookstore staffs are populated by struggling writers, hopeful authors and dedicated scribblers who are all a break away from getting published. Many give up, pushing their half-finished novels, ragged drafts of short stories, and marked-up pages of poems to the bottom of a drawer as they move onto more certain and lucrative careers. A few manage to get published, but by the time they do they've long ago left the bookstore behind and are never seen again.

Nina de Gramont worked for the Boulder Book Store in the mid-1990s, and she was one of the more earnest wannabe writers on the staff. Perhaps she knew all the hard work that lay ahead of her, since her husband David Gessner published his superb natural and personal history Wild Rank Place while she was a bookseller. More likely, she was just a bit more serious in her ambitions and much more willing than most of her colleagues to put in the hard work necessary to become a professional writer.

De Gramont, who now lives in North Carolina, returns to the Boulder Book Store on June 26th to speak and sign her new novel, Gossip of the Starlings. It's a magnificent look at adolescents careening towards disaster as they succumb to peer pressure. Her signing will be a rarity in the bookstore world. It's the first time in more than a decade that a former Boulder Book Store employee has had a reading for a published book at the store.

"I'm really looking forward to it," de Gramont said. "I'm excited. I have great memories of working at the store. David (Bolduc) was a generous employer. To me, the Boulder Book Store is a naturally calming space, especially the ballroom where the readings are held. I don't feel like a conquering hero returning, more like a humble servant visiting."

Gossip of the Starlings is a nuanced look at two high school friends, Catherine Morrow and Skye Butterfield. These aren't your typical teenagers. Skye is the daughter of a United States Senator, and Catherine competes at the highest levels of show jumping. Despite their high-class pedigrees, de Gramont manages to make their stories resonate. They are two teenagers caught in a spiraling world of drugs and high expectations. The inner turmoil that consumes them could mirror that of any troubled high school student.

"As a writer, you have to express compassion and sympathy for your characters regardless of their circumstances," de Gramont wrote in an email interview. "Part of what makes the story dramatic is the way in which these characters are willing to gamble with, and in some cases squander, all the opportunity and safety that's been granted them."

Catherine narrates the story in an elegiac tone as she looks back on the fateful year she spent as Skye's friend. This device allows de Gramont to view the wild and impetuous Skye through adult eyes rather than through the harsh lens of an adolescent. Catherine also imbues the entire novel with a hint of foreboding that begins on the very first page. The opening paragraph establishes not only the point of view and the sense of doom, but also the beautiful, meticulous, and poetic language that de Gramont uses throughout the book.

Now, when I see teenage girls laughing, when I see them loosed on a summer evening--
their limbs tanned and gossamer, their imagined freedom radiating like nuclear light--
I can't help but fast-forward two decades or more. I know the curve of their bones has
already made an imperceptible bow to gravity. I see the decay in slow motion, even or
especially through those stunning and immortal years.

"One of the reasons I wanted Catherine to narrate from a remove of years was to accomplish an adult sort of sympathy toward Skye," de Gramont said. "From a teenage point of view, Skye is glamorous and dangerous and very powerful. But from an adult point of view, she becomes quite tragic."

The reader begins to get a clear understanding of the recklessness of Skye's character and a hint of the tragedy that is sure to come in an extended scene that takes place in the eerily empty summer home of Skye's parents on Cape Cod. In the scene, de Gramont touches upon both the exhilaration of being a teenager along with the feelings of ennui that are experienced at that age. Skye's actions are so inappropriate and dangerous that Catherine's other friends clearly see her as a risk, even as Catherine is blinded by her seductive friend.

"I am drawing on some of my own experiences for that scene in particular," de Gramont said. "I wanted to establish the sense of freedom that comes from escaping rules, and at the same time illustrate the dynamics that evolve from new, self-imposed rules. In other words, Skye and Catherine may have escaped the bonds of one culture, but of course they've entered a new one. As a neophyte in the rule-breaking world, Skye doesn't understand the importance of the new parameters. She's as willing to flout her peers' rules as she is her parents', and that more than anything is what makes her dangerous."

