Where my Heart Is

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My apartment became famous for a day several years ago, when it appeared at the top of the front page of the New York Times’ Thursday “Home” section. Accompanying a feature article on “Living with Too Many Books” was a photograph of me sitting beneath towering shelves tightly filled with paper-

backs. While most features in the Times are forgotten a few days afterwards, this is often remembered, mostly by those likewise situated. The article said I had 10,000 books, which was roughly accurate, assuming that books are on average one inch thick, because the only figure authorized by me was “956 running feet” of·shelving containing books. Those more, experienced insist that the count must now be closer to 15,000. That’s what the Italian collector Egidio Marzona told me, with the authority of someone owning, he added, 60,000.

What the size of this library mostly reflects – a point missed by the Times writer specializing in interior design – is not that I “collect” books, because I don’t, but that I’ve worked my way through several intellectual fields. After taking degrees in American civilization and American history, I became interested in literature and literary criticism; more recently, I’ve written about others. No one pursuing a single discipline would need so many books at home. A second fact· shaping the size ‘of the library is professional independence. Unlike professors who can rely upon a university library, I can use only the New York Public. However, its stocking is erratic, and even the famed research central at 42nd Street is missing many items listed in its catalog.

A third, more personal fact is that my books are extensively annotated, not only with marks on their pages but also with sheets of paper filled with handwritten notes. When I want to find something that I remember being in any book of mine, I first consult these sheets. In a practical sense, these sheets and annotations are more valuable to me than the books. Unlike the books, they are irreplaceable.

The books in my library are grouped by subject and by size; so that the first requirement of finding any title is remembering what size it is. Small paperbacks are gathered into shelves made to my design, cut to 7 1/2″ or 8 1/2″ high and 51/2″ deep, to accommodate the two most common sizes for paperbacks. Smaller hardbacks go onto shelves that are 9″ and 10″ high, while larger shelves are mostly for illustrated art books. As a result, books on a single subject could be in three different places. The fastest-growing section is devoted·to books and spine-bound cultural magazines containing works of mine – well over 2,000 in sum – prompting me to move books off adjacent shelves in order to keep this category in a single place. Since I receive many books that could be easily lost on shelves because they lack perpendicular spines, I save them by grouping them in book-mailing boxes and then marking the box’s spine with the titles of their contents. These book-mailers also house poetry chapbooks.

The only rational reason for having such a large library is that you prefer to do research at home, with your own annotations, as indeed_ I do. But the problem now is that I no longer always know where to find a· title I want. If the book has been mine for a while, and it hasn’t been moved, I can probably find it; but if the book is new, or has been moved to make way for the expansion of something else, it can escape my search. Whenever this happens, I swear that if I can’t find books I need, there is no reason to have this humongous library; the whole thing should go.

I haven’t yet done any radical deaccessioning, as they say in the museum biz, though I’m always on the verge of doing so. I also dream now and then of “reorganizing my house,” which is a euphemism for relocating, which is in turn a rationalization. for building new bookshelves with heights respectively from the bottom of 13″, 12″, 10″, 9″, 8″, 8″, 7″, and 7″, so that books on the same subject, but different in size, can finally be stored in the same vertical line and yet, since I’m six-feet tall, be accessible without a ladder.

A diminutive tradesman once fixing a chair of mine looked around my apartment as I paid him. “A lot of books?” he said. I nodded agreement. “Have you read them all?” Pretty much, I replied, trying to seem modest. “All in one language, eh?” Recognizing that he has set me up for his put-down, I was speechless. “I talk Fife,” he said in a thickly accented voice, as he moved to leave. My library shows that, not unlike other overeducated Americans, I never learned to read any languages other than English.

Most people entering my house for the first time exclaim, “So many books.” A few say, “So many records,” usually indicating implicitly that they are personally accustomed to seeing a lot of books. Since records are slimmer than books, they take up less space per capita, and the last time I measured there were 35 running feet, which I suppose amounts to 3,000 records, or a fairly reasonable figure of 100 per year for 30 years. Nearly all these discs fall into four large groupings – contemporary music, mostly in the avant-garde traditions; baroque music, mostly J. S. Bach; ’60s rock; and folk.

In the past two decades I have accumulated many audio- cassettes that have their own shelves. Some of these cassettes contain music; others transcriptions of classic American radio toward a projected book that never gets sufficient support. On one wall, in a crevice between two bookshelves, is a vertical stack of plastic cabinets of sound poetry and audio art; on another wall is a stack of the great modern writers reading their work. As I live alone, no one is bothered if I play music and speech nearly all the time. I have perhaps several hundred compact discs and even a single videodisc (though no machine for playing it). More recently, I’ve been recording, on the slowest VHS speed, movies that I consider part of my personal culture, and my collection of these videotapes is beginning to fill another wall. The abundance of culture, let me confess, makes me feel comfortable. More than once I’ve rationalized that I’m squirreling away for the time when I get ill. However, as a full-time artworker, I can’t afford to be ill and so never am.

