"Cars and streets, everything gold, lightning dashed, tossed and torn."
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One of my best skills is my ability to shut out the outside world when I am working. I come by it honestly. For my first decade in New York City, I lived in dozens of different apartments with far-from-ideal writing conditions. I used to have to write in an old folding chair with my feet against the wall while my four roommates constantly walked behind me every time they needed something out of the fridge. This taught me how to eliminate distractions, to focus entirely on what I’m doing and not be pulled out of that concentration by external circumstances, like crying children or, say, the curtains being engulfed in flames.
But you still want your ideal space. I’d always wanted my own writing room where I could lock the door and escape from that outside world. When we bought this house in Athens back in 2013, one of its primary attributes, to me anyway, was an upstairs room for my office, with windows and two latchable doors, a room that was entirely mine, existing solely for the practice of filling empty pages with words in solitude. This is not a large room, but I don’t need it to be. I don’t need it to have anything but a desk, a music player, a nearby bathroom and mini-fridge stocked with hydration. I just need a place to work. My tunnel vision in this room veers toward the extreme. One of the more famous Leitch family stories involves the time when I was away for a week for work, and when I returned, my wife had painted my office an entirely different color. I did not notice until she finally told me, two months later. I never noticed what color it was before, and if I closed my eyes, I couldn’t tell you what color it is right now. This computer is the only thing I look at in this room.
As you might suspect, I’m not always as diligent at keeping this office as tidy, or really as livable, as I probably should. Papers are flung all over the place, there are empty Bai bottles overflowing out of the trash can and while I don’t remember what color the carpet was when I moved in here, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t initially sold as “Sad, Ashy Beige.” It’s less disgusting than it just is overflowing. I’ve been sitting in this chair for nine years as everything closed in around me. You almost can’t find me in here anymore.
So, as the fall approaches, I’ve, at last, decided to do some culling. I need to get some stuff out of here. And what I’ve discovered is that the easiest thing to get rid of—the objects I’ve been holding onto longer than anything else, taking up space but not providing according utility—are my books. I have so many books.
Back in those feet-on-the-wall, roommates-looking-over-my-shoulders days, when I imagined having my own office someday, my bookshelf was the centerpiece of that dream. That, to me, was true adulthood: A stacked bookshelf on display for the world to see, the purest version of myself—how I wanted people who visiting my home to think of me. After all, looking at their bookshelf was always the first thing I did when I went into their apartment. I don’t know if you can actually learn about a person from poring through their bookshelves, but for years, this was my shorthand way of attempting to do so. Oh, “The Fountainhead,” interesting, yes, yes, something I now know about ole Mark here. Constructing one’s bookshelf was a way of constructing how you wanted to be seen—whether you actually were that way or not.
But in practice, my bookshelves, now that I have them, have not worked out that way. In practice, my bookshelves are simply overflowing, partly with books and partly with just the junk that sits in front of the books, where I can’t even see them anymore. I once took massive pride, too much pride, in my specific books. In a way, they are markers of the person I once was and what I once valued. I have a copy of the original McSweeney’s printing of Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity, the follow-up to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and the big gimmick of Velocity was that the book had such forward movement that it actually began on the cover. I spent a dangerously high percentage of my entire net worth in 2003 on that book, and I’ve kept it in pristine condition since. Though I’m pretty sure no one has looked at it in 15 years. Until I took it out to look at it right now, I don’t think I had either.
(True early Eggers Heads will note that I also have the alternate “red” version of Y.S.K.O.V., called Sacrament. 2003 was a lonely time.)
I also have a shelf featuring every annual Roger Ebert Movie Yearbook from 1999-2010, gifts from my sister every Christmas, gifts I specifically asked her for. (The best gift I could give her was being able to scratch me off the gift list first thing; she always knew what I wanted.) I also have a shelf of Baseball Prospectus annuals from roughly the same time period. None of these books have been opened in more than a decade, and no one else has looked at them either. I’m the only one in this office. All I do is see them take up space.
So, I’m culling. It breaks my heart. But I’m culling.
There’s a lovely Used Book store here in Athens that will take any book you give them and put it on the shelves for someone to go buy for a couple of bucks, and that’s what I want for them. These books deserve to be paid forward: For them not to be valued, or shown off as some sort of indicator of cultural erudition, but to be read. They are not currently fulfilling their primary purpose, their reason for being. They’re wasting away in here.
