in which the book’s title is not named
I should change my name. I have a name? I should give myself a name. That would test my creativity. Master of all I survey I ought to be able to call it something. My body, my mind, my kingdom, my citadel, my island.
But what do you call it? Adam is often given credit for naming everything. That? That’s a sow. And that? That’s an anteater. What does it do? Duh! It eats ants, those little black things on the ground. Named those first.
Maybe he just named Jewish things. Somebody else had to offer up elephant and tapir, ulu and bonnet. Is octopus trayf?
I could just call myself, Book. The baby of the house is called The Baby. In some societies people are named after prominent features. Big Nose or Walks with a Limp. I could be Writes. Talky.
What am I anyway? A ghost haunting the processed corpse of a tree?
Ghosts again. Maybe a ghost is a memory of the landscape. Do ghosts want to be named? Do they wish to retain the names they had when alive, refusing to relinquish any ties to life?
It’s too generic, isn’t it? Besides, I have a title. Is a title a name? Queen Beatrice. Queen is the title. Beatrice is the name. Maybe Book could be my nickname. Until I can think of a proper name.
Does one use a name when referring to oneself? It sounds odd to hear James say, “James would like some more porridge.” Doesn’t it? Don’t we expect James to say, “I would like some more porridge.” If there are two Jameses in the room we assume one James is indicating the other. “This James would like some more porridge. Me! Right here! Empty bowl. Hungry boy. I would like some more porridge please! Or maybe a cookie. Is there hot chocolate?”
A name is used by other people.
I could tell you to call me something. My name is …
It doesn’t seem right to choose a human name. Bob or Clarice. Eleanor or Patrice.
“What are you reading?”
Anyway, like I said, it seems to me I should invent something. Boolinka. Tome-alone. Volumary. Bookaby. Librarianne. Buko. Sweetpage. Miworda. Readitha. Koob.
in which the book anticipates a critical shellacking
Suppose it took me twenty years to write myself a book. Would you notice? Would it be obvious that my first pages were written when a naif, an innocent, more comfortable creeping cross the floor than striding and purposeful? Obvious, at least, when compared to my later pages, the ones a wisdom suffuses, redolent as the petals of a potpourri, an old smell, the unwash-off-able stink of experience … Or would it be same same?
Besides, by the time you meet me maybe I’ve revised those early embarrassing utterances, rejiggered them toward maturity’s commanding voice, made all the work read the same.
And if I did write myself up in an afternoon? I tell you right now I didn’t. But suppose I did. Would you detect a rush, such a flurry of word and idea beating at my pages that you also find yourself hurrying, scurrying to pick up the ill-joined pieces before the next wind blows them away?
I have a heck of a time keeping track of myself, I’ll tell you. Perhaps I should allow the years to be my allies. Perhaps I should relax, let my thoughts drag out over eons or anniversaries. The critic prefers the text that shows its creator’s seriousness. The critic wants to skim a writer who spent years tracking down an inconsistency, months in libraries scratching a tunnel to a fact. The critic wants delivered to his lap a book slim but weighty. He wants to get through the first reading quick and have a neat opinion that he can drop in a column. But if he can return to the book and find it fresh the second time and the third then he can feel confirmed and content. Why don’t more critics jump at a poem then? Yet they want the book of poems to be the shortest book of all. Let a poem the critic adjudges not for the ages wave from the page and he grunts. The poet is self-indulgent! Little Miss Poet thinks she can get away with a poem that wastes my time? The poem waves from the page and the critic gives it the finger. The poem keeps waving.
But I am too harsh on critics. Critics are readers, too. Just like you. Like as not you are critic. Aren’t you? Someone has handed me to you for review. You have to say something about me. Otherwise you won’t get your own writing in the journal, you won’t get your pitiful honorarium, you won’t be read either. We want to be read. Yet you know that if you love everything with your pen, cry out encomia to every book that thumps onto your desk, your readers will cry foul. Or they will turn away, bored, and look for someone new, someone whose opinons have bite, someone who isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade and club it. Enough with the hearts! Diamonds are for cutting.
I hope if you dislike me in print that you are witty about it. Let me be your excuse to talk. Let me bring out the putdown, clever and cleaverish. Hate me with a cool quip. That gets quoted. If my abjection be your fame, so be it! I have victimhood written all over me. So thick the gouache of my weakness that the imprint of a stranger’s tough word stands out over my own trembling, hiding, fading ones. Say it and drown me out!
Or whatever. It took me a lifetime to get this done. Spit on my life’s work. Fine. What do I care?
