Hanging onto knowledge
Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Turns out, civilisation—such as it is—would survive without me.  The books and music I’ve been collecting all my life will not be needed as a cornerstone for rebuilding culture, should we suffer some kind of planet-wide catastrophe.

This dawned on me the other day, when I realised I hadn’t touched anything on my wall of CDs in years. Same for the shelves of vinyl I’ve been lugging around since college. At least my books—and I’ve got walls and walls of them, too—I do touch periodically. I make myself do so when I’m home writing, rather than dive into google, in any instance when I think a particular volume of mine might have an answer I’m looking for—or better, a surprise.

Consulting books this way, once a mundane practice I had been taught as a child, has become a ritual, really, commemorating the manner in which thoughtful people were supposed to deal with knowledge and truth—a manner long classic among the so-called cultivated classes, that once seemed as though it would last forever, but now seems obsolete.

What were some of the premises behind this manner? That people of ‘taste’ and ‘intellect’ amassed collections for their own continuing cultivation? That they amassed collections for the display and dissemination of these noble qualities to others?  Both premises reflect a sort of princely, even elitist, tradition, eons old, that is far from evil, but just not necessary in a more democratic era when self-cultivation is always a click away, as is the display of one’s taste, intellect, favorite music, preferred clothing brands, and most recently consumed plate of artisanal pickled legumes. And for kids who grew up under the spectre of nuclear war, as I did, there was also always the possibility that after all the world’s resources had been wiped out, one might possess the largest remaining supply of copper (that jar of pennies!) or the last remaining copy of The Sound and the Fury. This was duty, this was destiny!

But possession has been de-privileged in the decades since I purchased Introducing… The Beatles, an album that sits on a shelf in the next room as I write these lines.  And to tell the truth, I’m relieved that I am no longer as responsible for the survival of the Beatles’ legacy, or William Faulkner’s, or Franz Kline’s, or Stephen Sondheim’s—all of which represented exciting discoveries I wanted to… hang on to. Today if I catch a bit of George Harrison’s ‘Do You Wanna Know a Secret?’ in an elevator and want to hear the whole song, I’m happy to go on YouTube or Pandora or iTunes, rather than crank up the massively expensive, 30-year-old ‘audiophile’ rig that also sits in the next room, that I also haven’t touched in years.

I keep talking about moving upstate, and when I do move I suppose I’ll keep the books, though I dread the thought of packing and shipping them. And the vinyl–well, I’ll have to keep that too, for sentimental reasons. But those hundreds of cold, dusty CDs, many with cracked and broken “jewel” cases–could I hang onto them? Mmm, yes. But will I hang onto them? Guess.

The Beatles:  ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret?’ (from Introducing… The Beatles, 1964)

Stephen Greco’s newest novel Now and Yesterday, ‘a romance of New York’s creative class,’ was included on the “Hot Type” page of June’s Vanity Fair and was praised by Kirkus as ‘a life-affirming yet melancholy, John O’Hara–like analysis of post-baby-boom-meets-millennial-queer Big Apple society.’


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