The writing is remarkably powerful and emotionally true because de Gramont seems to dig deep into her own experiences and feelings in the narrative. Despite the nostalgic tone, there is an urgency that both teenagers and adults can appreciate in this novel. The drama and the feeling of living life on the edge that are the hallmarks of adolescence are perfectly recreated here.

Surprisingly, the skeleton of the story is based on a real life drug bust from the 1980s. Unlike so many other novels that have roots in true news incidents, Gossip of the Starlings has none of the stiltedness that comes from being bound to the facts of a story. The characters are fully fleshed out and wholly original. Catherine and Skye and those around them take on lives of their own that don't seem to follow a preordained script or fit into a network news cycle.

"In 1984 there was an infamous drug bust involving one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country," de Gramont said. "The incident got some press in the New York Times and even a segment on Sixty Minutes.... The surrounding events lingered in my imagination for years, but they only provided the barest template. I intentionally didn't go back and research any of the old news stories, or conduct any interviews, because I wanted the action to belong purely to the characters in my novel."

De Gramont's fertile imagination has yielded not only a beautifully written novel that perfectly melds tone, character and plot into a riveting narrative, but also an important cautionary tale for teenagers who are just beginning to explore the world on their own.

She might not feel like a conquering hero as she returns to the Boulder Book Store, but coming back to her old stomping grounds with one of the most accomplished books of the season certainly makes her a literary hero.

Nina de Gramont will read and sign her book Gossip of the Starlings at the Boulder Book Store on June 26th at 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Judging Books by Their Covers

Every week I place 40 to 50 advance reader's copies in the staff lounge here at the Boulder Book Store. Advance reader's copies are basically paperback versions of hardback books that will be published in the next few months. The distribution of these reader's copies are a critical component to the publishers' strategy for selling their new titles to booksellers.

The idea is that while our booksellers are noshing on the freshly baked bagels that are delivered to the store, they will pick up a reader's copy and become hooked. Once the booksellers are sold on a title, they will recommend it to customers. That's especially how the publishers are hoping it will work for unknown authors and titles they have paid a lot of money for, like Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader.

Rarely, however, does it really goes as planned. Our 45 staff members pick up an average of 10 to 15 reader's copies a week, leaving 25-40 untouched. The rest end up being used to reward customers, as perks for local school teachers, or in boxes that get hauled off to the Goodwill. Over the years, I have tried to bribe or cajole the staff into taking more copies. I write up a sheet highlighting what I consider (based on conversations with the publisher reps, my own reading experience, and Publisher Weekly Reviews) to be the best titles of the week.

I've learned to put the books out about a month or two before their release date. If I put out the October copies now, there is a distinct possibility that the staff member who grabs a reader's copy won't be working by the time the fall rolls around. In months like May and June, when tons of new titles get released, I often start falling behind and sometimes I'm putting the reader's copies out on the eve of their hardback release dates.

Currently, I am frantically trying to clear out the June titles, but I am being foiled by the publishers at every turn. In today's mail there were May reader's copies still coming in, including our 5th copy of A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, a great new comic novel that is already out in hardback.

We have one main rule at the Boulder Book Store regarding reader's copies: once a staff member takes one, it can never, ever come back. A few old books found their way onto the reader's copy shelf yesterday, much to my chagrin. After an intense investigation, the culprit--a wonderful young bookseller--was discovered. She explained to me that she was about to move and had way too many books and so she thought her January reader's copies would just blend back in.

I told her and a few other employees in the lounge that as soon as their hands touched a reader's copy, they couldn't put it back on the shelf. It was theirs. I knew I was in trouble when one of our most creative staff members began searching for barbecue tongs in order to look through the reader's copies while avoiding actually touching them.

