Don DeLillo on the Life of a Book
From His Speech at the 2015 National Book Awards
This is why we’re here this evening.
Lately I’ve been looking at books that stand on two long shelves in a room just down the hall from the room where I work.
Early books, paperbacks every one, the first books I ever owned, and they resemble some kind of medieval plunder.
Old and scarred, with weathered covers and sepia pages that might crumble at the touch of a human finger. I’m the human in the story, and when I lift a book from the shelf, gently, I understand again the power of memory that a book carries with it.
What is there to remember? Who I was, where I was, what these books meant to me when I read them for the first time.
The House of the Dead. Dostoyevsky. First Dell printing, June 1959. Fifty cents.
Adventures in the Skin Trade. Dylan Thomas. Badly bruised copy. First printing, May 1956.
Cover illustration includes a woman wearing black stockings and nothing else. There are numbers scrawled on the inside of the front cover. Did I writes these numbers? Do I remember the naked woman more clearly than I recall the stories in the book? A Signet book. Thirty-five cents.
Words on paper, books as objects, hand-held, each wrinkled spine bearing a title. The lives inside, authors and characters. The lives of the books themselves. Books in rooms. The one-room apartment where I used to live and where I read the books that stand on the shelves all thee years later, and where I became a writer myself.
Many of these books were packed in boxes, hidden for years. Maybe this is why I find myself gazing like a museum goer at the two long rows in the room down the hall.
Reflections in a Golden Eye. Carson McCullers.
The margins of each page resembling the nicotine stains on a smoker’s hand back in the time when the book was written. Bantam Books, fourth printing, 1953. Twenty-five cents.
Are any of the writers of these old frail volumes still alive? I don’t have to study the authors’ names to think of recent departures. Friends: Gil Sorrentino and Peter Matthiessen and Edgar Doctorow. Others I did not get to know nearly as well. Bob Stone and Jim Salter.
Book. The word. A set of written, printed or blank pages fastened along one side and encased between protective covers. An old definition, needing to be expanded now in the vaporous play of electronic devices.
But here are the shelves with the old paperbacks, books still in their native skin, and when I visit the room I’m not the writer who has just been snaking his way through some sentences on a sheet of paper curled into an old typewriter.
That’s the guy who lives down the hall.
Here, I’m not the writer at all. I’m the grateful reader.
Thank you for this honor.