The Secret Lives of Books

Author: James Silas Rogers

1 Final Illustration by Oivind Hovland

Books are inanimate objects. But sometimes it feels like they’re not.

A few stories. My father worked in public relations for First National Bank, the oldest and largest bank in St. Paul, Minnesota. The bank was always doing civic-minded things. For example, in the 1950s, Dad helped to write a children’s book, Jeff and Janet Visit St. Paul, given out free to the city’s school libraries. Sixty years later, my son, a great enthusiast for the history of his hometown, bought a copy at a garage sale, unaware his grandfather was the unnamed author.

Just a story to tell, a coincidence.

Another story involving my father’s work: In the early 1960s, the bank underwrote a film titled St. Paul: Fur Trade to Space Age. The filmmaker hired for the project was a man named Martin Bovey. He and my father worked together for a long time and became good friends.

Quite separate from this, but around the same time, my grandmother mentioned that in the postwar years, the South St. Paul library had added a book to their collections in memory of each of the town’s fallen servicemen, following the families’ suggestions about what sort of book would have interested them. The next time I went to the library, I asked whether these memorial books were listed anywhere, and to my surprise — and the librarian’s — the information was right at hand.

It turned out that the volume purchased in honor of my Uncle Preston, who died on his way home from the Philippines, was a 1947 book about duck hunting titled Whistling Wings by the same Martin Bovey. Dad wrote to his friend to tell him; Bovey presented my father with his own inscribed copy.

It might not be all that unlikely that two creative men from Minnesota, both ardent outdoorsmen, would find some small area of overlap. Yet books occasionally drop into our lives in a manner that makes you wonder if the books themselves have will and agency — times when the books seem to find us.

I don’t know anyone as frightened of snakes as myself. When I first encountered Dennis Covington’s 1995 memoir, Salvation on Sand Mountain, the story of his involvement with Appalachian snake-handling sects, at a secondhand store on University Avenue, I felt drawn to pick it up and knew instantly I needed to buy it, though I knew nothing about the book or the topic. The next day, I devoured Covington’s account in two sittings.

I assuredly didn’t “discover” Covington. His memoir was a National Book Award finalist and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. But I did in time write a graduate seminar paper about it, went on to teach it a half-dozen times and delivered a paper about it at a conference on religion and literature, with Covington himself in the audience. It would not be a total stretch to say that, in some inexplicable way, his book discovered me.

I’ve come to think an essential trait of spiritual autobiography is precisely the author’s sense that he or she isn’t the only one writing the story. This is unmistakable in Covington’s account. Over and over, he nods to the possibility that coincidence can open a window on providence.

Covington entered the world of the snake handlers almost capriciously, when, as a stringer for The New York Times, he spotted a short news item about one of their preachers being charged with attempted murder and was drawn to investigate further. In time, he discovered that, less than a century before, relatives in his grandparents’ generation had been snake handlers.

What surprised me most in his story was not Covington’s discovery of a disowned past but how much sense his reflections on coincidence carried. Late in the book, he has a seemingly chance encounter with one of the snake handlers that leads to a transforming moment. He muses that if “you accept the idea of a universe set into motion by an intelligent hand, then it seems to me you need to consider the possibility that the hand may still be at work in its movement”:

Things happen. But chance and coincidence don’t mean much to me anymore. I believe there was a reason I ran into him that day. It’s an idea I never would have entertained a year ago. But among the handlers, I’ve learned not to dismiss anything as meaningless. Mystery, I’d read some  where, is not the absence of meaning but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.

Coincidence is the cheapest plot device in a novel and the easiest to discredit, but it writes itself into the texture of our days — and when it does, we need to decide whether it means anything. Unless we want to be as robotic as, say, the character Data on Star Trek, we almost have to listen to coincidence. If there is a latent meaning behind the incidents of our lives, it may indeed be greater than we can comprehend.

There’s also the possibility these things signify nothing. But coincidence invites us to make meaning, and that’s a defining human impulse.

Most of us end up loving, even marrying, people we met by sheer coincidence. In the same way, certain books, freighted with connections, wait for us.

Another story. In 1971, William Maxwell, the legendary New Yorker fiction editor, wrote a book about his forebears in Central Illinois titled Ancestors: A Family History. The ancestors he discusses were all active members of the Disciples of Christ, a denomination prominent in the upper South, but quite alien to my experience — or so I thought, until I discovered that my grandmother had been baptized in the Disciples.

Some years ago, Maxwell’s book came to my attention three times in the space of a day. I saw it mentioned somewhere and, because I take an interest in genealogical memoir, thought, “Oh, I’ll have to look for that.” A few hours later, I saw it on the shelves in my university’s library. I didn’t check it out but took note of the coincidence. That evening, I stopped at Half-Price Books — and found a copy of Ancestors on the “just-arrived” cart.

