David Bradley: Shelf Lives

Sunday, November 6, 2011

David Bradley lost his two-thousand-book library when his home in San Diego flooded. What wasn’t destroyed by water was infested with mold, so everything—including his collection of books from the nineteenth century—was ruined.

Bradley is the acclaimed author of the PEN/Faulkner award winner The Chaneysville Incident. He’s also published numerous essays and reviews and is a recognized authority on the use of the n-word, even appearing on 60 Minutes in June 2011 to weigh in on the censored version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Bradley sat down with me in his office at the University of Oregon to talk about what he lost, what’s left on his shelves, and the difference between reading a book by candlelight and reading on an iPad.

TriQuarterly Online: Tell me about the flood.

David Bradley: A toilet leaked when I wasn’t there, and by the time I got back, there was all this water, mold, and I had to throw out, oh, two thousand books.

TQO: You had two thousand books? Wow. How were they stored?

DB: They were all on shelves. They were in the bedroom, they were in the bonus room, in the study, the downstairs bathroom, the upstairs powder room, the living room—yeah, I mean there was pretty much wall-to-wall books.

TQO: What did you lose that you were upset about?

DB: I lost The Nigger Bible. It was written by a guy named Robert H. deCoy, which sounds like a pseudonym and probably was. It uses biblical language, it was written at the beginning of hip-hop, and basically it talks about attitudes toward race and black behavior that accepts as nonpejorative the word nigger. That is, basically being a nigger and proud of it. And I read that in 1968, ’69, ’70, somewhere in there, and thought “Oh, yeah, how about that?” Instead of running around with your head between your shoulders, you know, “Oh my god, I hope no one says that word”—it’s like fuck. So it was an important book. A friend of mine found a copy.

TQO: So it was replaced.

DB: It got replaced. As you can imagine, it was published by some fly-by-night publisher in Los Angeles in 1968.

TQO: You’re not just getting it on Amazon.

DB: You ain’t getting it on Amazon. [laughs] First they put in blanks so you’d never find it. It’s kind of hard to google a book when they replace the title with blanks. [laughs]

TQO: What else did you lose?

DB: I used to live in New York, down the street from a whole lot of used bookstores. And when I was doing research for Chaneysville, I discovered the value of old books—I mean old books—because you can find out what people were thinking at the time, and in the next edition they sort of politically correct it. So I had a lot of books, early editions of textbooks. . . . You know, for two bucks you could find all sorts of things like 1898 books on constitutional law. That’s one I wish I had back. [laughs] I had a copy of a book called The Negro and How He Fits into Society, which is now available online . . . it was written in 1837 and republished after the Civil War.

TQO: You had really old books.

DB: Yeah, I had really old books . . . And you know, when I was writing about 1840, 1850, I was looking at books that were [first printings], sometimes they were, like, third editions; they weren’t expensive books, but that’s when these books were written. Some of them were really weird. But if you want to know where the shit comes from, you got to read old books.

TQO: Do you have old books here?

DB: Well, I mean, I’m old, so some of the books . . . [laughs]

Bradley examines his office bookshelves and hands me a copy of Sculpture of a City: Philadelphia’s Treasures.

DB: It would’ve killed me to lose this.

TQO: Why would it have killed you to lose this?

DB: It’s a limited edition, there was only one printing, it’s old enough that there’s not going to be another one, and it basically tells you where all the sculpture was, the public sculpture, in the city of Philadelphia at the time.

TQO: 1974.

DB: Yes, 1974. Well, that’s the year of South Street [Bradley’s first novel]. So that’s where I got all the sculptures, landmarks, for that book. It would be hard to find that elsewhere; maybe you can find it on Google, or some online page if you know where to look, but probably you wouldn’t.

Bradley shows me a book with Dewey Decimal markings and, on the inside cover, a stamp of his father’s.

TQO: It was your father’s.

DB: Yeah, it was my father’s. This was written by John O. Franklin in 1947. When my father was studying history and writing his books, this is what he knew . . . It’s called From Slavery to Freedom.

You know, I don’t even know what I lost. Sometimes I’ll look for something and it’s not there anymore, and sometimes I’ll come up here and here it is.

Here’s one! You try finding this one. [laughs]

Bradley hands me a book titled The Clansman, the cover prominently featuring a hooded Klan member with a flaming torch raised victoriously.

DB: This book is the basis of Birth of a Nation. A big best seller. But look at the date when it was published.

