Monday, September 19, 2016
a reasonable number of books
A report from the trenches, from the front lines of recurring book-love: once again I am sorting the book room. Cleaning, culling, reorganizing, reshelving. Moving entire subjects to new places, and merging others. Every fall I seem to get this urge to clean house, literally and figuratively. Some years I act on that feeling and this is one of those years. Over the past two weeks I have culled several hundred books from my various collections. I came to this pass after seeing stacks of books on the floor and thinking that I just couldn't stand this state of affairs for one more day. Seriously. Had it. Because I would like bookshelves with enough space to accept new arrivals now and then. An equitable flow of incoming and outgoing. A not-needing to hold on to every little thing I have ever read or been interested in. A reasonable number of books. I would like to walk into the book room and feel pleasure and comfort and not anxiety nor admonition. And the only way to reach such ideal circumstances is to weed out the languishing titles, as the new ones arrive. Those books I read and didn't love, those I love but don't need to keep forever, those I loved once but love no longer, those I meant to read someday and am now realizing that that day may never come and you know what, that is perfectly fine. The book police are not going to show up at my door and write me tickets for not having read these books, or those books, or that stack of books over there. Which, for the record, I did keep handy, for years - just in case. I realize this may have a lot to do with the passing on of my biological father last winter, who was so well-read it was frankly devastating, and whose shadow I was well aware of, even though he did not darken my door often. Sigh.
It was slow going, but during several rainy days and even some sunny ones, I unshelved, cleaned, and sorted out almost all of my books here at home. Some of these sections haven't moved since we brought them here, when we bought this house, so it was an undertaking. I did a few things I'd wanted to do for a long time, chiefly integrating memoirs and essays with literature and fiction, so all an author's books are now together, one one big wall, alphabetically, with books written about them, too. I also ransacked the travel and history sections, taking away most of the books therein, and then gave my art and poetry books significantly more room to breathe, since they are what I want more of, in general. I kept only one shelf of religion and spirituality, trying to stick to what I love best - first person accounts of spiritual experience (akin to the art and poetry books - direct accounts of how people manage, in this world of ours), along with seminal religious texts that I find meaningful, from various cultures. Other sections suffered similar fates - in the realms of house and home I kept only my very favorite books, on gardening, cookery, birds and animals and natural phenomena, and architecture.
The areas I had the most trouble with were the oddities, the unclassifiable stuff, family books, gifts, and the sections I used to love but find myself no longer even glancing at. (Ryan said, "But they're old friends...!" Oh, the heartbreak!) Seriously, though, some books are impossible to part with, and you know, I'm not going to, because I don't want to! Like these:
Books inscribed to me by authors I met when I worked in a new-book store, twenty years ago.
The book with my great-grandmother's name inside the front cover, written in her own hand (and many other such books, from family members on both sides, going way back).
The book my grandfather was awarded as a school prize, with a very nice bookplate stating such (a two-volume set of Virgil).
A book specially bound as a wedding gift for my grandparents, with their initials in gilt on the slipcase.
The book written by my first boyfriend (based on his PhD - he sent me a copy, thirty years later).
My favorite children's books, which I still read and love wholeheartedly.
A book signed by Lillian Gish.
A book signed by Hedy Lamarr.
The big sets I have read and loved over the past several years - Pepys, Byron, Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Horace Walpole. And now James Lees-Milne, And, on order from booksellers around the globe as we speak, the diaries of Frances Partridge (I own one, and another volume arrived in the mail this morning, and the rest are on approach - she is my next reading project when I finish Lees-Milne, which will be soon).
A few in this category - oddities, let's say - I didn't find it that hard to part with after all. Such as:
The book inscribed to me by someone who wished to be a boyfriend, long ago (even though he told me, shortly before we parted ways forever - I kid you not - "I can't imagine that you could bring any gifts to our relationship that would equal what I would bring." I just looked at him.)
The book I found in my book booth, a duplicate of one given to me by another old friend, I won't say old flame since we weren't, but it contained a note saying, in effect, "This better not be the copy I gave you!" (It wasn't, but jeeze, so much pressure! Well, guess what. Shelf space is at a premium here. Off with its head!)
Books written by my other grandfather, who was a terrible parent to one of my parents, and I decided I didn't need him looming around my library any longer, just because we happened to be related.
Some books I am still on the fence about, so am keeping for now:
My much-less-than-half-read set of Proust (hardcover Modern Library editions), which takes up so much shelf space, and does seem to admonish me from time to time.
The very few books I have kept as investments - some signed books, one valuable set, a few first editions, various antiquarian items - nothing amazing, just great books quietly accruing value as they age.
The Oxford English Dictionary, the "compact" edition in slipcase, with the magnifying glass in its little drawer, since I was raised to believe that a house was not a home without an OED, although come to think of it I haven't used it for anything other than a doorstop in years, and I am on the lookout for irritating signs of childhood conditioning, but still, don't we all want an OED on hand if the zombie apocalypse actually comes to pass?
These are the kinds of questions I ask myself, one by one, with book in hand, while I sort through what I own. It's raining today, so I took a look at the other place we keep a lot of books - the junk room, really, since we have no basement or attic storage to speak of - in which I have two large bookcases full of books about books. I approached them this afternoon with a sidelong look of despair, thinking of what they represent to me, the bookseller I'd hoped to be, the bookseller I did not become, the wonderful old boys' club that was the book world of the past, something I'd wanted to join but came to too late. I made and continue to make other choices, which are my own and which I do not regret in the least. I had my shop, and did the best I could, then moved on. Still, I love these books about the trade! Books about publishers, printers, booksellers, bookshops, type, bindings, great collections. It's going to be a challenge to decide what to keep.
More questions. What do I want to have around, want to live with? What do I want to read and re-read? What is reasonable and comfortable in a house this size? How many books is too many? I haven't yet counted what remains but I soon will, after I tackle this last subject.