I moved here in 1974 and have lived here almost uninterrupted ever since. It is my sixth house in New York City. For the first three, I lived with my parents, initially in the neighborhood around Yankee Stadium, then in Inwood at the northern tip of Manhattan, finally on Riverside Drive. The first place rented on my own was a four-room bastion in a Harlem housing project just down the hill from Columbia University, where my then-wife and I were graduate students. With a rent of $55 a month, including utilities (and a monthly exterminator), it became a place where we could afford comfortably to spend all day and all night reading and sometimes writing. I might have stayed longer than four years, had not the New York City Housing Authority required that residents be a nuclear family, which by 1966 we weren’t anymore.

The second place of my own was the top floor of a brownstone in the East Village. By the time I left, after eight years, its 600 square feet had become so cluttered that no more than three people could fit into it comfortably. This current space, approximately three times the size of its predecessor, is part of the third floor in a SoHo building that once housed factories. The fact that the paint on my concrete ceiling looks as though it is peeling reflects the vapors from the jewelry business that was here before me.

The space itself has become a kind of factory, all of it by now organized for the production of what I do. Since nothing currently manufactured here is particularly remunerative, there is no one else to be the janitor (or the boss). Way in the back is a windowless space, about ten feet by 20, in which are located five desks. The one with the typewriter was for writing but is now ‘used only for correspondence; the second, with a drawing board tilted up at an angle, is for editing and proofreading. A third and a fourth seem to have accumulated papers in progress. Whatever function I once had in mind for the fifth now escapes me. It seems mostly

This is where I prefer to spend most of my days, rising late, refusing to answer the doorbell or telephone until I am finished writing, stay- ing up well into the night reading and writing.

 

used to support my feet when I lean back. In the corner of the room is an extra bed that was meant for naps but is now hardly used. (When I first lived here, there was someone else; now there is insufficient room for anyone else.) Along one short wall are deep shelves that house my biannual accordion files of professional correspondence (implicitly waiting for an archive’s offer that cannot be refused); beneath it is a deep shelf of mailing supplies. Next to the typewriter desk are four tall filing cabinets containing projects still in progress. As a steam pipe runs upward through this room, it is also the warmest space, especially during winter nights, when the rest of the apartment cools down;  and since I usually stay up late, I tend to gravitate here in the middle of t~e night.

The next room; likewise windowless, was meant to be the “reading room,” which accounts for why it has always housed a television and the central telephone. On one side of my favorite butterfly chair is the dialing machine and an answering machine; on the other side is a radio amplifier attached to both a cassette player and a new CD machine. Across the room is a television that I watch more often than before, now that I’ve acquired a VCR that enables me to see ‘programs I would have missed and to fast-forward through commercials. It is here that I put the two-piece projection television that was given to me by someone with insufficient space for its six-foot screen. Behind the chair is a wall full of unread books, my assumption being that a new book cannot be shelved with others of its kind until it has been “processed,” as I say, with annotations and a sheet of notes.

Alongside walls of this reading room are yet more shelves which extend under a tilted table that I use for drawing. Underneath yet another table, now filled with towers storing dozens of compact discs, is my great uncle’s 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is one. of the few books I inherited. On the door to this room are tacked two pieces of paper, one forbidding smoking, because there is no natural ventilation, the other a publisher’s royalty check for $1, reminding me that my literary business is scarcely profitable.

On the other side of this door is the dining room, or what was once a dining room, because it has a long table, surrounded by several chairs (and bookshelves on all the walls behind it), but since I haven’t entertained recently, the table tends to contain·a miscellany of things that I’m currently moving in and out of the house. Across from it on a large desk are two computers – the antique Kaypro that until recently I preferred for writing, and the new one, a Mac, whose keyboard at first felt alien, in addition to two computer printers that give the boss (lacking a secretary) far neater typescripts and business letters than he could ever do at the typewriter. Beside the printer is one of the dozen radio receivers distributed throughout the house, so that sound will always be within reach. Here too is a second telephone that is usually unplugged, because even if I’m not sleeping I’d still rather not have my concentration interrupted and, better yet, would rather not seem impolite if it were.

Behind it is the bedroom, with a queen-size bed along one wall and a television along the other. I’ve kept this room largely free of books, for fear they would distract me as I was trying to get to sleep Gust as the writing room in the back is also free of books), but on its walls are instead a painting by Hugh Lifson, a New Yorker now teaching in Iowa, and two sequences of geometric drawings that, in a certain sense, represent an apex of my own visual art. On the bedroom floor is a large metal cabinet whose horizontal shelves, three feet by

I was recently asked about my principal recollection of myself between the ages of seven and ten. As I replied – playing in my room with my toys – I realized that is how I spend most of my time nowadays as well.

 

four, contain prints of my own visual poetry and numerical art. Atop the cabinet, likewise lying prostrate, is a box containing a traveling exhibition of my work (even though it hasn’t left this house in years). One of the two bedroom windows is completely covered, its sill used instead for storage; the other is customarily curtained, as it looks out on the back of another building.