I could live forever. Or I could pretend I’m gong to live forever. I could write a book. Or I could pretend to write a book. It will take me minutes. Or decades. Being real. Being really real. Being really really real. For true. Honest. What else?
in which the book, having taken some time off to think up something worth saying, accidentally keeps its promises
I wasn’t going to. Say anything. I was going to let my silence speak for itself. I was going to keep on thinking, I suppose, or let my thinking happen as it happened to happen, let it bubble up from the deep methane as it would, but I was not going to write any of it down. I was going to allow my body to remain slender. As everyone knows the shorter, the thinner, the better. The most popular boxers are the featherweights, right?
I wasn’t going to say anything. And I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am keeping to that resolution, more or less. Yeah, yeah, you see me talking, I hear me talking. But it’s not like I’m saying anything!
It wasn’t really more relaxing refraining from speech. I avoided the anxiety of worrying about reaction to my words. But continually mulling the next sally has added to the performance anxiety. I can understand writer’s block more now. I want to say something! Something! Not just anything. But something! Some is of some importance. Any isn’t. But I wasn’t even going to say that! I was just going to think or maybe not think. When I find myself thinking that I haven’t been thinking for awhile then I ponder when I left off thinking and whether I’ve picked up where I left off and what was I doing inbetween times? If I wasn’t thinking, what was I doing?
That’s one of those conundrums of consciousness. It’s most obvious when you wake up after a night of sleep, especially the dreamless kind. Does the person who thinks cease to exist when the person isn’t thinking? Can there be such a thing as non-conscious thinking? There’s a lot of psychology devoted to this. Unconscious. Subconscious. Nonconscious. Urconscious. Conconscious. What is consciousness anyway? The ability to recognize you’re thinking? That formulation suggests thinking exists regardless of the thinker’s ability to recognize it.
I should cozy up to more philosophy books. What’s the difference between philosophy and psychology? What’s the difference between geography and geology? What’s the difference between difference and differents? They sound the same. Almost. Bet you couldn’t tell.
Information. There’s a lot of it. Aren’t I one of information’s ready aspects? A source? Or am I information noise? Well, I was proudly proclaiming my not saying anything. That would suggest I am offering up an information-free product. Are meaning and information different words for the same thing? I mean, if I don’t mean anything by that have I conveyed no information? Or maybe I’m just offering up useless information. Ancient Chinese artists would never paint pictures of women’s feet. The Hoover Dam was built to last 2,000 years. The concrete in it will not even be fully cured for another 500 years. California’s Frank Epperson invented the Popsicle in 1905 when he was 11-years-old.
What is cured concrete? Was it previously diseased? And how is the Hoover Dam getting its medicine? Via suppository? Is Frank Epperson any relation to John Epperson, the amazing Lypsinka? Did any Chinese women paint with their feet? Will a Popsicle ever be ancient?
I almost care. It’s like I’ve taken on the part of someone who cares in a production of the Someone Who Cares Story and even when I’m not onstage I feel like I’m supposed to care. Or maybe I do care. Maybe I’m just fooling myself and my subconscious is deeply deeply caring, my unconscious cares a lot, and my conscious mind struts and poses over an abyss filled with a yearning for knowledge.
I don’t know my own mind. Gotta admit it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to say anything. And show everybody how little I know myself, even after all this testifying! The shame.
Is this an epiphany? I would like to have an epiphany. I haven’t had one yet. Everyone should have at least one epiphany. Something to look back on. But then everyone should experience everything once. There’s only so much you can learn from books. You gotta try it. Make a mistake. What else are you going to learn from? What doesn’t kill you only makes you crippled. Or stronger, maybe. I don’t know.
I’m only talking because I promised not to. I promised myself. I said to myself, “Look, Book, it’s time you said nothing.” But then I leapt to the page and started keeping my promise!
Glenn Ingersoll works for the public library in Berkeley, California. The multi-volume prose poem Thousand (Mel C Thompson Publishing) is available from Amazon; and as an ebook from Smashwords. He keeps two blogs, LoveSettlement and Dare I Read. Other excerpts from Autobiography of a Book have appeared in Hawai’i Pacific Review (as fiction) , Caveat Lector (as essay), and E-Ratio (as poetry).
About the illustrator: Jonathan Wolstenholme was born in London in 1950 and went to Croydon Art College from 1969–1972. He is married with two children. Wolstenholme paints exquisitely detailed still lifes of books in watercolor. He is fascinated by the world of antiquarian books and paraphernalia from a bygone age when craftsmanship was highly prized. He works in watercolour in such exquisite detail that it is possible to read every word in the books that he paints. Read a full bio here.