This week, I tried a new tactic in an effort to get more people to take reader's copies. Instead of describing what the books were about and the merits of the various authors, I featured the beauty of the covers. I know, I know--that sounds shallow. But if you were faced with as many rejected titles as we are (1500 or more per year), you'd get a bit desperate as well.

The publishers spend a fortune in an attempt to make these books visual appealing. Some come in boxes, others have ribbons wrapped around them. It costs more to produce a reader's copy than a hardback. Maybe the staff will appreciate the production value over the content. After all, it works for the movies. Below is the note that accompanied the 45 reader's copies that I put in the staff lounge this morning:

Reader's Copy Highlights 5/21/08

When I first started working at the bookstore in 1992, we got about 10 reader's copies a week from the publishers. They came in plain yellow or blue covers with the title and author's name in unadorned black script. Nowadays we get 50 or more every week and many of them are truly beautiful. Liesl (one of our long-time buyers) noted that the reader's copy covers are often nicer than the finished book's. The advance cover of Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant was far superior to the jacket on the hardback. In this week's highlights, I'm featuring books as art objects. These are the most beautifully designed reader's copies of the week (without regard to content).

  • The Size of the World by Joan Silber. The cover features three photos, the middle one tinted in a sumptuous orange, evoking the feel of a Vietnamese film. It's a novel set in wartime Vietnam.

  • The Montefeltro Conspiracy by Marcello Simonetta. A reproduction of a Renaissance Italian painting graces the jacket of this historical look at the attempted assassination of the Medici brothers.

  • The Other by David Guterson. The author of Snow Falling on Cedars is given the stark black and white treatment featuring a photo of a mysterious snow field with one set of footprints running through it.

  • The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman. A gorgeous wraparound cover of an 1892 harem painting by Frank Disksee lets the reader know of the delights that will surely be found in this novel set in the 16th century Ottoman Empire.

  • Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan. A luscious dark blue cover features a swirling jacquard (a fabric of intricate variegated weave or pattern named after Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French silk weaver in the late 1700s.)

  • Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. I admit that the cover isn't great, but the line drawings are interesting at least. The author photo on the back cover is what really makes this reader's copy. Rivka is quite alluring.

  • The Island of Eternal Love by Daina Chaviano. A spiral staircase with an intricate wrought-iron railing is the centerpiece of this cover, which also features a ghostly image of a woman in period costume (I'm not sure which period). The author's photo on the back cover is absurdly posed, but Daina is beautiful enough to get away with it.

  • The World Before Her by Deborah Weisgall. The cover photo of Venice's St. Mark's Square and the Doge Palace as seen from across the water with two gondolas in the foreground just makes you want to leave work immediately and head for that enchanted city.

  • Promise of the Wolves by Dorothy Hearst. An orange-hued jacket featuring the silhouettes of a couple of crows along with a wolf. What makes this cover stand out is the embossed title. The series name--The Wolf Chronicles--and the author's name are also embossed in gold lettering that is prettier than a shiny wedding ring.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dying to Climb Mount Everest

Everest is a rugged, cold, oxygen-deprived, inhospitable mountain that isn't suitable for human life. A few nearly super human souls like Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, who climbed the mountain solo and without oxygen in 1978, defy the odds and stretch the limits of human endurance. Many more people, like the dozens of amateur climbers who ascend the peak every year with the help of fixed rope lines, oxygen canisters, and teams of sherpas, conquer the mountain's 29,029 feet with all the resources that modern life can bear.

But modern conveniences and large tours only mask the true danger of the mountain. In 2006, eleven people died trying to reach the summit of Everest. Unlike 1996, the focus of John Krakauer's thrilling account Into Thin Air which documented a brutal storm that lead Everest's deadliest year, there was no swift-moving storm in 2006. In fact, there was a great deal of controversy about how and why so many people died in relatively calm weather. Nick Heil's new book Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season delves into the personalities and the histories of both the climbers who died and those that survived as well as the checkered past of Everest, in an attempt to untangle the mysteries of 2006.

