Carl Wilson’s Purging Process

Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to Carl Wilson, the author of Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, and, as of very recently, Slate’s Music Critic; he is also a Contributing Editor to Hazlitt. Walking up the stairs to his west Toronto apartment, the first thing you see is a long white bookcase full of volumes of poetry. The rest of Carl’s library is contained in shelves that line the walls of his dining room. I visited on a cloudless morning, when the sunlight hazily filtered into the rooms through large east-facing windows and a long skylight.

It’s pretty simple. Poetry is over there. Fiction’s on this shelf, with some miscellany at the end. This tiny little bit here is plays. Then music books. And then non-fiction for the bulk of the rest. And then it gets weird. These two shelves are current research stuff. These are miscellaneous large things. Some 33 1/3 books. Journals and stuff down there. And then this area is mostly books written by friends and colleagues. That’s kind of my favourite part. It’s overflowing now, so I’m going to have to figure out what to do about it. It’s such a friendly thing, like, Oh, there’s everybody!

I feel like, for some reason, it’s become harder to spend much time snooping on people’s shelves. I don’t know why that is. These are books that I’ve worked on or had a part in. The World Directory of Minorities. That was a job I had shortly after university, actually, right after my Nation internship. I forget how it came to me, just through a friend of a friend, but I had to write part of the Canada section. And the Hawaii section. Which was a funny job, because I didn’t know anything about it. It was mostly library research. This was probably the first book I was actually in. This, Significant Objects, came out last year, and it’s the only book that I have fiction in—a weird science fiction story about a slurpee cup.

The dilettantishness of my career is also, I feel, really reflected in my bookshelves. I used to have a lot more theory, and I felt vaguely fraudulent. Even in music writing, I kind of feel like it’s surprising to me that I don’t have the entire canon of great music books here. But my job has always been at least three different things, and so nothing’s ever ended up concentrated.

I have a sort of ongoing purging process, but I often make mistakes in my purging process, and end up binning things that I wish I still had. Unless I really love something I usually move it along after I’ve read it, and it ends up being the case that most of the books on my shelves are ones I haven’t read yet. Which I am sometimes embarrassed by, but I also like the aspirational quality of there being so many things to get to. But then I’ll just buy a new book and read it, instead of the things I already have. A lot of the things I hold onto are measured on the scale of how likely are you to read that again. So, there’s a lot of light reading that I’ll actually hold onto. Like, I might pick up that detective novel and read it again some weekend, but some big tome… I don’t have enough time to reread much, but it goes in waves. I get too lazy at night, a lot of the time, and watch TV or the Internet instead. I have to check myself, because—especially with novels—if I don’t read a novel for a few months, I start to feel kind of queasy and sick. And then when I pick one up again, I’m like, Oh, yeah, right. This is me.

I’m reading the new Questlove biography right now, which is fantastic, but I’m reading it because I might end up writing about it. It’s weird. One of the reliefs of moving away from the paper is that there is so many books around. Every quarter, the Globe has a charity book sale of old review copies. It took me years to learn to not spend 50 bucks each time, because for 50 bucks at the charity book sale—especially if you wait ’til later in the day, when they start discounting things—you could get, like, 30 books. And for years I kept doing that, and ending up with things that seemed intriguing but I would never actually end up reading. Obscure cultural studies things, stuff like that. I’ve purged a lot of that out, but it still does accumulate that way. Like, I wouldn’t have this feral girl’s memoir otherwise—which I’d love to read, but on the other hand, it’s not really a priority. But it was just sitting around on somebody’s desk! Feral children are a favourite subject of mine, too, so I had to pick it up. But you know, there are novels I want to read.

