I hadn’t planned to write a post about cat books, but I guess it was inevitable. I wrote a cat book myself a few years ago, so it makes a kind of psychic sense that I was sent a review copy of a new book from Rizzoli, publisher of beautiful books about art, design, and photography. It’s called Cats & Books.
Like all Rizzoli books I’ve seen, this one is beautifully made, a small, hardbound collection of photos found in the social media hashtag #CatsandBooks (which I didn’t follow before, but might now, and which puts me to mind of one of my favorite Reddit communities, Cats in Sinks). There are two pleasures here: the cats themselves, whose “details,” likes, and dislikes are listed alongside their photos like the pin-up boys in the teen magazines of my youth. (Milky loves to play with colorful elastic bands; Caedmon, from New Haven, is named after the earliest English poet whose name we know; Posie’s hobbies include sitting on top of magazines.) The other pleasure is the books, or rather the fact that you can’t easily see them because they’re part of the background, always behind or underneath the cats who lounge on piles of them or perch inside bookcases. Visiting someone’s house for the first time, I love to look at their books, though I sometimes have to do this quickly or on the sly if the person doesn’t seem all that into the idea of me pawing through their things. Getting glimpses of books in these photos gives me some of that same pleasure—head tilted, scanning the spines, looking at colors and titles and authors’ names to try to get an idea of who their owner is. I think I’d hit it off with Caedmon’s human companion, who has a David Crystal book on language and a little volume by Edward Gorey. But just the fact of having books and cats is meaningful in itself, a clue I’d understand and like a few crucial things about the person behind the camera (or, more likely, a phone).
It happens that around the same time I received this book, I attended a reading at Giovanni’s Room, which carries both old and new books, and I spied beside the register a secondhand photo book called Metal Cats for 2 or 3 dollars. Yes, yes I’ll take this one too. This book is a sheer delight to look through—page after page of Alexandra Crockett’s photos of guys (all of them guys) in bands and fans of metal music, posing with their beloved cats. The thing I like most about the pictures is not the pairing of tough-posturing people with sweet cats (though that is the book’s obvious appeal)—not precisely. It’s more about the sweetness that the cats bring out in the men. In almost every photo the guy is smiling or laughing at his cat, cradling a cat like a baby, sitting down with one at a kitchen table, or posing with it on his shoulder or arm or head in a position that’s clearly habitual for them. The photos are a reminder, for anyone who needs it: some of the toughest looking dudes have the squishiest insides—and cats, as soft and small as they are, can be fierce as fuck.
I have hundreds of books in my house, and I know if I dug around for awhile I’d find a few others about cats. Just the other day I was tidying the tall to-be-read pile on my office floor and found The Cat Inside, a slender book of short pieces by William Burroughs. I’d bought this book a few years ago, along with a copy for my mother and one for my sister, with the idea that we could read it and have a little book club discussion about it, which for whatever reason didn’t happen. The only time we successfully did this was with the trash-memoir Mommie Dearest, and I might have been the only one who read much of the book, but we laughed a lot.
Burroughs wrote little diary entries about the cats who came to live with him in the 80s, when he was in his 70s living in Lawrence, Kansas. Some of the pieces are as strange as you’d imagine, but most of them aren’t, and only sometimes does he let his thoughts take him to a dark place. All the writing is gentle and insightful, deep and tender. Until now I had spent more time thinking about William Burroughs than I ever had reading his writing, and the conclusion I tended to draw was ick, based mostly on the fact that he killed his young wife in a shitty, careless accident. But in these pages he is sensitive, deep, and thoughtful—a cat person. He takes his stewardship of the cats seriously, even has a stress dream from which he wakes up crying that his dear cat Ruski needed help, but he couldn’t get to him. Some of his accounts are prosaic and familiar to anyone who has lived with animals: feeding routines, the sharp pang of loss when a cat slips out the door and doesn’t return. Other times Burroughs sounds more like the mystic he may actually have been.
The white cat symbolizes the silvery moon prying into corners and cleansing the sky for the day to follow. … The white cat is the hunter and the killer, his path lighted by the silvery moon. All dark, hidden places and beings are revealed in that inexorably gentle light. You can’t shake your white cat because your white cat is you. You can’t hide from your white cat because your white cat hides with you.
Like me, Burroughs digs the histories of cats’ importance to people around the world. He writes that the ancient Egyptians went into mourning for their dead cats and shaved their eyebrows, a fact I remember once reading on a placard at the Penn Museum. Like Burroughs, I find the idea of deep grief for a lost cat friend entirely reasonable.
When he does get dark, Burroughs rages about environmental destruction and our “doomed planet,” or grapples with the fact of violence in his life in a way I find refreshing and useful, if hard to read. He recalls slapping a cat with a book. (“I can hear the cat’s ears ringing from the blow. I was literally hurting myself and I didn’t know it.”) Later, he reckons that a completely honest autobiography could probably never be written. “I am sure no one could bear to read it: My Past Was an Evil River.” Eventually, he reveals the truth about the cats and the stories and himself:
This cat book is an allegory, in which the writer’s past life is presented to him in a cat charade. Not that the cats are puppets. Far from it. They are living, breathing creatures, and when any other being is contacted, it is sad: because you see the limitations, the pain and fear and the final death. That is what contact means. That is what I see when I touch a cat and find that tears are flowing down my face.