Two men at the center of the controversy -- David Sharp, a British climber who lay dying as scores of climbers passed him in their attempt to summit and Russell Brice, the preeminent tour operator on the north side of the mountain -- get a lot of attention in Heil's account. Sharp's fate made headlines around the world when it became known that he perished on the mountain despite being seen by so many climbers. Brice, because he runs the most lavish and well-outfitted tours, was subject to a great deal of outrage in the climbing community. Why didn't Brice's people do more to save Sharp, even though he wasn't on Brice's tour?

"Brice, arguably more than any other individual, has been responsible for developing commercial climbing on Everest's north side, and where his responsibility and accountability ends when it comes to the welfare and activity of other teams and climbers on the mountain has become a subject of spirited debate," Heil wrote in an email interview. "Brice has been criticized for developing a heavily supported system that pampers clientele and removes most of the challenges (finding and putting in the route, dealing with weather, managing gear and food, etc) from high-altitude mountaineering, and thus enabling amateurs to make it up a peak they otherwise might not."

Sharp wasn't one of those amateurs. In 2002 he climbed Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world and less than 2,200 feet shorter than Everest. The next year Sharp attempted to climb Everest and fell just hours short of the summit because he was struggling with his oxygen system. In 2004, Sharp attempted a solo climb of the mountain and was turned back just a mile from the summit (about six hours) when he began to suffer frostbite. When he returned in 2006, he was a determined man. Once again he was climbing without a sherpa or a support team.

Sharp's forays were in direct contrast to the type of trips Brice ran. He was also a much different climber than the ones that Brice brought to the mountain. Among Brice's 2006 clients were several people overcoming physical difficulties. Mark Inglis, who lost his legs in a 1982 climbing incident on New Zealand's Mount Cook was attempting to become the first person to climb Everest on twin prosthetics. Gerard Bourrat, a 62-year old man who was barely recovered from kidney surgery, had the doctor cut into his abdomen rather than his back so he could carry a backpack without irratating the wound. Perhaps strangest of all, Tim Medvetz, a motorcycle crash survivor who was 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, had signed onto the trip at the last possible moment in questionable shape. Brice seemed to be running a wayward camp for guys trying to prove that they were physically up to snuff.

"I'm sure most able-bodied mountaineers who have climbed big peaks can appreciate what Mark Inglis, the double-amputee, accomplished by climbing to 29,000 feet," Heil wrote in his email. "That said, mountaineering does seem to attract a percentage of people seeking to reaffirm their own self-worth or bolster their self-esteem, and there may be no better case study than Everest--largely because it continues to carry such cache, no matter how cynical you might be about commercial climbing."

The tension between the amateurs and the accomplished climbers, between the well prepared mountaineers and people who might not even be in peak shape animates much of Heil's book. In one particularly memorable scene, Medvetz -- a rank amateur by most people's reckoning -- gets stuck behind 16 people waiting to climb the rock ledges at the bottom of the second step. "C'mon, let's go! It's fucking freezing down here," he screamed. "I'm going to die of frostbite! It's not funny."

Heil describes the climbers, a group of Turkish women, flopping around as the sherpas try to yank them up by their backpacks. It almost reads like a slapstick comedy, if the effects of standing around at 27,000 feet weren't so perilous. Once Medvetz scrambles up the ledge he gets stuck behind the women again, except now there is no reason to scream. The sherpas are performing CPR on one of the climbers that has collapsed and is blocking Medvetz's path. All he can do is wonder if he's going to watch someone die.

If there are any true heroes in Heil's tale it is the sherpas. They are the ones that fix the ropes at the beginning of the season, they are the ones that share their oxygen when western climbers collapse and they are even the ones that drag the dead bodies off the mountain. In the end, the only person who really tried to save David Sharp was Brice's lead sherpa Phurba Tashi, who spent hours trying to revive the Brit.

