Schedule of Loss

Schedule of Loss

The pages are so swollen we have to pry the books from their shelves with a long screwdriver, levering against the after-effects of the flood. A few thin volumes at the outer edges seem almost dry. With his sleeve, Wayne wipes the mantle and lays them down flat. “I think these can be saved!” he says, his voice sharp with the kind of hope that knifes up from despair.

I haven’t written this blog for three months. This is where I start again.

Not everything was destroyed by the tap that sprung off its copper mooring, opening a fountain that dripped through the house for less than twenty-three hours, collapsing ceilings, swelling walls with paint balloons, buckling floors. It is four days since we got the call in Mexico, our first day back in our ruined house. Furniture sags under splats of drywall; the more fortunate pieces huddle in a dry corner, like sheep in a storm. On the lower shelf of the coffee table, a single plaster paw print gives evidence of where Odysseus, our cat, sheltered in the downpour. The air is thick with damp and the whirring of a dozen industrial dehumidifiers.

We go first to the bookshelves in our library of Canadian books. Two walls of shelves escaped the steady rain and dribbling waterfalls that coursed through the seven-level house. One wall stands at the centre of the deluge—hundreds of books collected over a lifetime, dripping now like things fished out of the toilet. “Charles Sangster,” I say, pinpointing the starting line of our loss, and then where it ends: “Jan Zwicky.” Between those two, the entire life’s work of Duncan Campbell Scott, Carol Shields, Elizabeth Spencer, Yves Theriault, Catharine Parr Traill, Bronwen Wallace, Sheila Watson, Ethel Wilson, so many more. Most of the books are first editions. Many are signed. Some are so rare, we can never replace them, not at any price.

Many of the living authors are friends. Diane Schoemperlen. Audrey Thomas. Miriam Toews. Jane Urquhart. Michael Winter. Tim Wynne-Jones. Sean Virgo. The inscriptions are heartbreaking. I photograph them all. “We can contact these writers,” we console each other. “We’ll buy their books again.”

Wayne lifts each one off its shelf. They pry apart with a strange sucking sound. Delicately, he lifts the pages until he gets to the publishing data. I note the title, author, publication date, and edition on the Schedule of Loss the insurance company has given us. Don’t bother writing them all down, the agent said, just give us a total. But I do write them down. We insist on it. This isn’t a schedule of loss so much as a record of the passing of dear friends. We owe these books that much, at least.

One by one, we lay the unsalvageable in soggy piles in the middle of the library floor.

Then, amidst the wreckage, something strange happens.

“I remember buying this book,” Wayne says, “at The Word in Montreal. Morgan was a baby. The bookstore opened the day she was born.”

Holding Helen Weinzweig’s Basic Black with Pearls, I think first of the story of that housewife and her affair with the mysterious man from the Agency, their rendezvous in exotic places arranged through coded notes stuck in issues of National Geographic. He recognizes her by her dress—basic black with pearls—a costume she discards as she returns to herself. The book is thick with memories. I remember Diane Schoemperlen, early in our friendship, urging me to read it. The book was a writing workshop: the sharply pruned prose, the strange dialogue that skewed deep into the characters, the perfect pacing. Flipping through the damp pages, an old feeling comes welling back to me: there is no right age to be a writer. I was under 40 when I read this novel, already feeling too old to be working on my first literary book, but Helen Weinzweig was 58 when she made her brilliant debut, and that gave me hope.

We pull wonky, plaster-splattered chairs up to the shelf. Time slows. The stink of mould, pages that dissolve under our touch, it all disappears as we lose ourselves in the particular world of each book—not just the story, but the finding, the reading, the sharing of it. We return each morning to our seats in front of the destroyed shelves of books, eager to relive these fragments of our past that have slipped from active memory, recalled now as the foundation stones of our writing and reading lives.

The mould that I could hardly bear to look at in the beginning becomes beautiful. Each day the fuzz grows thicker, the crust more pungent. Blues and pinks and bright orange, a yellow the colour of daisy pollen.

With a start, I recognize this mould, although I have never seen it before. The last section of my novel Refuge is entirely taken up with mould. The elderly Cass and the young Burmese refugee Nang share an obsession with trapping life in an image, and when Nang discovers Cass’s box of old negatives in a shed, the celluloid eaten by moulds, she embarks on a project to breed colonies on her own photographs, using the fungal filaments of microscopic creatures to shape life into art. For months, I delighted in the complexity, the diversity, the persistence of mould. How can I despise it now?

The mountain of mould-colonized books at our backs grows as the shelves empty. The few thin volumes that Wayne set on the mantle have splayed their pages, turning pink now from the spores that cloud the air. We add these books to the heap, too.

