Books are furniture, literally and metaphorically. Printed, bound books sit on tables and shelves, add color to a room, advertise one's (good) taste, hold doors open, serve as lap desks, and stacked on the floor can even serve as a stool. Their ugly cousins e-books may exist only as files held in the memory of an e-reader, but the e-reader itself, no matter which one -- Kindle, Sony, Nook, etc -- is a piece of furniture too, furnishing its owner a certain status among subway riders, or filling out the surface of an otherwise empty desk much like a high-tech lamp. Interior decorators buy books by the yard. Hard-up students use them as shims. I always pile a few summery reads on the night-table in the guest room.
At their best, they function like fine art, an essential component in the creation of a truly human space -- who doesn't feel comforted in a library? At their worst, they're like cheap plastic bric-a-brac collecting dust on sagging laminate shelves in another kind of truly human space. Books furnish a snob's room. They're undemocratic, un-American even, a problematic emblem of something stirring in the reflective mind. You can throw them away easily, or burn them, or lend them out, never to return. Useful fictions in rounding out a stage-set. I love seeing the faux leather classics and unjacketed bestsellers lounging around in furniture stores, from Ikea to Ethan Allen. Retailers believe a room without a book is unfurnished, apparently.
But it's the metaphorical furnishing that fixes itself most forcefully in my mind -- the furniture inside one's head, where the contents are always jostling around. I can "see" the furniture I carry with me: King James, Conrad, Yeats, Dostoevsky, Naipaul, Percy, Kipling, Berry, Merton, Woolf, O'Connor, Faulkner, Milosz, Dickens, Wodehouse, Roth, Chesterton, Simenon, Conan Doyle, Pound, Cheever, Gombrowicz, Hemingway, Austen, Coleridge, the James boys, Stegner, Munro, Vargas Llosa, Saki, Williams, Rouse, Fleming, Murakami, Chandler, MacDonald, McPhee, Darwin, Stevenson, Newman, Morrison, Shelley, Emerson, Rush, Thoreau, Collins, Willeford, James (Phyllis), Vonnegut, Burroughs, King, Shepherd, and way too many more to name, bouncing around like beans in bean-bag. That fragile bean-bag upside my neck. Some of it hand-made and precious, some of it manufactured and mass-produced. All mine, the way it's arranged. My Side of the Mountain next to The Magic Mountain. Jacques Barzun next to Howard Zinn. Didion's California next to Pamuk's Turkey. Steig Larsson speaking Swedish while Javier Marías jabbers on in Spanish in the next room. The American Civil War butting up against the Pelopponesian War, Shelby Foote our Thucydides. Wilson's still arguing with Nabokov up there, Updike is still alive, and the White Whale rides the waves. Evan Connell is discussing Goya with Robert Hughes and Cormac McCarthy is still an acquired taste. The jejune poetaster stays forever young up there, carrying Gravity's Rainbow around in his backpack, along with that wonderful fable by Jean Giono.
Somehow it all works, like a big old house filled with many generations' worth of belongings. Drafty, dusty, a little too cold in the winter and definitely too muggy during the dog days, but, generally speaking, a pretty comfortable abode for a white middle-aged dude trying to come to grips with a hard-assed and increasingly surreal world. The world within, furnished by books. Sure, there's still room for some new pieces, and every so often I toss an old one out -- welcome Sebald, so long Hesse. Welcome Thomson, so long Kael. Welcome Netherland, so long Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. But most of the rooms are set.
Sometimes I find myself getting up in the middle of the night, perhaps awakened by the sound of a car door slamming or Mr. Debt clipping his nails under the streetlamp. I drink some water and walk around fruitlessly for a spell, checking out each room in the house, downstairs and up. Then I settle down on the couch and close my eyes and picture where all the furniture sits. After a while I come to darkness and fall asleep.