I have been remodeling my basement since sometime last year—October of thereabouts.
The basement had been a kind of dungeon since we’d first moved here. Dark, musty, with deep red carpet. Dim lighting. Yellow walls. Low ceilings. Too much ancient, degraded furniture. Asbestos in the ceiling that was often falling onto the floor. The sort of place, in other words, that a sane, middle class (even lower-middle-class) person didn’t want to go.
It was mainly used by Shandy, our aging pit bull, who was on his last legs then.
At some point in late October or thereabouts, I’d finally had enough, at least in part, and one night in a fit of pique I descended into the basement and started putting things into large contractor trash bags, then moving all of that old furniture out of the main room, into the adjoining bedrooms that have long been left idle and are generally not nicely habitable.
The room got emptied out.
Then, in February, once Shandy died, I decided to turn the largest room in the basement into a gym of sorts. I bought a room’s worth of padded flooring, intending to lay it down over the ancient carpet and just use the room for exercise and for punching things.
But of course if heavy breathing were to be involved, the rotting asbestos ceiling would have to come down first. Well, despite equipment, that didn’t go as smoothly as planned out the gate much equipment was purchased and much intensive work was done. And then, having done all of that over many weeks, I looked down and decided that the carpet was likely contaminated enough as a result that with ceiling now clean, the carpet would have to go, too. So, the carpet came out.
Then, with floor and ceiling out and concrete underfloor sealed off and secured, it seemed ridiculous not to paint the walls.
And so on.
A small project to move some clutter became a larger project to make a mini-gym became a full-on asbestos remediation project with HEPA equipment and head-to-toe Tyvek bunny suits and P100 full-face respiratiors and negative pressure and airlocks and on and on and on.
— § —
Until this weekend, the project had been stalled for several months.
Stalled because it was in a “clean” state. Old, formerly asbestos containing surfaces fully remediated. Airlocks and gear mostly down and stored. No chemical smells, not too much junk laying around. Air quality sensors showing everything clean, and large HEPA filtration system keeping it smelling nice. It was such a relief to have it in that state, and it’s felt so generally cheery that I’ve felt a kind of resistance to plunging the space back into a DIY nightmare.
In particular, I didn’t want to tackle the next step—the books. Yes, the walls were lined with yards and yards of books, floor to ceiling, of every possible vintage a kind, from Plato to Petrarch to Chinese dictionaries to forensics 101 to the little stack books that I wrote myself to full sets of National Geographic stretching back a decade before I was born.
All taped off behind plastic through all of that remediation work, yes.
But before then all of those hundreds (thousands?) of books had been sitting there in the room for years as the dust gathered and the asbestos ceiling fell down, piece by piece over time, and rested in bits on top of the books.
There was no chance I’d throw them out. Zero chance.
Which meant that the plastic sealing the shelving and books off from the rest of the room would have to be removed and the books themselves remediated.
All of them. One by one.
— § —
Funny thing about books, something that I learned on my vast trek through the asbestos jungle.
Books are amongst the most dangerous substances on earth.
Many of them actually contain asbestos, since it was a popular material both for enhancing structural integrity in flexible materials and for imparting fire resistance, both of these being very useful characteristics to have in places containing tons and tons of highly flammable paper in controlled semi-arid conditions, all just sitting around waiting to burn.
And it’s not just asbestos that often comes up in clouds when old books are opened—it’s silica, dust, and other forms of particulate matter that also tend to cause life-ending lung disease.
Librarians—librarians—are working in one of the most hazardous white collar fields in existence. They have death rates from COPD, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other forms of lung dysfunction that are many times higher than the general population.
To work in and around books is a heroic act; they literally put their lives at risk in order to preserve knowledge and make it available to everyone else.
I’d spent many years in and around and in love with books before learning this. And learning it has changed my relationship with them in some deep, unspecifiable way.
For those of us that read books, we also take our lives into our hands every time we crack one. There is actually real and present danger in the knowledge that we consume. It is metaphor come to life.
Or, at least, it once was—before the era of e-books and Audible took hold with sincerity.
— § —
And so it was that early today I headed back out to the home improvement store to get more Tyvek and more P100 cartridges for my respirator system, both to go along with nitrile gloves and yards and yards of one and three mil sheeting and duct tape, all for use in The Book Project.
I suited up, taped and sheeted up, got the air pressure and the HEPA running again.
I pulled the plastic sheeting on the shelving off, yard by yard, and worked off the duct tape that had already begun to degrade into sticky, uncleanable goop and got it all into contractor bags.
Heavy breath, heavy breath. The sound of oneself as Darth Vader.
And there were all the books, sitting there, dusty as ever, after all this asbestos adventure. So ironically protected all of this time from the asbestos project even as they sat there already bathed in their own time-accumulated pile of asbestos. It’s still not clear to me just what the point of sealing them off was, other than “to do things right” in a domain in which they tell you that not doing things right will lead to your death.
I had an area in the center of the room set up as a catch area with enclosable plastic sheeting of its own and I had buckets of wet wipes and the full triple-phase HEPA industrial vac with brush attachment ready to go.
And so we began.
Pick up a book. Vac the spine and all of the sides. Flip through it to release any particles. Vac every surface again. Get the cover and spine with wet wipes. Dry with shop towels. Place book on stack in holding area.
— § —
I return here to the sense of irony.
For the better part of a decade I’d lived with this basement room full of books and returned to it often to retrieve one of them, blowing off or knocking off any dust and ceiling debris that had accumulated on top of it before carrying it upstairs, not thinking about it at all.
