I was a young man, starving and drinking and trying to be a writer. I did most of my reading at the downtown L.A. Public Library, and nothing that I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me. It seemed as if everybody was playing word-tricks, that those who said almost nothing at all were considered excellent writers. Their writing was an admixture of subtlety, craft and form, and it was read and it was taught and it was ingested and it was passed on. It was comfortable contrivance, a very slick and careful Word-Culture. One had to go back to the pre-Revolution writers of Russia to find any gamble, any passion. There were exceptions but those exceptions were so few that reading them was quickly done, and you were left staring at rows and rows of exceedingly dull books. With centuries to look back on, with all their advantages, the moderns just weren’t very good.
I pulled book after book from the shelves. Why didn’t anybody say something? Why didn’t anybody scream out?
I tried other rooms in the library. The section on Religion was just a vast bog – to me. I got into Philosophy. I found a couple of bitter Germans who cheered me for a while, then that was over. I tried Mathematics but upper Math was just like Religion: it ran right off me. What I needed seemed to be absent everywhere.
I tried Geology and found it curious but, finally, non-sustaining.
I found some books on Surgery and I liked the books on Surgery: the words were new and the illustrations were wonderful. I particularly liked and memorized the operation of the mesocolon.
Then I dropped out of Surgery and I was back in the big room with the novelists and short story writers. (When I had enough cheap wine to drink I never went to the library. A library was a good place to be when you had nothing to drink or to eat, and the landlady was looking for you and for the back rent money. In the library at least you had the use of the toilet facilities.) I saw quite a number of other bums in there, most of them asleep on top of their books.
I kept on walking around the big room, pulling the books off the shelves, reading a few lines, a few pages, then putting them back.
Then one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was. I stood for a moment, reading. Then like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table. The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion. The humor and the pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity. The beginning of that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me.