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As my friends and family members know, I own a lot of books—somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000, by my estimate. Many people have a lot more than that, of course. Years ago I did a feature story on a retired Norfolk librarian who had about 10,000 volumes in his personal collection. The thing is, he lived in a large house. I live in a one-bedroom apartment and long ago ran out of room for more shelves.
For a long time, I just ignored the problem, even though the room devoted to most of my collection—a lovely 9×12 space that takes in an abundance of afternoon light and has French doors leading to the living room—had become unusable. There were so many books piled on the floor that I could barely enter it.
Finally, after living in quarantine for two months, I decided to confront this chaos. I began sorting through the books, and in very short order I’d constructed a pile in the hallway of roughly 100 volumes that I’m prepared to give away. I’ll need to at least triple that if I really want to maximize the room’s aesthetic appeal as well as its utility. But at least for now I can walk around in it and browse for something to read, or get down to work at my desk.
The process took some doing, not because it was especially time-consuming but because of my attachment to my books. If I had enough space, I would keep every volume I own and regularly purchase more. But my circumstances are what they are. And what good are books, after all, if you can’t even get to them because of the clutter?
When I brought this up on Facebook, many people got it. Some asked me if they could have my castoffs. Another friend urged me not to give away a few volumes that he’d given me, not because he wanted them back but because he believes “in the divine life of books.”
Others, however, were clearly puzzled. Several extolled the virtues of e-books, while another friend said she still reads printed editions but gives them away as soon as she’s finished reading them.
“I don’t understand why people keep books they’ve already read,” she commented.
To each her own. I can only say that my relationship with books is of an entirely different nature.
On a practical level, as a writer and teacher, I regard books as tools of my trade. Even in the age of Google, when I’m writing an essay or preparing a lecture, I regularly consult my books for information or inspiration. In some cases I can flip to a familiar passage to check the precise wording more quickly than I could find it on the Internet—especially if the book is obscure, which many of mine are. The books serve another practical purpose as well: Simply sitting among them while I’m trying to write often provides the inspiration I need to crystallize an idea.
That said, all of this goes far beyond practicality.
First of all there’s the aesthetic appeal as they simply sit on the shelves in union—the tapestry of colors across the various spines, and the distinctive fonts of the titles. Moreover, each individual book is a work of art in itself—some obviously so. Forty years ago, on Christmas, my father gave me a limited edition of Chekov’s short stories, with color illustrations by Chagall. The paper is some of the finest I’ve ever touched, and the cloth binding is gorgeous.
Not all of my books are of that quality, of course. Nevertheless, book designers put a lot of thought into their work, carefully considering different fonts, paper, binding materials and jacket art. In many cases, simply holding them and turning their pages is a multi-sensory experience. Indeed, to me, asserting that books you’ve already read aren’t worth keeping is like saying, why hold onto a painting after you’ve already looked at it, or a classic LP once you’ve already listened to it?
On top of all this, books serve another purpose in my life—they’re triggers of memory. If you were to come into my library and randomly pull a book off the shelf I could likely tell you when and where I bought it or who gave it to me. And that’s where the flood of recollections would merely begin. If you selected, for example, my copy of The Jazz Life, by Nat Hentoff I would tell you to look inside and take a look at Dizzy Gillespie’s signature, which he gladly gave me one night while I was talking with him at the Blue Note jazz club in Greenwich Village.
If, in turn, you chanced upon Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Organic Anthology, which I purchased for a course at State University of New York, Plattsburgh in 1975, I could tell you about moments of epiphany I had in that class—or a moment years later when I was rereading it on the Staten Island Ferry, then happened to look up and feel an Emersonian sense of wonder as I gazed upon the glittering reflections of sunlight across New York Harbor.
I also have in my library a number of children’s books: Blueberries for Sal, Curious George, The Cat in the Hat and many others. Some are relatively fresh editions that I bought for my children when they were young. But one—Cowboy Andy—I’ve had since I was 3, and whenever I look at it I’m reminded of the times when my father would read it to me. I also have my original copy of Black Stallion, which I got in the fourth grade, for school, and which our teacher, Miss Kelly, would read aloud each afternoon. That book contains more than a story about a boy and his horse. To this day, it carries with it Miss Kelly’s aura.
I don’t often reread those, but it’s nice to know that I can, anytime I please. I do reread a lot of other books—sometimes straight through, but most of the time only in part. Often, a single passage is sufficient for the day—a soliloquy from Hamlet, let’s say, that I might turn to in my Signet Complete Shakespeare, which I’ve had since college, or the magnificent last page of my hardcover Penguin Classics edition of The Great Gatsby.
Because I used to get a lot of free, unsolicited review copies from publishers, I also have books that I’ve never read straight through. But I’ve consulted all of them, and I’m sure I will again.
That’s the thing about books—sometimes they call out to you. A case in point: On the evening of September 11, 2001, I walked into my library hoping to find a quotation that I could use as the epigraph for the essay I was about to write on the horrific events of the day. The first book I pulled—instinctively—was my father’s copy of The Collected Poems of W.H. Auden. I flipped through the volume and landed upon “September 1, 1939.”
Here’s the opening stanza:
I sit in one of the dives / on 52nd Street / uncertain and afraid / as the clever hopes expire / of a low dishonest decade / Waves of anger and fear / circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth / Obsessing our private lives; / The unmentionable odor of death / Offends the September night.”
I don’t why I was drawn to that volume in the first place; I’m not even sure I’d ever read that poem before. But I can assure you—if I hadn’t walked into that room and picked up that volume I would never have thought of it. I’m not overstating the case when I say that a truly mystical experience.
Even if it had come to mind, however, and I’d looked it up in the Internet, I don’t think those lines would have hit me in quite the same way. There was something about reading them on pages slightly worn by my father’s hands that made them seem transcendent.
Yes, I will give away some books, not only to give breathing room to the ones I most cherish but also to pass them on, when possible, to good homes. Last year, when a young friend was completing her undergraduate work in English literature, I gave her my college copy—heavily highlighted—of Moby Dick. Since I also have the novel in one of the lovely American Library volumes, I can still consult Melville’s rich prose anytime. In spite of this, I was attached to that copy from 1975. And yet, my friend cherishes it, and it makes me happy that it will live on—that individual copy—for at least another generation.
Meanwhile I’ll take comfort in the volumes that remain in my residence. In these convulsive times especially, they are reminder of what endures.