We must press on. Furniture needs pitching. Paintings need assessing. Boxes of dripping archives need sorting. The photograph albums, with their own bloom of mould, await. The sodden mess of our life must be gone through, triaged, reshaped into a reduced mosaic of things.

“They’re just things,” our friends say, trying to boost our spirits. But it’s not the thingness of the objects we mourn, it is the stories they sparked in us.

The books came first, and as always, they prove our best guide. Stories are indestructible. Perhaps not with joy, but at least with less despair, we step deeper into our disintegrating material world, certain we can salvage what neither water nor mould can obliterate.

What books have you lost that you still carry with you?

Nota Bene

Nota Bene

Thomas Hardy typically had several notebooks on the go, each one carefully labelled Poetical Matter; Literary Notebook; Studies, Specimens, etc; or Facts. In Facts, Hardy and his first wife, Emma, recorded curious incidents culled from local newspapers. One three-line entry is titled “Sale of Wife”—a note that grew into The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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Spring LitBits 2018

Spring LitBits 2018

Spring strolls in on the heels of the equinox; bumblebee, ladybird, and dragonfly children parade under globo rainbows through the streets. The Virgin’s tears water the sprouting seeds, and books pop up like freshly hatched chicks. Even the pessimists admit a shade of rose in their view.

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The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge

After seven years of researching and writing, I finally printed out a draft of my nonfiction novel The Convict Lover. The stack of pages was higher than a child’s booster seat. Even in my innocence, I knew prospective publishers were unlikely to read a 750-page prison tome, so I hauled out my scissors and glue pot—this was 1994, the digital dark ages—and attacked my hard-won words. Six months later, the manuscript was lean and muscular, reduced to a mere 88,000 words from its original 200,000. My heart, along with countless, priceless scenes, lay in shards on the floor.

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Under the Influence

Under the Influence

When Helen Keller was eleven, she wrote a story called “The Frost King.” The Perkins School for the Blind published it in their alumni magazine. Almost immediately, Helen was accused of stealing the idea from Birdie and his Fairy Friends, a book she’d never heard of. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, discovered that someone had, in fact, read the book to Helen when she was eight, finger-spelling the words for the blind, deaf child. Helen had no memory of this. For hours, the girl was grilled by a jury of teachers. She was absolved, narrowly, but the ordeal triggered a nervous breakdown. She never wrote fiction again.

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Where do Books Come From?

Where do Books Come From?

In one creation tale, from Tumblr’s
zwischendenstuehlen, books are hatched as tiny tomes — blind and naked creatures. Diligently, the writer makes little jackets to keep them warm during the first dark season of their lives. Those that make it through their various trials grow up to be big and strong and wise, taking their place on the shelf beside their older sisters and brothers.

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The Unexpected Nature of Collaboration

The Unexpected Nature of Collaboration

In an exhibition featuring Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts a few years ago, I found a small framed drawing in a far corner. The image was bizarre: a round-breasted woman holding a fig leaf on strings over prominent male genitalia. The title of the piece was Exquisite Corpse, the name the Surrealists gave to an old parlour game known as Consequences.

Exquisite Corpse is a kind of blind collaboration. The game begins when one person draws a head at the top of the page, then folds over the paper to conceal the image from the next person, who then draws the chest, handing the paper back and forth (or around the parlour) until the entire character is drawn and the image — often funny, always strange, and definitely accidental — is revealed.

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The Best Little Bookshops

The Best Little Bookshops

In the Café Gluck on the outskirts of Vienna, in the fading years of the Empire, Jakob Mendel sits surrounded by heaps of catalogues and books. An itinerant bibliophile denied a license for permanent trade, he sets up at a table when the café opens and stays until closing, his portable bookshop a secret except to the initiated. Even so, his book table is a mecca for booklovers and collectors, for Mendel is blessed with the magic of perfect memory and knows the contents of every book he sells — a mind stuffed fuller more than any expert, any librarian, any corporate whiz.

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Books of the Dead

Books of the Dead

“The Weighing of the Heart,” one of 192 spells, incantations, and rituals that make up The Book of the Dead, describes how the heart of a deceased will be set into a tray on one side of a large scale. In the other tray, a feather from Ma’at, goddess of truth. If the heart balances the feather of truth, the dead may continue their journey into the afterlife. If the heart outweighs the feather, Ammat the devourer—a crocodile-headed creature with a cat’s body and hippopotamus hindquarters—will snatch the human heart from the scale and gobble it down.
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Why a blog?

Because sometimes the world moves too fast for books.

Because it feels good to be part of the conversation.

As I wrote Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, I thought a lot about books, what they are, what they mean, why I love them, how they are changing and how they are becoming what they started out to be. The brain doesn’t turn off when an editor says “Stop!” so in Books UnPacked, these thoughts spool on, exploring the past and future of books, and the actual books I’m unwrapping to read.

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