TQO: It doesn’t have a date.

DB: The production values and the color and everything tells you it’s fairly recent . . . This is a reprint of a book from 1910. Look at what they’ve printed on the back.

TQO: “. . . until at last there sprang into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South.”

DB: Look who said it.

TQO: Woodrow Wilson.

DB: So you pick up all sorts of things from books that you’re not getting online.

TQO: But you do read online now. You do a lot on the iPad, don’t you? What do you think about the transition?

DB: Well, it’s not a full transition yet. The trouble with the iPad is that it’s not quite possible to search yet. And a lot of what I do requires me to find things . . . And because I was raised by books, I’ve got this “where in the book” sense—say, halfway through, right side of the page at the bottom.

TQO: Do you have a favorite physical book?

DB: A favorite physical book has a lot to do with picking it up, how the book feels—it doesn’t have to do with what’s inside. I love leather. I have a leather-bound King James Version of the Bible, which is great. I can’t read that and think God isn’t speaking to me, though I may not like what he says . . . [laughs] The truth of the matter is that when I want to look something up, I do it online because [the web is] searchable. But I like holding that book. I like holding big books.

TQO: I haven’t made the leap to Kindle or iPad. I don’t want to. As a writer I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer; I’m doing so much in front of a machine that when I read a book it feels like getting back to something more concrete that’s not part of the world we live in.

DB: Well, it’s a revolutionary act.

TQO: What is—reading a book?

DB: Yeah. They can’t turn the power off. The Internet connection can’t go down.

TQO: You just need a candle.

DB: As a matter of fact, we had a power outage at the end of the summer . . . and I’m listening to my iPod and reading by the light of a candle. And I had written a phrase once—I remember why I wrote it, it was a similar situation, but I’d forgotten it. It was “Things look different by lamplight.” And by god, they did.

TQO: What were you reading?

DB: I was rereading Sherlock Holmes.

TQO: That seems appropriate. One should read Sherlock Holmes by candlelight.

DB: Then you realize how those scenes work. Because they have people coming into a room lit by a candle or lantern, and it’s possible for somebody to be standing right there and not see them. And you as the reader are assuming a brightly lit room. It was interesting; I enjoyed it. Sherlock Holmes was different by candlelight. But I was glad when the power came back on. The ice was starting to melt; the water heater was cold.

TQO: You have a new story coming out in January. I heard you’ve been working on it for a long time.

DB: Oh, about eight years. I finished it this summer.

TQO: What’s it called?

DB: “You Remember the Pin Mill.” It’s going to be online. It’s going to be great, because people can read it free in Narrative.

TQO: Eight years is a long time to be working on a short story.

DB: Well, I don’t write stories.

TQO: Even as a beginning writer you were writing novels?

DB: No, as a beginning writer I was trying to write short stories. [laughs] I figured out that I couldn’t write short stories for a very simple reason: I wanted to write about black people. And when you write about black people in this country you have a lot of ’splainin’ to do. Unless you’re willing to go with what most white people already think about most black people, you have to spend a lot of time unlearning them. You know, just to write about a black person who’s a Methodist, which is what I would do if I were writing about say, my father or anyone in my family, or a black person who’s a Republican, you’d have to work like hell, and next thing you know, you’re writing a novel. So I wrote novels. Then I forgot about it and started writing nonfiction. And then somebody offered me a lot of money to write a short story . . . and it suddenly occurred to me, “Why are you writing about black people? Write about white people, it’s so much easier.” And that’s what I did. Then I started getting interested in writing about my hometown, which is mostly white. So I’m working on a collection of stories and “Pin Mill” is the first one . . . It’s in second person, but past tense. It uses poetic structure to cover time. It’s about a battered wife and her relationships with her father and her husband and her son, told from the son’s point of view.

TQO: The stories are going to be about white people?

DB: The stories are going to be about white people. There’s a black guy in it.

TQO: That’s a major departure for you.

DB: Sort of. Not entirely. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction that’s about white people. These are regional white people, so there’s something to them. It’s not easy to write about white people in the sense of finding something for them to do that doesn’t come freighted with all sorts of excuse of privilege. For example, it’s hard to stir up a lot of sympathy for a white guy who’s poor, drunk, but hasn’t had a hard life, because people say, “What the fuck’s with you?” His wife, though, has some instant sympathy. You know, it’s tough being a white guy in America. About the only thing you can do is run for president. [laughs]