Thursday, September 22, 2016
I’ve been culling books for the past few days in anticipation of an eventual move. It’s a bittersweet activity, since I know, as a writer, the effort each volume required of its author. Books to me are sacred things. They imply a dual commitment, one by the writer, the other by the reader, to engage in a strange and temporary symbiotic relationship that begins and ends with the turn of a page.
Many years ago I owned a dilapidated house in Adams Morgan, a grand old and brooding four-story edifice with a speckled history. When my then-wife and I bought it, we innocently believed that in a matter of months we would completely rebuild its kitchen, paneled dining room, six bathrooms, seven bedrooms, and mother-in-law basement apartment. This was not to be.
The first thing I insisted on when taking ownership of the house was creating a library. I gutted the top floor, in the process inhaling a few pounds of asbestos fiber, and with an architectural student friend, built gorgeous serpentine bookshelves to line the entire now-open room. I cut and shaped and assembled. I sanded and stained and varnished. I quickly stocked the shelves by buying all the books I’d always wanted, many from a bric-a-brac store down the street. I got the entire Harvard Classics, an illustrated Medical Encyclopedia from 1897, and Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume (now largely ignored) Story of Civilization. I got all the works of Emile Zola in French and in English. I bought Bulwer-Lytton and the writings of Kant and Heidegger and Marx. I resurrected Descartes and Sartre and Camus. I invited Voltaire and Corneille and Moliere and Shakespeare home. In time, I managed to read almost everything save some of the Harvard Classics which were, frankly, unreadable. I got both full sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Book Encyclopedia, because the latter is largely how I learned to read English many decades ago. I also unpacked one of my prized possessions, a set of Les Aventures de Tintin by the Belgian artist/writer Hergé.
For a time, I was coming home daily with a book or three. I continued doing this until the shelves were almost filled. In hindsight, it was one of the better times of my life.
Today I am doing the opposite. I sold the Harvard Classics a while back and gave the Britannica to a downtown rehab/shelter, a donation that was welcomed by the counselors, if not the clients in early sobriety. I was told later that the tomes were read avidly enough that a waitlist had to be established.
I found I had two editions of Updike’s complete works, so one went to the local library. I approached another library and asked if its staff might be interested in my collection of books about Paris, which I used to research a book of my own set in the French capital shortly after World War One. I was given a tentative yes, and so I’m packing up those as well. I am going to sell my collection of Historia magazines, a monthly glossy French review that deals in painful detail with the vagaries of royalty and tsars, and seems particularly fascinated by the life of William Howard Taft, the fattest of all US Presidents and the very first celebrity weight-loss patient.
Save for a few works I found horribly written (my favorite and on Amazon’s Worst List is How Fatima Started Islam: Mohammad’s Daughter Tells All) or truly boring (Madame Bovary, Finnegan’s Wake, Tess of d’Urbervilles and anything by Proust) every book I am giving away evokes a small pang of regret.
I love books. I love reading them, writing them, looking at their spines, admiring their covers, and scanning their first and last sentences. I will miss them all, but it is time for them to find new homes.
I will not give up the Tintin collection, though.