Literary Skeleton Crew

There remain four books in the old apartment: Iain M. Banks’s Excession (which I am currently reading), Steven Gillis’s Temporary People (which I hope to get around to reading quite soon!), a galley of The Letters of Allen Ginsberg (which I hope to read after all the other books I have to read, which are now sitting in the new apartment), and my trusted Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. There are a handful of oversized volumes now in boxes, but I choose to leave these contents alone. Cardboard bottles for makeshift vintners, ready for an odor tendered by topography and not by time.

The dictionary, being a dutiful and invaluable companion, will most certainly be the last volume transported. You never know when an impulse to flip through the seven crevices might kick in. I’ll feel sufficiently settled in once dictionary and desk have migrated. They remain attached not so much at the hip, but certainly with an invisible tether. I now find myself pondering this old apartment denuded of books and remain preternaturally excited about these preternatural limitations: a veritable jig and tonic! A mere four books sitting in for a cast of thousands! A skeleton crew! I’ve opened up the Ginsberg book and located this one-paragraph letter that Ginsberg wrote to Eisenhower:

Rosenbergs are pathetic, government will sordid, execution obscene. America caught in crucifixion machine, only barbarians want them burned I say stop it before we fill our souls with death-house horror.

This was 1953. It didn’t do any good. No doubt a present Ginsberg type scribing a current message to the President along similar lines might become a “No Fly” list candidate. Unless, of course, the President has received a remarkable spate of hate mail. This remains unknown. He’s certainly not sharing with us.

Did Ginsberg have only four books to work from? Probably not. Did he consult the books he had to write this letter? Probably not. But he did read newspapers.

There remains, for the present time, an Internet connection. But Bartleby is no substitute for a good book. Control-F makes everything too easy. Better to plunge into textual anarchy and unferret some strange passage, such as the one above.

And what does Mr. Gillis give us? A random flip to page 102:

The machine was an old ink wheel mimeograph, silver-grey with a smooth metal cartridge and a round plastic bottle of blue ink loaded into the underside.

I approve of the E over the A in “grey.” I was terrified of reading beyond the word “blue,” for I had hoped that the “round plastic bottle of blue” might connote bottled water, some eccentrically designed machine. But with “ink,” this ambiguity was sullied!

The unabridged points out that the word “mimeograph” was “formerly a trademark.” One of Edison’s lost patents, now liberated into the lingua franca. Even though nobody really uses a mimeograph machine anymore. Will LaserJet suffer such a fate? Will there come a point in which nobody will really remember HP and the word “laserjet” will become released from corporate avarice? A hundred years from now, some amateur etymologist will flip through the unabridged dictionary and see “formerly a trademark” for “laserjet” (with the crude caps humbled), with the meaning somewhat transmuted and no mention of the parent company. But today, we must tread carefully. LaserJet is a registered trademark.

If America remains “caught in crucifixion machine,” then certainly there is hope within the native tongue. And would such a line of inquiry have been pursued had I been surrounded by all of my books? Perhaps there is something to be said for Spartan literary studies.

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