Some context: Cabin fever makes me clean. Stuck at home, I started the day by sorting out the basement, a task that was initiated back in September for Tropical Storm Isabel, in which all the boxes of books in the basement were placed on pallets, and — that was about it. The storm passed, the books didn’t get wet, the basement didn’t seem so urgent until the BG&E men dropped by last month and I felt a cringing embarrassment. “I’m sorry it’s so messy,” I kept repeating. “We’ve seen much worse,” they said gallantly.
No more, I decided today, and finished what was begun so long ago. The basement cleared out, I began to pace the house, looking for books that could be boxed up and moved down there. (All mine. It’s like some exponential word problem at this point — hardcovers + paperbacks + foreign editions + audio . . . it mounts up, even at my modest level.) But I also looked for books that I was willing to give away. I do this from time to time. I take them to The Book Thing or, more often, I give them to friends. I own them because they gave me pleasure; I give them away only because I can’t imagine re-reading them, or consulting them.
One shelf in my office holds short story anthologies — the O’Henry, the Best American Short Stories, Editor’s Choice, Pushcart, Esquire Great Fiction, Ploughshares, Zoetrope. Judging by the years on the spines, I was most focused on short stories from 1981-1993. (Historical note: I began writing what would become my first published novel in 1993.) Clearly, the short story in its most literary form was what I aspired to, once upon a time, probably because I couldn’t imagine stringing more than 5,000 words togther. Do I still aspire? Do I need to keep the books to aspire? Can I get away with a few big anthologies — Best American Short Stories of the Eighties, say — and give away the annuals?
A quick skim brings back so much. “Risk,” a story I remember so vividly from its publication in the Atlantic Monthly in 1982 that I’m surprised to find that the writer’s name, Charles Dickinson, has no resonance. Perri Klass, who tortured me so — a successful fiction writer and a doctor. From Harvard! Joyce Carol Oates, whom I just met this week and found utterly gracious in the face of my stuttering ineptness; what does one say to a writer so prolific? “Lawns” by Mona Simpson. That was 1986, when incest still seemed a new and daring subject.
In fact, 1985-87 appear to be the years that my interest in short stories peaked: I have three collections from each year, based on the copyrights, and my favorite stories are still vivid to me. How can I give away any book that contains “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek? Then again, I own “The Coast of Chicago,” and it’s in there.
So I re-read it, and I realized I didn’t remember much of anything, except the grandmother and the description of her radio. Completely forgot that it ends with two young people making love on the Evanston Express. All I remembered was the radio, and the way the Pet Milk swirled in the coffee.
Clearly, this is an argument for or against keeping both books, the 1986 O’Henry and “The Coast of Chicago.” If you figure out which one it is, let me know.