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Going, Going, Gone

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Time is money, but art is art

By Michael Dirda


 

On any given day I’m likely to be working at home, hunched over this keyboard, typing Great Thoughts and Beautiful Sentences—or so they seem at the time, like those beautifully flecked and iridescent stones one finds at the seashore that gradually dry into dull gray pebbles. Anyway, I’ll be working steadily along when suddenly, as D. H. Lawrence remarked at the beginning of Sea and Sardinia, there “comes over one an absolute necessity to move.”

I’ll then hop in the car and drive to the Friends of the Montgomery County Library bookstore in Wheaton or the Second Story Books Warehouse in Rockville or Wonder Book and Video in Frederick. I’ll poke around. Time will pass. And three hours later I’ll realize that, oops, I really need to get back home to check over the proof of a review, or reheat some leftovers—I’m no cook—before my Beloved Spouse comes wearily trudging through the backdoor. Yet by the time I pull out of the bookstore’s parking lot it is almost invariably rush hour and I will inch painfully along the clotted roadways of greater Washington, frustrated that I should live in this hellhole.

But, ah, those three hours or so of wandering the shelves, pulling out interesting-looking titles, checking prices, trying to remember if I already own this book or that and, if I do, whether I really owe it to myself to upgrade to an incredibly pretty copy for only $5. Before long, my one or two books is a stack, then a boxful. Should I, perhaps, put back a few? Naaah. You only live once. Besides, with any luck, Heaven itself will resemble a vast used bookstore, with a really good café in one corner, serving dark beer and kielbasa to keep up one’s strength while browsing, and all around will be the kind of angels usually found in Victoria’s Secret catalogs. All my old friends will be there and sometimes we’ll take off a few millennia for an epic poker game and …

To continue: it’s true all those $5 book purchases do add up. Yet what, after all, is money? It’s just this abstraction, a number, a piece of green paper. But a book—a printed volume, not some pixels on a screen—is real. You can hold it in your hand. Feel its heft. Admire the cover. Realize that you now own a work of art that is 50 or 75 or 100 years old. Bernard Berenson is, on a grander scale, any collector’s semblable and frère.

Not that I have BB’s gift for periodically raking in a few million lire by “authenticating” a Giorgione or Tintoretto for art dealer Joseph Duveen. In fact, my Beloved Spouse constantly berates me for failing to stew sufficiently about money. When she tells me to send in my quarterly taxes or put x number of dollars in my IRA, I do as she says—I am nothing if not uxorious—or I work really hard to accumulate the cash so that I can do so ASAP. For 30 years I diligently put aside every extra penny to cover the college educations of my three sons. I paid off my home mortgage long ago. I even have some kind of mutual fund.

Nonetheless, it’s hard for me to feign even mild interest in investing or studying the stock market. What a weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable—okay, make that profitable—way of life it is to think constantly about money. Keogh plans, Roths, Schedule C, deferred income, capital gains, and rows and rows of numbers—sigh. Sometimes I try to care, I really do. But show me an old issue of Weird Tales and the latest Bank of America Annual Report, and you’ll know where my heart lies. Of course, both publications deal in fiction, but the lies of art are more honorable than those of plutocratic and deceitful scuzzbags. (Ah, freedom of speech—you got to love it!)

Still, I’m an American, and so can’t help but sometimes wish I were in the one percent. But for me, the cost of even trying to become rich is just too high. I admire people who can balance the two cultures, artists like Picasso or writers like science fiction’s Robert Silverberg, who can keep an eye on their portfolios while also creating moving works of art. Sad to say, multi-tasking is beyond me. I read one book at a time all the way through. If I’m reviewing the book, I have to write the review before I start reading any other book. I especially hate it when the phone rings and interrupts my train of thought. It’s hardly worth pointing out that my trains of thought don’t precisely resemble the Acela skimming along to New York so much as the Little Engine That Could huffing and puffing up a steep incline.

Basically, though, I’m reasonably happy just reading books and writing about them. And when I get foggy-headed, I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world—they call me the wanderer, yeah, the wanderer, I roam around, around, around … Hmm, I seemed to have flashed backed there to the ’60s. “The Wanderer,” Dion, that night in the Admiral King High School parking lot. Sigh.

As I was saying, I can hop into that car of mine and go buy some more books. But, truth be told, I know I should be more mature and think seriously about my future and make better preparations for whatever dark days await. Naïvely, though, I keep hoping there won’t be any really dark days. My ideal farewell to this wonderful world of books and art and beauty and people I love was long ago described by Edmund Wilson in To the Finland Station, his superb account of 19th-century socialism. Its greatest chapter is titled “Karl Marx Dies at His Desk.” That’s the way to go.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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