"Phurba Tashi is really just fantastically strong, and he knows what's happening on the mountain," Heil answered when I asked him about Everest heroes. "He helped turn Tim (Medvetz) and Gerard (Bourrat) around (when it was obvious they couldn't reach the summit), then did more than anyone else to try to help David Sharp, and THEN he carried Mark Inglis halfway down the North Ridge on his back when Inglis could no longer walk. He's an extraordinary individual who gets far less recognition than he deserves."

Dark Summit is a riveting book not just because the human drama that played out on Everest in May of 2006, but because of Heil's fine descriptive writing and keen insights into the motivations of the climbers, the guides and the tour operators. These portraits of the people and the landscape paint a much more complex view of what is happening on Everest then is generally understood. The difference between right and wrong is much easier to judge at sea level than it is at 28,000 feet. Heil shows completely exhausted climbers who aren't making the decision to ignore people in need, but are rather just trying to survive in the deadly climate.

"In fact, when I was on Everest in 07, I was struck not by what a circus it was (and there was some of that) but by the sense that these people did care, by and large, and that they WERE looking out for each other," Heil emailed. "What tends to get reported is all the nasty stuff of course; you never hear about the Sherpa who gave up his oxygen, or the guide who stopped to check on someone along the route, or really all of the small gestures of kindness and thoughtfulness that take place all the time."

Heil also gives a brief overview of Everest history including the exploits of George Mallory, Maurice Wilson (a crazed climber who planned to crash a plane into Everest to begin his ascent) and Edmund Hillary which helps to ground the tales of today's climbs. He also discusses the medical effects of cerebral edema, frostbite and freezing to death which come in handy when the climbers start collapsing all over the mountain.

Heil's book ends on a surprisingly high note with one climber who collapsed and somehow got up again. Lincoln Hall, who has written his own account of his climb Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest, survived even though he was basically left for dead overnight on the mountain. Heil tells the improbable story of his rescue, including tales of desperate sherpas who violently threatened Hall in an effort to get him down the mountain. Of course, the sherpas couldn't possible inflict more violence on a human being then the brutal world of Everest's North ridge.

Nick Heil will be discussing and signing Dark Summit at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 14th at the Boulder Book Store.

Additional Questions for Nick Heil:

Kash's Book Corner: After your extensive research and multiple interviews and your own experience on the mountain, what would you suggest for dealing with the problems of a crowded mountain. Should permits be tighter? Should there be a fitness test? What is even feasible?

Nick Heil: There are some basic steps that could certainly help: for starters, previous 8,000-meter experience on another peak (Cho Oyu or Shish, for example), minimum five years climbing experience, and probably a cap on the total number of climbers. I think the rope-fixing needs to be figured out and managed through a consistent system. And I think some sort of infrastructure that could deal with emergencies, like a rotating team of Sherpas that stays at one of the high camps during the busiest summit days. This all pertains to the commercial outfits of course. Independent and private outfits would need to demonstrate some kind of previous experience and expertise. I think the mountain's guides, outfitters, and permitting agencies could reach a fair consensus on all this. It's going to take Nepal and China to step up and require it, however.

Kash's Book Corner: The Olympic torch going up Everest has been in the news this week. What was the attitude towards last year's practice run? Is this just another step towards turning the mountain into a circus?

Nick Heil: I think the attitude about the torch test run in 07 was mostly mild bemusement. This year, with the mountain closures and general ruckus related to the torch relay and pending Games, it's turned to annoyance, if not genuine anger. The torch fiasco probably points less to the circus like nature of Everest than to the iron fist with which China controls that part of Himalayas. They care far less about the tourism industry (including the Everest climbing community) than they do about creating their own propaganda and news spin. The torch's trip up Everest is obviously of great symbolic importance. But all those who were put out of work this year on the mountain might have a significantly different interpretation of that symbolism than the Chinese.

