I have been greedy for books my whole life!
As early as two years of age I remember coveting books.
Adults had books. Adults could peer into a book and pull something out of it. I didn’t yet know what reading was called, but I saw the results—people communicating by deriving messages from the pages of a book.
My mom encouraged my interest in books. She read to us from “Winnie the Pooh” giving voices to all the characters. This impressed my older brother so much that when he went to kindergarten he complained that the teacher reading to class wasn’t using the correct voices!
Also, a reading child didn’t need much supervision.
I learned to read before I was 4 years old. I wanted the power that reading brought—the power to sit alone and think, imagine, and understand. With the ability to read I became independent. In my family, if you were reading, people left you alone—no interruptions. So reading brought the gift of time.
Later my mother learned that books also bred subversiveness; but that’s a tale for another day.
Now I’m faced with a dilemma.
A lifetime of books clogs the house. Shelving has been placed in every room except the bathrooms.
Dick has almost as many books as I have. (OK maybe he has half as many books as I do.)
And we are downsizing preparatory to a move.
I actually tried to donate a vast portion of my books to a couple schools. They didn’t want them.
We even found what was close to the perfect house but it didn’t have enough space for the books. (Unfortunately it also needed a garage tear down and rebuild that would have necessitated the excavation of a hill and the removal of two one-hundred year old trees but mainly there wasn’t space for books.)
I’m not ready to get rid of all my books at this point. I still use them; I still refer to them. Many are no longer in print.
I started thinking what I could do about this plenitude of books.
When Stressed Lose Yourself in a Book (Really, That’s a Thing)
I’ve been reading Franny Moyle’s Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner. (I’m not connected to Amazon, but you can read about the book there.)
Each morning after I finish my two games of Sudoku I pick up her biography of the 19th century British artist Turner and read a chapter.
Moyle has written a marvelous book transforming Turner’s life into a ripping adventure. She understands not only his place in art, but what it is to be a working artist. And she has painted her own sort of picture—a picture of the times in which he lived, with all the connections to other art luminaries (or lesser gods) and historical events woven together in a way that is the most comprehensive explanation of influences and context on his life I’ve ever read.
She has pored through records, rosters, diaries, and letters and come up with the best surveillance report EVER. (Read her book!)
With Sudoku pencil in hand I read, and underline, and scribble notes.
And then I see the real problem is me. (Isn’t it always?)
The Real Problem
We will never be able to sell my books.
I am a margin scribbler. I am a professional editor and proofreader who corrects typos and reforms grammar as I go. I am an annotator. I make cramped notes throughout my books. The margins overflow. I underline, I spill asterisks across a page spread.
I argue heatedly with the authors I read, I pause to offer congratulations to authors long dead.
I jot references to other books and other authors who once expressed the same or very divergent opinions. I allow my mind to wander and then list connections that spring up for future research. I write down the names of other authors I can enlist who might bolster my thoughts on a subject.
In sort, in my books, I have created a web of connectivity between all the volumes—whether a book on beading, illustration, the science of bread baking, or the bug cultures that form on a decomposing body.
The margins of my books contain a layered and complex map of my brain and my thought process.
That map is intimate, revelatory, sometimes bombastic, almost always embarrassing, often funny, usually morbid…All that I am simultaneously.
How Did This Happen?
When I was younger I used index cards. So many of the books I read as a child were library books. And I would never write in a book I didn’t own. (All the more fodder for my book greed.)
I stored the index cards in a multi-drawer library card-catalog file.
Young people today probably don’t even know what that is. You can see a photo of one here. Or a Google search will show that vendors like Wayfair sell “storage” furniture designed like library card catalogs—but with drawers sized to hold DVDs and other odds and ends. Long live the nostalgia of wooden furniture and brass drawer pulls!
I had a real-decommissioned library card catalog file.
But once I got out of graduate school I could afford to buy books. In an instant all prohibitions against writing in books evaporated. Poof.
In fact my favorite date night with Dick was a browse in our favorite local books stores (this is B.A.; Before Amazon). He would look at the photography books. I would gather eclectic and seemingly mis-matched books which were allowing me to build my interconnected theory of everything—art, history, philosophy, science, popular culture, film, television…
In short the raw materials that led me to develop my “many enthusiasms.”
My voraciousness was such that I filled the drawers in the card file. Finally I couldn’t take time to write out all the notes I was writing, because my notes for a book ended filling filing files within multiple four-drawer file cabinets.
Then I caved.
I gave up card filling and stopped filling file folders. I simply counted on my memory to hold it all book-like in my brain. I knew there were things that I could easily look up—even before the Internet.
I let go of almost all of Shakespeare (the quotes, scenes, plots, etc.) because my college mentor could fill me in on all that.
And so grew my habit of collecting “experts” who were actually “files” of a sort. (If I love you I know right now you are asking yourself which “expert” are you.)
Letting go of literature, since I wasn’t going to teach it, was actually easy.
Letting go of literature allowed so much more space in my brain for all the information of the great plagues, poisons, and companion planting gardening methods.
The library is now what I always wanted, that which replaces the card file, because I have the source material.
If Dick and I have a discussion in which we disagree, or in which he wants some background (I am the liberal arts expert and history buff he collected) I rattle something off and if necessary can go and retrieve a book on the subject.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I don’t have a solution to the current dilemma.
I realize something broader. That this is the result of middle-class living, leisure time, boundless curiosity, inexpensive printing methods, and of course, something deeply ingrained in man in general.
We all collect in some way or another. And as we live longer and longer we have more stuff.
For some it’s that collection of baseball cards, cars (fancy, antique, or sports), outdoor gear, boats, houses, enameled silver souvenir teaspoons, knit doilies, leather postcards, fashion dolls and accessories, Funko Pop! Television Walking Dead Collectible Toys, artworks, Wedgewood pottery, comic books, vinyl records, vintage blouses, wine, Rolex watches, postage stamps, movies on DVDs (or ack—VCR tapes?! Get rid of them)—whatever.
At some point all this gathering simply wears us down and we expire—leaving a heap of things that no one else sees the sense of—but which tells the story of our lives.
I have instructed Dick to burn all my books when I die.
Not my journals. No.
My books—the printed books I’ve read.
Those are the books with which I’ve had my most intimate conversations. No one really needs to put themselves through that by reading those books.
And I would die of embarrassment. If, of course I weren’t already dead when they read them!
Dick is to start with Elements of Drawing, by John Ruskin.
You see long ago, I had the fun idea, “Gee wouldn’t it be great if I knew someone who knows the great Sir Ian McKellen—he could read Ruskin in his wonderful voice, and every now and then I could interrupt in my own cartoon voice.” The template is all there in my fourth copy of the book. (Earlier copies having been lost, and in one case stolen!)
It’s best that book go first.
Unless of course you happen to know Sir Ian McKellen. Text me.