People often ask us, “Why and How do you choose the books for the Library?”
To the casual observer, the selection may come across as random and scattershot. But a closer look reveals a method to the curatorial madness.
Imagine Henry, or more figuratively, Henry’s persona as the hub of the wheel.* The spokes radiating outwards are different genres that have a conceptual connection to Henry.
Most obviously is our table dedicated to Miller books. That’s a no-brainer.**
Then there are the Beats. As our pal James Decker notes in “Henry Miller and the Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity,” “Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others, admired Miller greatly, no doubt recognizing in spiral form’s figure-like flights like jazzy improvisation that marked their own compositions.”
Kerouac was a huge fan. Henry, meanwhile, wrote the preface to the 1958 novella Subterraneans, praising Kerouac’s voice as being representative of a movement against self-destructive nature of the Atomic Age: “Let the poets speak. They may be ‘beat,’ but they’re not riding the atom-powered Juggernaut. Believe me, there’s nothing clean, nothing healthy, nothing promising about this age of wonders—except the telling. And the Kerouacs will probably have the last word.”***
And in a piece of Big Sur hagiography, Kerouac purportedly stood up Miller at Nepenthe. (In 1961, Kerouac wrote of plans to return to the coast and “See Henry Miller this time” but, as far as anyone knows, a meeting between the two writers never happened.)
Big Sur-related books, as one would suspect, comprise a large percentage of our collection. Henry famously called Big Sur “the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”
Censorship is another big topic. In 1964, the US Supreme Court declared “Tropic of Cancer” a work of literature, an event that opened the floodgates for a more liberated form of artistic expression. Not all of this expression is inherently good, but that’s the point, isn’t it? The Library believes that, to paraphrase Nadine Strossen, the best way to combat unsavory expression is not censorship, but rather, vigorous “counterspeech” and activism.
Next up, Travel. Miller was a ramblin’ man. Years before Kerouac went on the road, Miller penned “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” chronicling his cross-country sojourn with painter Abe Rattner. “Colossus of Maroussi,” described by Pico Iyer as Miller’s “ecstatic ramble” through pre-WWII Greece, is considered one of the greatest travel books ever written.
And even when Miller seems to be somewhat stationary (Paris, New York, Big Sur), there’s a sense of constant movement, energy, and reinvention. This may be why Miller once said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
East meets West—that is, books on eastern mysticism and philosophy—is another big genre at the Library. This is due, in part, to the following anecdote. “Siddhartha” is a short novel by Hermann Hesse about the life and spiritual journey of one man in ancient India. Miller, upon reading it in German, said, “Siddhartha is for me a more effective medicine than the New Testament.”
He convinced his publisher, James Laughlin, who ran New Directions, to publish the book in English. He did, and it went on to become one of their biggest sellers.**** For a closer look at Miller’s affinity for Buddhism, click here.
Last but not least, Good Fiction. There’s a Twilight Zone episode called “Time Enough at Last” in which a bookworm bank teller can’t find the time to read all the books on his “to-read” list. We can relate—every day we add new books to our list for inclusion at the Library, thanks to outlets like the New York Times Review of Books, Amazon’s savvy algorithm, and our guests. Many of the good are recommendations from visitors. So, if you have any suggestions, email us!
* Or perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be a “nexus.” Get it?
** The human brain, in fact, with its associated synapses and neurons, could also function as a serviceable analogy for our purposes.
*** A prescient take, at least from a commercial perspective. “On the Road” has sold over 3 million copies, and continues to sell over 60,000 copies a year.
**** Laughlin said: “Henry wrote “about every three months saying I had to publish that book. Finally, to oblige Henry, I did.”