Kash's Book Corner: If the sherpas can fix the rope lines early in the season, would it be possible for them to store emergency air cannisters and other supplies at key places in the route?

Nick Heil: Yes, they could. Problem is, it's expensive (oxygen canisters run upwards of $400/pc), and it's also quite a project for someone to try to manage independent rescue resources on the mountain. As I mentioned before, there could in theory, even be a small rescue team positioned up high, but again, there's the cost, and such a thing would also seem a bit excessive to mountaineers who pride themselves on the notion of their own self-sufficiency. One of the reason the Brice/Himex model works so well is that Brice has built in failsafes to troubleshoot problems during the climb. I think that's probably the way to go, before trying to establish elaborate rescue systems.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Deconstructing the Library

I first read T.C. Boyle's classic novel Budding Prospects in 1991 when I was a sportswriter in Maryland. I picked up my hardback copy for about five bucks at a used bookstore a few blocks away from the newspaper office one sunny spring afternoon. I flew through Boyle's comic masterpiece of ill-fated, paranoid pot growers in between covering high school baseball and softball games.

The novel resonated with me in ways that are hard to describe. I didn't grow pot, I'm not particularly paranoid and I certainly wouldn't be as inept at anything that I put my mind to as Boyle's characters are in their endeavours. There was a spark and a lightness in Boyle's language and his characters that struck me. The voice of the first person narrator, Felix, was direct, honest and humorous all at the same time. The spectre of failure haunted Felix from the opening sentences. I was at a difficult point in my life where I was getting by (sharing a broken-down house with two other reporters), but success in the adult world of work certainly did not seem assured. Maybe I was feeling a bit hopeless as I read Felix's opening words:

"I've always been a quitter. I quit the Boy Scouts, the glee club, the marching band. Gave up my paper route, turned my back on the church, stuffed the basketball team," Boyle writes. He continues, "I quit jobs: digging graves, pumping gas, selling insurance, showing pornographic films in an art theater in Boston."

A year later, I did quit my job at the newspaper and headed west to Colorado. My personal list of quitting had risen to include the cities of New Orleans and Houston along with a relationship and now my career as a sportswriter. Budding Prospects, along with about 75 other precious books, was packed away in the trunk of my car as I sped across the country with my friend's windsurfer tied to the roof.

When I left Maryland, I didn't even consider ditching my books. They were part of my identity. The battered copies of Bernard Malamud's novels helped me understand my Jewish ancestry. Joyce Carol Oates' Because it is Bitter, Because it is my Heart gave me some insight into racial relations in America. Richard Hugo's book of poems 31 Letters and 13 Dreams described the satisfactions and heartaches that lay ahead for me if I followed my most secret desire of becoming a poet. As I drove across America, I thought of Alex Kotlowitz's recently published instant sociological classic There are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America that told me what was really happening in the inner cities that I sped past on the highway.

I treasured these books for how they had touched me as a reader and person, and I couldn't imagine being without them. I believed that I would refer back to them over and over again as the years went on. They were irreplaceable to me. You couldn't just go into any library or bookstore and find Hugo's poetry or Malamud's more obscure novels. I needed to carry them with me to create my own personal library.

I hung onto these books and added hundreds more over the subsequent 15 years. Budding Prospects was packed up and moved five separate times over the years. Each time it was placed on my bookshelf as if it was a valuable family heirloom saved in the Armenian exodus from Turkey by my great-grandmother. The bookcases in my condos grew from bricks and boards to beautiful painted wooden cases acquired at a Mexican furniture store in downtown Boulder. No expense was too great when it came to caring for my books. When those cases were bursting with titles, I installed metal brackets and wall-to-wall shelves on every available wall. Finally, when there were still books that couldn't find a home on any of the shelves, stacks started accumulating on the floor.

