Art History

Read any good books lately? If not, and if Oprah’s ideas of good literature aren’t exactly your cup of tea, why not check and see what Art Garfunkel is reading this month?

Yes, that’s right, Art Garfunkel. You remember; the fuzzy-haired part of Simon and Garfunkel. Or, at least, that’s how most of us know him; but then, most of us are blindly oblivious to existence of The Garfunkel Library, a chronological listing of every book the erudite songster has read over the last 38 years — almost a thousand of them — including the month and year of reading, the date of first publication, and the number of pages they contain. As the site boasts, Garfunkel is a “voracious reader”, who gets through, on average, around 25 books a year — a lot more than most people, without question. And he certainly got off to a cracking start.

Between June 1968 and April ’70 — golden years for Simon and Garfunkel, remember — he got through 40 books, including War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov. And these were the ’60s! You’d imagine, at the height of his fame, Garfunkel would have had more exciting things to do than staying home with his nose in a depressing Russian novel. But apparently not.

If you’re already thinking of poking around in the Garfunkel Library for a cheap snicker at an aging hippie’s Carlos Castaneda collection, think again, friend. The Garfunkel Library is not to be sniffed at; indeed, its shelves are positively groaning with heavyweight tomes. There’s no trash here; there’s not even any popular fiction. Well, almost none. No more immune to hype than the rest of us, Art couldn’t resist checking out Jaws in August 1974; Interview with the Vampire in July 1981; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in December 2001, and The Da Vinci Code in February 2004. Apart from these rare off-notes, however, The Garfunkel Library contains mostly classic editions of literature, history, and philosophy, including numerous volumes of Shakespeare, Freud, Proust, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. No Carlos Castaneda (though Art admits reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull in 1972.)

As a matter of fact, rather than giving you a cheap laugh, your first visit to the Garfunkel Library might leave you humbled, ready to doff your hat in shame. The more time you spend there, however, the more curious it all starts to seem. Most people, I think, tend to read eclectically, one book leading to the next in peripheral but connected ways. Garfunkel, on the other hand, seems to be following some kind of system that permits him to read only books that have been critically esteemed. He never seems to have given up any book half way through, when he got sick of it, or when he misplaced his reading glasses — or if he did, he doesn’t mention it. And then, what are we to make of the fact that in April 1984, he read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style cover to cover — twice? Or that in March 1993 he claims to have read through the entire Random House Dictionary of the English Language — all 1,664 pages of it? Or that, according to those who’ve conducted interviews at his New York home, each book in the Garfunkel Library, after being read, is wrapped in protective plastic and shelved in the order of reading?

Without venturing to psychoanalyze Garfunkel’s unconscious fixations, I’d say there are times when you can, in fact, tell a book by its cover — and one of them is when it’s covered in protective plastic. And while it’s not impossible to understand why someone would want to keep a careful record of the books they’ve read, why would they keep note of the number of pages, rather than, say, the edition, or the translation, or, oh I don’t know, what they thought about them? This is not just rigid, it’s anal (and Garfunkel might even agree—after all, in August 1973 he read Irving Bieber’s Homosexuality, a Psychoanalytic Survey, and in June 1987 he read Freud’s The Ego and the Id).

Most revealing, however, aren’t the books that are listed, but those that aren’t. According to the site’s author, “We are pleased to present a listing of every book Art has read over the last 30 years.” That’s right, every book, do you hear? This means that, although he’s a poet himself, Garfunkel has only ever read four or five volumes of poetry — one of which, read in October 1989, was his own (Still Water — Prose Poems by Art Garfunkel). It means that when his wife, Kim, was pregnant in 1990, he read nothing in preparation; no What to Expect when You’re Expecting, no Official Lamaze Guide.

It means that, when he walked across America in 1984, and later on across Europe, he did so without the aid of travel books. It means he read nothing he could share with his son, born in 1991 (unless you count Louise Ames’s Your Five-Year Old in 1996.) It means he read no books about healing and forgiveness in the build-up to his much-vaunted re-union with Paul Simon (unless that explains Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand, in August 1996). Most recently, in January 2006, Art and his wife had a second son, born to a surrogate mother. You’d think he could have found something more pertinent to read in preparation for this emotion-laden event than Henri Pirenne’s Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe.

Garfunkel’s completism suggests a tendency toward pompous self-importance reinforced by the site’s stuffy tone, in phrases like: “we also present the following list of books which have been designated by Garfunkel as his favorites.” In short, Garfunkel seems to have reached the advanced stages of “Sir Elton Syndrome”, characterized by the insistence that a pop star is oh, so much more than that. Far from being merely a pop star, why, Garfunkel is a poet, a composer, a philanthropist, a humanitarian, and, above all, an intellectual — certainly not a sad, balding, manchild with too much time on his hands.