The reason that the poetry is over there is partly because I browse through them more than anything else. Browsing repays itself a little more quickly with poetry. I feel like I do that less now than I did a few years ago; I’m going through less of a poetry-reading period. I like having them in the living room as a kind of a gesture, I like that it’s the first thing people see when they come in. Keeping the poetry in view. The whole sort of conceptual poetry stuff has been interesting to me, partly as a nonfiction writer. It crosses the roles of documentary and creative writing. It’s kind of like the creative nonfiction movement coming to poetry. Ken Goldsmith’s done these things where he’s taken the entire New York Times from a particular day, and that becomes a book. Or all of the traffic and weather reports, and that becomes a book. It’s got that interesting, granular nonfiction quality, and at the same time is a kind of found poetry. They’re a hilarious and, I think, heretofore nonexistent category of like, poetry bathroom books. Reading a page of them is fantastic, but it’s obviously impossible to read them sequentially.

I think the things I go back to the most are often just things that I read for stylistic centring. Geoff Dyer, sometimes Greil Marcus. The kind of thing where I’m like, I’m going to read a few pages of this, just to get the rhythms in my head going the way I want them to. Nicholson Baker is another writer I use that way. He’s a beautiful stylist, and his observantness… sometimes I feel like I’m a bit scant on that, unless I’m really concentrating on details. Box of Matches is so wonderful that way.

I kind of want to have everything of Adam Phillips. I keep giving his books away, which is another one of the eccentricities of my collection. It’s also true of my other favourite books. When you’re caught and it’s somebody’s birthday, and you’re like, Okay, I’ll give them a copy of this and then I’ll get another copy of it. But then you don’t. Adam Phillips is a British psychoanalyst and essayist. He writes a lot for the London Review of Books, and various places. He’s an unbelievable prose stylist. He’s got this tricky ironizing voice. He’s basically taking Freud and sort of modernizing it for 21st Century urban life, in some ways… not bowdlerizing it, precisely, but he’s got a much more wishful view of what Freud said than what Freud actually said. But it’s very useful for me; I’m very attached to psychoanalysis as a thought system, but it obviously has huge problems. He’s a child psychologist, many of his stories about children, and it’s a really lovely, foundational way of looking at that sort of thing. This book, Darwin’s Worms, is about both Freud and Darwin in relation to death, and it was one of those short, mind blowing books. I read it ten or twelve years ago, right when it first came out, and it sort of crystallized something about how I understand life. Monogamy is completely different from the others, it’s completely epigraphic. All things on monogamy, most of which are dubious propositions but all provocative about whether monogamy is a positive or negative choice in the most literal sense of are you choosing for something or against something? On the death theme again, one of the lines asks you if monogamy is choosing somebody to live with, or choosing somebody to die with.

Self-help. I think I had the sort of standard take on pop psychology as spun-out bullshit, which I think a lot of it is in terms of actual, scientific psychology. But my friend Misha Glouberman makes a very good case that if you have a problem of any kind, you are likely not the only person who’s had that problem. In fact, it’s statistically certain that you’re not the only person who has had that problem. And so maybe reading a book about how other people have solved those problems is a sensible thing to do. Which is another way to look at it—like, don’t think of self-help books as in competition with actually good books, just think of them as helpful manuals for solutions you might try. So I’ve been brought around a little bit. Which brings me to this book, from the early ’70s.

I have a book club, consisting of me and two other people. The book club is only about this book. We meet once a month and basically talk about time management, and similar problems in our lives. And set homework and things like that. It’s basically a book club of people who have the same problem, where we either can’t do very mundane things in our lives or things that are too big. The book is actually very helpful. It’s basically about making to-do lists, and how to make to-do lists. It wants you to stop making bullshit to-do lists that are only things like picking up your laundry. No, the to-do list should be sit down and work on my book proposal. Or, like, stop the bank from doing that thing to you that you’ve been letting them do! It’s about setting priorities, and getting over the emotional issues that stop you from doing things. The club has been going for almost exactly a year now, and still none of us have implemented the strategies completely. But having to talk about it every month changes your perspective on how you’re spending your time. Because you have to explain to people what you did.

Shelf Esteem (usually) runs every Tuesday.


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