After years of collecting books, both read and unread, the time had come to de-clutter our shelves. We had already made some significant life style changes two months ago: my wife retired after twenty-eight years at Salt Lake City Library and we sold our second car and are now a one car (Prius) family.
Based on the problems I had had in the past throwing out old New Yorker magazines I knew that actually divesting ourselves of books would be difficult. Recently, I had found a solution to my New Yorker problem. I had been on vacation and returned home to discover a stash of unread New Yorkers and called a friend who I knew was a fellow New Yorker devotée.
“I am three issues behind,” I said, “and don’t have a lot of time. Anything I should not miss?”
“Not really,” he said which was a surprise to me since there is usually some article of interest. But trusting our friendship and his knowledge of me I quickly perused the issues and tossed them in the blue recycling canister. It was an act of faith. Years ago the hope that I might want to one day read an article in a saved New Yorker (even several years old) made me keep them around, but when the magazine released their complete archive on CDs I knew I could get whatever I wanted whenever I wanted on my Mac.
Over the past few years I have donated books to the library, most notably after the advent of the second Bush administration. During the first Bush administration I had collected and read at least a dozen books dealing either with Iraq, the war on terror, George Bush’s foibles and fatuous demeanor. When he was “re-elected” I dealt with my despondency by clearing our house of anything that reminded me that all my reading had been for naught.
But our task was something different: we intended to make room for new books by giving away some prized possessions. The issue we confronted was daunting: how to decide what to give away. There were books of great sentimental value, those that demarcated key points in my life:
- A paperback copy of John Updike’s “Rabbit Run” that cost me sixty cents. I recall reading it Junior year in college and thinking it was one of the most realistic portrayals of life in America, detailed, nuanced and compelling.
- Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” published in paperback in 1973. I was an inveterate Brooklyn Dodger fan and read it the year I moved to SLC.
- A paperback copy of “Bread and Wine” by Ignazio Silone. It was one of my mother’s favorite novels and cost sixty cents.
Then there were the books given to us by someone else. These are hard to dispose of for more complicated reasons. Did the giver love the book and think we should read it? Disposing of it unread can call your relationship into question. Examples are:
- “The Soloist”, by Mark Saltzman.
- The St. James Bible given to me and my first wife by my best friend from college; I got the book in the divorce settlement, unofficially.
Some books come into your possession out of exuberance, you buy it in a moment of literary exultation thinking you would read it one say. This happens for a variety of reasons: you read a smashing book review, your book seller encourages you to buy it, someone had mentioned it to you, or you are in an expansive mood and simply need to buy something. One such book is:
- “The Life of Chairman Mao,” by Dr. Li Zhui, a 682 page paperback biography with an appropriately red cover that I bought at The Waking Owl Bookstore (no longer in existence) because I knew little about Mao and it was written by his physician.
Finally, there are books with which you know you can never part. Some are books you may have read or more angst ridden those you intend to read. In this category are:
- “The Distant Mirror” by Barbara Tuchman, a history of the Middle Ages I look at longingly once a month usually when I am ensconced in a compelling novel.
- “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry, my secretary’s favorite book.
My mother, a woman who was never without a book in her hands, died in 1991 the four of us (her children) found ourselves cleaning out a book room in her basement. Not only did she have antique issues of The New Yorker (e.g. 1943) that had become cultural curiosities for us forty-eight years later but in perusing her book shelves we found multiple copies of the same book.
She loved Tony Hillerman and had duplicate copies of several of his mysteries as well as a bevy of other literary gems she either did not realize she owned or just liked the notion of owning different editions of the same book. One of her favorite haunts was The Strand, a discount bookstore in downtown New York City.
When it comes to possession of books it is hard to discern whether nature or nurture plays a larger role. My current effort to divest myself of books is complex. It has obviously culled forth recollections of my mother and in some ways is both a reflection of and distancing of myself from her.
But the decision to give books away does not come easy. It is intensely personal and is best done alone without the opinions of one’s wife or partner. It can be a maturational experience, one which reveals the nature of one’s very soul.
Louis Borgenicht, our first guest blogger, is a regular customer, a good friend of the store, and an author. Head on over to his website, LouisBorgenicht.com, to learn more about him!