I bought it of course, went home and sat down to read. About 60 pages in, Maxwell quotes an entry from the journal of his ancestor Barton Stone, in which, on the day after an 1801 revival meeting at the Cane Ridge meeting house in Kentucky, Stone encounters his friend Nathaniel Rogers, “a man of first respectability and influence in the neighborhood.” Nathaniel Rogers was my great-great-grandfather.

If this were followed by a Part B, a transformative moment that flowed from my reading, it would be easier to impute some sort of book-magic to the coincidence. Nothing in that vein occurred, beyond having a good story whenever Maxwell’s name comes up. Yet it is hard not to think some sort of preexisting connection was at work, that in a mysterious way his book and I homed in on the same frequency.

Still another story, again from graduate school. One of the outstanding scholars at my university taught a course on literary journalism. On the first day of class, each student was assigned to give a presentation on a particular author, chosen at random. My author was the old New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, whom I had never heard of, let alone read. From the minute I encountered Mitchell’s prose — it was his 1940 profile of Maisie, the proprietor of a cheap movie theater on the Bowery — I knew I would write my thesis on his work.

That week, I bought his 1992 omnibus collection Up in the Old Hotel, 716 pages in which there is not a single labored sentence. I went through that book obsessively, going through it, as my father used to say, “like rhubarb through the hired girl” — an expression Dad picked up in Kentucky, and which the North Carolina-born Mitchell would have loved. Indeed, it was that sort of quirkiness in language and choice of subject that in large part drew me to him. His love of the run-down is clear in his 1939 story “Obituary of a Gin Mill,” in which he laments the remodeling of Dick’s, a once proudly tatty saloon in Greenwich Village: “Dick’s old place was dirty and it smelled like the zoo, but it was genuine; his new place is as shiny and undistinguished as a two-dollar alarm clock.” Exactly.

I went on not only to write my capstone essay on Mitchell but also to publish two academic articles on his work and co-author his entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Would I have been so deeply drawn into his writing if it had not, in a sense, found me in that arbitrary class assignment? I wonder.

I don’t doubt, though, that there was something magical at work in an incident that involves the title story of his anthology, “Up in the Old Hotel.”

The story first appeared in The New Yorker in 1952, just as Mitchell’s publication record began to turn glacially slow: During his last 32 years on the magazine’s staff, he didn’t file a single word for publication. “Up in the Old Hotel” concerns Sloppy Louie’s, an unpretentious seafood restaurant next door to the Fulton Fish Market, located on the first floor of an otherwise abandoned hotel in the Schermerhorn Row Block. The only access to the upper floors was by means of an ancient elevator that required passengers to pull a rope to get to the upper floors. No one had been upstairs for decades until Mitchell and the immigrant restaurateur Louie Morino impulsively decided to explore the rooms above them.

In Mitchell’s account, Louie holds romantic ideas that the abandoned rooms might hold clues to the lost history of the building. In reality, they find nothing but dust and furniture — a sight that deeply disturbs Louie, who cuts the tour short. The story closes with Louie blurting, “dust, old empty rooms, old empty whiskey bottles, old empty bureau drawers. Come on, pull the rope faster! Pull it faster! Let’s get out of this.”

It is a masterful story, completely susceptible to a Freudian or archetypal reading, but my interest here is in a personal — and I think coincidental — footnote to Mitchell’s jewel involving an architectural historian, Brian McMahon ’68, who lived in St. Paul but grew up in New York. I made his acquaintance in 1998. We had overlapping interests and agreed to have lunch one day, when he asked what I liked to read. I told him I was very interested in the late Joseph Mitchell.

“Oh, I knew Joe,” he said.

I was stunned. I had never met anyone who’d known my literary hero. “How did you know him?”

“I was a preservation officer for the South Street Seaport Museum,” he explained. “Joe was on the board of advisers.”

“So you’ve eaten at Sloppy Louie’s?”

“Oh, sure. Lots of times. And I went through every room upstairs, doing the historical inventory.”

I was at that point one of the few published Mitchell scholars anywhere, and here I was sitting at a table in Minnesota with the man who had answered the question of what was “up” — upstairs — in the old hotel.

There are books that can change lives. None of the titles I’ve mentioned fall into that category for me. But they have without question entered my life, entered my story. It’s not that big a leap of imagination: Most of us end up loving, even marrying, people we met by sheer coincidence. In the same way, certain books, freighted with connections of which we were wholly unaware, wait for us — filled with possibilities to unfold, possibilities triggered when we find them, or they find us, at the right time.

James Silas Rogers formerly edited New Hibernia Review. He is the author of an
essay collection on cemeteries and sacred space, 
Northern Orchards; Places Near the Dead (North Star Press of St Cloud, 2014), and two books of poetry. He has also published widely on Irish American literature.