Poets & Writers

My Life in Books

JAMES P. BLAYLOCK, one of the pioneers of the steampunk genre, is the author of more than twenty-five books, most recently the novel River’s Edge and the novella collection The Further Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, both published by Subterranean Press. Blaylock has taught literature and writing since 1976 and was a recent winner of the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program Teacher Recognition Award. He teaches writing at Chapman University in Orange, California.

A WRITER’S library is more than just a collection of books. It is also a piecemeal biography of that writer’s life, and measurably so, as most writers have spent countless hours reading the books that they own or have borrowed, hours that add up to years, perhaps decades, given a long-enough life. My library, accumulated over the past sixty years, makes perfect sense to me: It is a living illustration of my life, which may or may not have to do with killing time, literary value, collectability, books as attractive objects, information, and nostalgia. It has served as a barrier against the howling chaos that complicates the world. It has no apparent rhyme or reason: a labyrinth of eccentricities. Its monetary value is literally incalculable, since it’s essentially a storehouse of memories that are worth a fortune to me, and yet it’s true that the vast majority of the books in my collection were bought cheap from used bookstores. No two writers’ libraries are alike, and it’s interesting what you can discover about a writer’s life simply by looking at the books the writer has elected to keep on hand.

Not long ago I was reading a collection of essays by Hilaire Belloc titled , and, as is sometimes the case when I read other people’s essays, I got the idea of writing this one. The “idea,” such as it was, had nothing to do with the subject matter of any of the forty essays contained in Belloc’s book; what struck me was that the pages smelled as if they had been soaked in gasoline. I remembered abruptly that it had smelled that way when I’d bought it, and although it has sat on the shelf in my study for twenty years, waiting to

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