Tough decisions are being made. I’m keeping the original Eggers collectibles. My dog-eared, destroyed, but still-readable-at-35-years-old copy of The Bachman Books (featuring The Long Walk, a book I’ve made sure to read at least once every year since I was 13) makes the cut. I’ve got a mini-shelf of books about September 11 that I dig into when the anniversary comes around—I’ll hang onto those too. But most of this stuff has gotta go, for that fundamental reason: They’re not being read. And they’re supposed to be read. One of the most enjoyable aspects of How Lucky has been people telling me how they discovered it from a friend who had a copy and passed it along to them, the way you tell someone about a new album they just have to hear. A book is not meant to be read just once, by one person. It should be passed along. It wants to be passed along.
And it can’t just die in here unloved. In the Gaspar Noe film Vortex, one of the best, and most thoroughly depressing, movies I’ve seen in a long time, an elderly couple spends the last years of their lives in the same Paris apartment they’ve been in for decades. The woman is a retired psychiatrist who has dementia, the man is a film theorist working on a massive tome about cinema and dreams, and their small apartment is stacked floor to ceiling with papers, books, movie posters, photo albums—the compilations of a life fully lived. But at the end of the film, as illness and death close in on them, those possessions are not markings of a full life: They begin to feel like their own sort of prison. They’re surrounded—trapped—by memories and totems that only have value to them, and as the couple’s bodies and minds begin to fail, all those items turn into what they are to anyone else: Junk. When they are gone, what was invaluable to them, the markings of their lives, is simply thrown away—a burden for someone else to deal with. It ends up meaning nothing.
I want these books, which once meant so much to me, to mean something to someone else. I want them to do for others what they did for me. And also: I want them out of this office. Because it’s starting to get ashy in here.
I still recognize the value, however, in having a bookshelf to show off to people. I just do it differently now. Downstairs, in our front room, I have been allotted one set of shelves for myself. This is a shelf of books that have one thing in common: They were written by people I know personally—people I consider my friends. That’s all the shelf is: It’s my friends’ books.
Having a bookshelf to show off doesn’t mean showing off how smart you are, or how smart you want people to think you are. This is the best marker of who am I and how I want my life to be remembered: I got to meet some incredibly talented people, and, hey, look how great they are. I’ll get rid of books I don’t read anymore. But I’ll never get rid of these. We hang onto what we can, while we can. Because it doesn’t get to come with us when we’re gone.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Legal Abortion Is Not a Polarizing Issue, Medium. What we learned from Kansas.
Nine Winners at the MLB Trade Deadline, MLB.com. One winner: No-trade clauses!
Playoff Urgency Rankings, MLB.com. Suddenly got real urgent for those Brewers.
Rules For Empowered Fandom, Medium. We’re the ones in charge, and we get to make the rules.
Fans Aren’t Angry Enough About DeShaun Watson, New York. And that’s why the suspension was only six games.
Predator Movies, Ranked, Vulture. With the new Hulu movie Prey.
Stop Comparing DeShaun Watson’s Punishment to Tom Brady’s, NBC News. They’re not remotely similar. They were even made by different people.
Your Friday Five, Medium. I mean, sure, let’s rank Brad Pitt movies of the last 10 years.
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed “DC League of Super-Pets,” “Resurrection” and “Sharp Stick.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I wrap up all the madness of the deadline. (And wow, what a win last night.)
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week, back to weekly next week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“The Prosecution of Russian War Crimes in Ukraine,” Masha Gessen, The New Yorker. I had definitely wondered how this might work.
Also, I thought my colleague Mike Petriello did a terrific job with this MLB trade deadline piece. My one-stop shop!
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
This is your reminder that if you write me a letter and put it in the mail, I will respond to it with a letter of my own, and send that letter right to you! It really happens! Hundreds of satisfied customers!
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Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Sisters,” Cate Le Bon. I heard this playing in a bar the other day and had an immediate “‘Dry the Rain’ in High Fidelity” moment: The whole place just started slowly, quietly, swaying and tapping its collective foot.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
School has begun down here. There’s now a fifth grader and a third grader in this house.
Have a great weekend, everyone.