Then, a funny thing happened about two years ago -- I tried to reread Budding Prospects. As part of a store contest, every staff member was supposed to pick a backlist book to recommend for the summer. What could be a better fit for pot-smoking Boulder than my old beloved friend. I managed to get to about page 75 before I set aside Boyle's work in boredom. It seemed more meandering than I recalled, and all of the wonderful passages that I remembered held none of the surprise for me that they did on the first reading. Here was this book that I'd carried for over 2,000 miles and packed and repacked for the last 15 years and I had no desire to read it again.

I didn't immediately get rid of my copy of Boyle's debut novel. But I started thinking about all of my books. Why was I holding onto them? At the age of 40 I was much more confident of my identity than I had been at 25. I didn't need them to define me anymore. I never seemed to reread them, except for an occasional poem or short story. I didn't really refer to them very much. Some I even forgot I owned and would snag a remainder copy of a title that it turned out was sitting in our spare room collecting dust in its alphabetically correct place on the shelf.

Furthermore, even if I let go of Budding Prospects I could turn around and get it right back if I really wanted it. Over the last couple of months, I've gradually been dismantling my personal library. As I part with each precious tome, I'm addicted to looking up what it's really worth out in the world. It turns out that most of my books are worth between one penny and three dollars according to Amazon and Abebooks. That's not much when you consider how valuable every inch of an 800-square-foot apartment is in downtown Boulder.

Sometimes, I fear that as I get rid of them I will miss their physical presence. It will be like the fresh paint on a wall where an old picture used to hang. You might not even know what the picture was, but you miss the frame, and it's almost painful to see that clean spot on the wall. This worry was assuaged a bit last night over drinks with an old friend, a writer, who said goodbye to many of his books when he moved from a house into a 640 square foot condo with his wife.

"We packed up and got rid of so many boxes of books when we moved, and I don't miss them at all. There isn't a single thing that I miss," he said. I peered at him closely trying to figure out if I really believed him. "It's great," he blurted out in conclusion and grinned. He sure looked like a happy man to me.

It was reassuring to see him smiling; it is kind of depressing to think that these objects that have had a hold over me like holy relics or talismans for the past 15 years could be worth-less. On the other hand, it is freeing to think that I no longer need to construct a personal library. Every obscure Malamud novel can be had in several different editions.

I spent a couple of days during the last week receiving used books at the bookstore. I was amazed at the plethora of titles that comes in every single week. Classic works of literature, religion and history, along with books that are still on the bestseller list. If you want to get a cheap copy of Eckhart Tolle's Oprah sensation A New Earth or Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winner The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, just put in a request at our used book office and one will probably show up within a few days.

In the used book office, I felt like I was standing beneath a waterfall of books as I looked at the floor to ceiling shelves of books we'd recently purchased waiting to be received. As I stood there, I began to realize that there is a never-ending flow of books. There's no reason to dam up a tiny area for my own personal pool. For a modest amount of money, I can reach into this flow at any time and read exactly what I want.

The dismantling of my library hasn't gone that smoothly. There are still books that I've owned for 12 years that I insist that I will eventually read. My wife doesn't quite understand why I have to hang on to two copies of Don DeLillo's Underworld. I explain that one is the reader's copy and the other is a signed first edition. These are the hazards of my profession. I got rid of Budding Prospects, but I can't let go of T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain and Road to Wellville. They are both signed, personalized and dated. Then there are books like Kevin Canty's collection of short stories, Honeymoon. It's one of 250 signed first editions. I've never read Canty, but perhaps this will become a holy relic if Canty goes on to win a major award.

These books with personal touches seem to be all that I want to keep anymore. They seem to me to be irreplaceable in a way that most books simply aren't. I'd sooner sell my couch (my wife might disagree since she's currently napping on it) than my autographed Philip Roth books. But is this really a library? No. It's just a fairly random collection of signed or rare books that I've stumbled across in my years as a bookseller. The world, for better or worse, is now my library.