And before that, when we lived in New York, they were on shelves that were mounted on walls that were almost certainly built with asbestos-laden drywall, next to radiator pipes whose wrapped insulation I’m almost now positive was asbestos-containing material, constantly shedding particulate matter everywhere, including on the books.
And now, here, late in the game, I’m gingerly cleaning them all off, one by one, in a highly technical hazmat environment that looks like something out of a horror movie, fully covered from head to foot in hazmat gear, breathing like a monster through a respirator and peering through steamy goggles at—
Horkheimer and Adorno
…each one a murderous enemy, an assassin that they say may have already killed me, or my ex-wife, or my children, or anyone else that came into contact with them.
Reality? Fiction? Who knows. The quality of information that one obtains in this age of information is different from the quality of information in years past. All information is now emotional information. Everything is now a threat to “safety,” to be handled with extreme care.
My grandfather spent an entire career in the military smoking tobacco and sanding rust and debris off of ships’ hulls with power tools wearing no protective gear whatsoever. I sat and watched over and over again as a child while my father changed the family car’s motor oil with his bare hands and old coolant ran down the driveway and then down the storm drain, never to be seen again.
I spent an entire life reading these books, before I suddenly put on the full hazmat uniform to vacuum and then wipe them down one by one with expensive, specialized equipment, hour after hour on a September Sunday.
— § —
Somewhere in the middle, I began to feel anger. The books began to be dropped on to the pile rather than gingerly stacked.
And then, somewhere after that, I began to feel rage, and there was a period of minutes during which books were being flung, hard, across the room, against newly painted walls.
It was after most of the fiction and after the books I wrote myself, somewhere around undergraduate textbooks, that the rage took hold. Forensic anthropology. Sociology. Religion and culture. Advanced German grammar. Somewhere in there.
And well beyond mere anger. But what was I angry at?
Hard to say. Hours into a project like this one, with all of the mindless tedium and the mental latitude that it thus grants, it’s difficult to know precisely what’s on one’s own mind. Like eyes, thoughts can “glaze over” with time and repetition.
It took me a dozen or two books, and in particular, seeing one of them essentially explode into loose sheets all over the floor, to arrive at that moment at which one asks oneself—
“Okay, what’s really going on here? What’s actually on my mind?”
— § —
All of the real problems that I confront in day-to-day life have a kind of brute materiality about them.
Health. Clutter. Yard. Rot. Asbestos.
Yes, money is a problem and I’d like to have more of it. And yes, in my line of work, this involves a lot of “knowledge economy labor” and so on and so forth—but at the end of the day the uses for the money, the reason to care, the precarity that drives me—is frankly and unavoidably and admittedly embodied in real stuff.
The virtual world is a strange and extensive edifice erected in the end to cope with utterly non-virtual problems, not least of which is mortality itself and everything that seeks to forestall it.
Here in my hands even were the books, the immaterial knowledge that we hold aloft with such pride and what am I doing with them? I am carrying them back and forth across the room and vacuuming little white bits of death off of them with a dirty giant machine full of miles and miles of filtration matter.
It’s enough to make a person laugh out loud.
No, no, it’s not that the knowledge isn’t important. It’s that as a culture we’ve skewed so far in one direction that we are in effect all living a lie. We are liars, to ourselves, and to everyone else.
We are bodies. Little, soft, weak, terminal bodies. That’s what we are.
And all of the doctorates and gender changes and awards and Instagrams in the world won’t change the fact that we live as meat and will die as meat and that our happiness is bound up more than anything else with that thing that we don’t want to see about ourselves—
that we are only and just what we are, standing in our shoes or sitting on a chair, respirating and digesting other meat. And so is everyone else.
Until we make peace with that, we won’t be happy, and nothing will be better.
The enlightenment somehow set out to erase half of creation and we’ve carried on the tradition in our little epoch, imagining that God is a God of knowledge, and creation is a matter of theory, and so on.
Creation isn’t just ideas. Creation is things. Being.
For us at the very least, and for everything around us, being is a material state.
How utterly profound is that in our epoch? It almost stretches beyond our ability to conceive of such things, which says something about the era in which we live.
Descartes ought to be arrested. He is the author of much suffering.
— § —
So many books, so many indices to people.
People that wrote them. People that have read them. People that have taught them. In many cases, people that I’ve known and known well. People, in fact, like myself, once.
So many elite braniacs setting out to make the world A Better Place.
And yet, for all the good they set out to do—for all the good I set out once to do—so much more good than all of them put together has been done by, for example, the little group of teachers at my local martial arts dojang who take children under their wing, teach them face-to-face to use and master their bodies and the feelings that are in fact part and parcel of those bodies.
Yes, I was tossing the books across the room because of the question that Johnny Rotten once asked.
“Do you ever feel that you’ve been cheated?”
Because for all the years I spent reading those books, a bunch of little flecks of dust sitting on top of them—dust dug right out of mountains—are infinitely more powerful. They can’t be fixed with theory or policy, only with big motors and big gears and big filters and the big movement of big amounts of air and moisture.
And because for all my degrees, it’s warping bathroom floors and leaky roof tiles and broken toes that now rule my life, day after day, and that in fact rule the lives of everyone—even those wealthy enough to pay others to hide such facts. I spent twenty-five years of my life learning things. What I didn’t learn in all that time was what bedevils me now—how to ensure that a toiled won’t leak, tidy a driveway, keep vegetable matter and mold from overtaking the foundation of a house, or keep my joints moving well.
And all the vast tide of books in my asbestos-laden library of knowledge are silent on such matters. Entirely silent on them.
— § —
Do you ever feel that you’ve been cheated?