Thomas E. Kennedy
January 23rd, 2014
The New Yorker
You look on the shelf where you keep your dictionaries for the royal-blue-spined glossary of literary terms because you want to see if it contains a simple, concise definition of “metaphor.” You are editing a paper in which the author explains how metaphor can make a complex subject like Einstein’s theory of relativity more easily understandable. But you are trying to decide whether the idea of metaphor is simple enough to be used in this way.
The book is not on the shelf where it belongs.
This annoys you. You remember that you had taken it out a few days before and placed it on the coffee table with various papers that you were considering—on either side of the orange bowl in the center—but there is neither book nor papers on the coffee table. Perhaps you moved the papers and the book yesterday, when an unexpected guest rang the bell and you hastily straightened up the living room. You attempt to retrace the steps you took when you did that, which you usually can do, but get no mental picture of the steps you went through.
Perhaps you put them on the small table that stands temporarily in front of the bookcase in your office. The papers are there, with some other papers that you had forgotten about, but no royal-blue glossary. The table is just large enough to accommodate four eight-by-eleven-inch stacks. Some of the papers are bulky, gathered with a bulldog clamp in the upper-left corner, so you go through each of the four stacks, lifting apart the clamped papers to see if the book has slipped between them, but there is no book.
You return to the shelf of dictionaries, where it should be, and run your finger along the twenty-something multicolored spines, but there is no royal-blue one. You feel along the back of the shelf to be certain that the book has not slipped behind the other books. It has not.
This is troubling. The glossary is a valued one, given to you by your son ten Christmases ago, when you were fifty-five. You use it often. In fact, you take it to every literary conference you attend, because you have trouble with theoretical terms. Terms that you once used without a thought have become more complex now that you think about them. You wonder if this is because your mind has developed more complex thought processes or whether it is because your brain is softening and is no longer capable of dealing nimbly with complex concepts. (What in the hell would your S.A.T.s be if you had to take them today?)
You return to the dictionary shelf and, very slowly, run a finger over the spines. The spine you are looking for is slender and royal blue. There is one blue spine, baby blue, but it is thicker than the glossary. You slip it out hopefully, despite the fact that you know it is not the book you are looking for, and, of course, it is not. You slide your hand behind the books once again and—more slowly than the first time, more thoroughly—check whether it has fallen behind. Of course, it has not.
Then you remember that, three days ago, you filled three large plastic garbage bags with books that you had decided you had no pressing use for anymore. The bags are in the kitchen, under the window, by the stairway to the attic where you will store them.
Now you wonder with alarm whether you somehow inadvertently mixed the glossary into the books in one of the bags. You are certain you have not, but you know that when the three large plastic sacks are moved up to the attic they will join the many piles of sacks and cartons in that dim, chill, musty-smelling room, will disappear among them, and, if you do not find the glossary elsewhere, the thought will haunt you that it is in the attic. The only way to be absolutely certain that your cherished glossary is not in one of the three sacks is to go through them now.
You step across the Persian carpet and into the kitchen and eye the sacks, feeling as though you are about to perform a hated, pointless exercise that will take at least fifteen or twenty minutes and will require stooping and bending, which will not be good for your back. You stare with animosity at the sacks, which are made of heavy-duty translucent plastic the color of the hateful moths that destroyed your expensive cashmere sweater and that you hung traps for in your closet.
You hate those moths, and you hate those sacks. You hate what you have become, hate the fact that you are incapable of throwing out books—just throwing them out, getting rid of them, giving them to the Goodwill.
Fuck them! “Fuck them!”
You become aware that you are cursing aloud to these three ugly, plastic, moth-colored sacks.
Inhaling slowly, deeply, you surrender to the fact that you must look through them now. You will yourself to do it, turning a defeat into power—this is an act of will, you are willing yourself to do something you do not want to do.
There are perhaps forty or fifty books in each sack. You lift each book out of the first sack and pile them on the kitchen counter, wondering once again how you can be so certain that you have no pressing need for these books, at least some of them, and you recognize the danger of performing this exercise, the possibility that you will take some of the books back into your office, your living room, your bedroom. But you steel yourself against that sentiment, that tendency. You decided once and for all, three days ago, after much indecision, that these books are not needed, and you cling to that decision.
When you have unloaded and repacked all of the books into the three plastic sacks, twenty-five minutes later, you have, of course, not found your cherished glossary and have succeeded in saving only a single book from the verdict of its attic doom. It is because of this book that it took you longer to unpack and repack the bags, because you fell victim to the urge to open the book and read an inscription in it. It is a dark-blue volume of Goethe’s “Faust,” published in 1882 by New York’s John W. Lovell Company, and is inscribed to your grandfather “lovingly” by a woman named Helen and dated “Christmas 1912.” Who was Helen? Your grandfather’s wife was named Isabel. You never knew your grandfather, who died long before you were born. You consider that Christmas, 2012, is approaching and that this book was given to your grandfather exactly a hundred Christmases ago by someone named Helen, who closed with the word “lovingly”—there are no survivors to ask who Helen was—revealing that she at least thought that your grandfather might like to read Goethe’s “Faust.” You never heard reference to your grandfather as a book lover, and only a book lover would read Goethe. Your own father certainly was a book lover. Perhaps he inherited that love of books from his own father and passed it on to you.
You wonder whether you actually love books or are merely addicted to them, obsessed by them. For fifty years, since you were fifteen years old and your father gave you the first novel you ever read—Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”—you have been hooked on collecting books. First collecting, then amassing, then obsession. Your life was decided by books. You became a writer, editor, translator, professor.
Why? Is that a good thing? Maybe it would be better if you were never given that book at such a susceptible age. But this is your life now, and it has been lived, most of it. No use turning back now. No sense turning back. No possibility. No time.
You do not remember what you were doing, return to the sofa where you were sitting, and notice the paper that you were editing about Einstein’s theory of relativity. You recall that you were wondering whether metaphor is a simple enough concept to simplify the understanding of relativity and that you were looking for the royal-blue glossary to ascertain whether it contained a simple, concise definition of “metaphor.”
You have not sat down yet on the red plush sofa. You stand gazing at the paper. It is draped over the sofa arm, and you feel depression hovering over and around, seeking to descend, to envelop you. You doubt your ability to withstand it, but you remember what a psychologist friend once told you about depression: “Don’t ever go down into that hole. It’s so easy to descend and so hard to get out.”
So you don’t sit, but do the only thing you can think of doing: you return to the dictionary shelf and slowly read the titles on the spines. And there is no royal-blue spine on which is written “Glossary of Literary Terms” by M. H. Abrams, but you do find a white spine bearing that title. You slide the book out and see that the cover is royal blue, the spine white.
You flip through it to “metaphor” and find several pages with several complex classifications of metaphor.
You do not know whether you are consoled.
Nothing is simple.