Adjacent to the bedroom, with four unadorned windows that look out over the roof of a single-story restaurant, is the living room, the largest room (and least occupied) in my apartment. It has shelves not only along its walls, but an island in the middle. It also has works of art that I’ve collected over the years _. a black-and-white painting by Suzan Frecon, a kinetic sculpture by Einno Rutsaalo, a wooden car by Paul Zelevansky, and the magnificent six panels, 6-feet high and 14-feet across, of inked words on doors that are John Furnival’s “Tour de Babel Changees en Pont”. In this room are also visual works of mine: black-and-white canvases and prints, with either numbers or words, mostly mounted high above the bookshelves, just below the ceiling, and, on a revolving stand, .the first of my two major holograms.

The Furnival panels divide the living room couch and coffee table from a back area that contains an audio editing studio and a small viewer placed between pickup reels for 16 mm film. It is here that I and at times student interns worked on my principal creative project for the 1980s – separate.

“Have you read them all? ” Pretty much, I replied, trying to seem modest. “All in one language, eh?”

 

epiphanies for audiotape and film. In the corner of this room I put a reading area, with a strong lamp, a chair, and a radio and record player, but I haven’t much used it. What I use, however, is the couch, where I like to put my feet up for short naps.

When I first moved to SoHo nearly three decades ago, the n~ighborhood was still zoned as industrial. You could live here legally only if you petitioned a city commission for a variance. To get this certificate, you had to prove that you were an artist who needed space. Painters, sculptors, choreographers, composers, and even playwrights qualified, but writers did not. Fortunately, I produced visual art as well as writing and so could submit slides. When people came to visit at the beginning and marvel at all the space for my books, I would necessarily remind them of the visual art customarily placed above my bookshelves.

When I arrived here, the industrial building had just been “converted,” as we used to say, so that while artists filled most of the spaces, there were still factories on the fourth floor, the eighth floor, and the ground floor. A dozen of us owned the building cooperatively, as Good Deal Realty Co., with me getting four percent of the shares and a proprietary lease for my space that demands my paying four percent of the building’s monthly maintenance. One of the charms of our co-op, in contrast to others around us, is that only three owners have ever moved out, which means that the place is still run by the original group. This makes us different from those co-ops where lines of conflict invariably fall between the old-timers and the better-heeled newcomers who, having paid more for their apartments, are eager to initiate fancier renovations than the old-timers can afford.

To enter my apartment, I need four keys – the first to open the door to the building, the second to unlock the elevator so that it will go to my floor, the third to unlock my apartment door, and the fourth to open that door. Just inside that door is a hallway with bookshelves running along both sides. Directly over the door itself is another shelf that runs To the ceiling. Beyond the hallway is a kitchen with the refrigerator on one side and a stove and sink on the other. In the middle are two chains, their ends normally hooked together, from which, if I unlock them, I can display my more recent holograms. Exhibiting them, you see, requires 20 feet of open space that by the late 1980s was available here only between the refrigerator and the stove. At the end of the sink is a pair of bookshelves, stacked back to back and perpendicular to the wall. At the end of this shelf is a small table where I feed myself and keep my vitamins.

A few years ago the Internal Revenue Service questioned the rather large percentage of the monthly maintenance that I deducted as a business expense. To justify my claim that so much of my apartment was used exclusively for professional work, my accountant asked me to shoot a roll of 35 mm black-and-white film that was developed on a single contact sheet. Looking at the 36 little photographs of my loft, the accountant asked, “Does it always look like this?” I assured him that it did. “Oh, this will be no problem.” And indeed it wasn’t.

In general, I’m reluctant to invite strangers here. The books are intimidating, I know, and as such are likely to have a negative effect on the spontaneity of guests. Others come to regard the apartment as a kind of candy store, pull- ing things out without putting them back where they belong, thereby causing difficulty the next time I need a certain book. I could go on, but after all, the apartment is not a showplace – it is really a factory and a home for me.

This is where I prefer to spend most of my days, rising late, refusing to answer the doorbell or telephone until I am finished writing, staying up well into the night reading and writing. Being in the back of the building, away from the SoHo street that sometimes has industrial traffic, it is unusually quiet. It is here that I sleep best.

At a party recently I was asked about my principal recol- lection of myself between the ages of seven and ten. As I replied – playing in my room with my toys – I realized that is how I spend most of my time nowadays as well. My favorite”summer place” is the ninth-floor roof, where I can read and nap undistracted, which we call Silver Beach after. the color of its protective coating. Each day that I can spend entirely at home, without ever leaving, I regard as a logistical success. I can imagine happily spending the rest of my life here.

This devotion to my house is profound. It accounts for why I identify with other writers who were similarly devoted to the places in which they lived and worked – Lewis Mumford in Amenia, Edmund Wilson in Takottville, Donald Hall in Danbury, Stanley Edgar Hyman in North Bennington – and can’t understand why anybody would ever want to own a second home. For the same reason that I never go away during the summer, I sublet only once: This apartment contains my life, damage it and you damage me. A few years ago, I gave it a name much like those given to British manor houses, because to me it is indeed a castle – Wordship – and christened myself its earl.

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