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July 25-31, 2007

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What's in a Name

Tactile, mysterious, sentimental, loving--in praise of plain old books

By John Freeman

I recently moved my office from a small apartment of its own to a space just below my apartment, which seemed as good a time as any to do a domestic book merge with my girlfriend. As fussy as I can be about my books, I like to think they play with others. (I'll never forget interviewing a musician and discovering that the two facing walls of CDS were actually his collection and her collection--and I haven't had the heart to check and see if they ever made it together.)

Until just a few days ago, the living room floor of our place was home to 26 alphabetical clusters, from Abani to Zola. Outlying Delauny-esque cityscapes of nonfiction and poetry scaled the kitchen area and crept into the backroom, where one evening I stayed up until 4am sorting history from gender studies from literary criticism on a jag of book fiendishness which left me feeling a little earnest until I read a New York Times article about hipster librarians. Suddenly, it became very important to decide whether or not Shakespeare belonged in theater or had his own category all together.

Looking at our library spread out for two weeks, it was fascinating to see the way certain letters dominated the room. From MacArthur to Myerson, M was thick on the ground, as was, oddly, K. X home to Can Xue and Gao Xingjian, had a mere few books, and were it not for Irving and Ishiguro, I could have fit on just one shelf. Hopefully, Moses Isegawa and Uzodinma Iweala will soon change that.

"What's in a name?" Shakespeare famously asked. Less and less perhaps, but seeing the books on the floor it was funny how much a name of an author can hold and evoke--what small but perfect vessels names are--and yet how much chance plays in their work coming before our eyes at all. I stumbled on Julian Barnes in my college bookstore, for example, because I had been looking for Saul Bellow and saw this thick row of Barnes spines in Vintage paperback.

I find it hard to totally pretend that the name of an author doesn't have its own alliterative allure, like Laila Lalami, doesn't look good on the page, like Gautam Malkani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; or have the appeal of wonkish particulars, like the double n in William T. Vollmann. We live in such a branded society that it's probably somewhat the case that these spine-out font squiggles have become something not far off a trademark. But I think it's more than that.

"I have given you my soul," says John Proctor in The Crucible, "leave me my name!" The novelists worth keeping on the shelf give you their soul, I suppose, and in so doing make their name much more than an I.

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