Shelf Defense: A Short History of Myth, The New York Trilogy

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

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KAREN ARMSTRONG, A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH (2005)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I like myths, histories, and short books.

THOUGHTS: Glossy and completely entry level, but I drew a picture to keep things straight anyway. Armstrong does a fine job showing not the common sources for different myths, but the common inspirations. If mythology isn’t calming and practical, it fails. It’s supposed to soothe us. It has to be relevant. And it’s reactionary, of course; people who’ve never seen a river don’t sit around inventing river gods. Plus I saw her theory reinforced within five pages of starting my next book, Ben Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, when a man’s grief is compounded by the fact that there are no fables to help explain his particular kind of tragedy. In fact, Armstrong’s conclusion is kind of brilliant: in our age of reason, novels may be the only remaining myths (ie. an ongoing, ritualized buying into stories we know aren’t ‘real’) we have left. Though I’d also nominate pop songs.

So it’s useful to hold onto—at least until I finally invest in some Joseph Campbell.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep (for now).

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PAUL AUSTER, THE NEW YORK TRILOGY (1987)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: I don’t. A friend in Vancouver gave me one of her copies a few years ago—I can’t remember if she wants it back or not.

THOUGHTS: This one I approached on tip-toe, because, as a fan of postmodern fiction, Auster has become the world’s most cautionary tale. A (different) friend of mine went to grad school to study Auster, then dropped out when he realized the material just wasn’t strong enough. Horror stories about his later works abound. And while a big part of me wanted to declare myself above The New York Trilogy, too, I just couldn’t. It’s too good. The seductiveness of the general atmosphere, with its icy cool and hifalutin literary references (so much Melville!), is hard to deny, and the first two sections, “City of Glass” and “Ghosts,” each have their moments. But it’s the last entry, “The Locked Room,” that I think is both a masterpiece of thread-pulling postmodernism as well as a feat of storytelling at its highest of octanes. It floored me about six different ways. I’m still scared to take any of Auster’s other books for a spin—then again, Leviathan does have the right kind of title…

KEEP OR SELL: Keep (or else give back to my friend the next time I see her).

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With that, we come to the end of the first section of Shelf Defense. One letter down, 25 to go… or are there? Check back next time for a review of a last-minute entry to the As on my shelf—a book bought specifically to cap off this part of the project. What better way to get acquainted with Ms. Jane Austen?

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