Monday, March 27, 2017

During spring cleaning, the bell tolls for booklovers

What do I keep? What do I recycle? What do I throw away?

The questions of spring cleaning.

Over the weekend, I vowed to clean up my writing room. Spring cleaning fever hit us on Saturday as we helped our daughter move to a new place in Fort Collins. We tackled her room first, which she hadn't lived in for 18 months. Because it was vacant, I used it as a storage room for the stuff overflowing from my office. The jig was up. She's at home, searching for stuff for the move. So I had to comb through the boxes of receipts and old checkbooks and manuscripts and books.

I tackled the books first. The difficulty is that I want to read parts of a book to decide if it's a keeper. Got stuck on a Brad Leithauser poem, "The Odd Last Thing She Did" by his collection of the same title. It's about a suicidal young woman who disappears after leaving her car running on a cliff overlooking the ocean. "The car/Is Empty. A Friday, the first week/Of June. Nineteen fifty-three." A mystery is at the heart of this poem. Could be the setting for a 250-page hard-boiled mystery novel, a case for Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. But it's a four-page poem, long for a poem, short for a novel. The summer night is lovely with "the stars easing through the blue,/Engine and ocean breathing together." She could have been abducted, but that's not what the poem implies. She threw herself off the cliff. A suicide. A pretty, 23-year-old, and one with a car. But she didn't want to live.

"What are you doing?" Chris asks

I look up. "Reading," I say.

"That's not spring cleaning."

"Yes, but..." I want to say that this poem is wonderful and filled with mystery. It's why we read. But realize that I have been caught in the act.

Now my daughter is looking at me. She writes poetry. "C'mon, Dad," she says, hauling another box of rejected books out to the car trunk. She will take three boxes of books to the library today.

Caught in the act. I close Brad's book and put it into a box labeled "Mike books." Our rooms and basement have many such boxes as the bookshelves are full. In some circles, I would be labeled a hoarder. But among booklovers? Also in the box is "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, which I keep pledging to finally read; "The Voice of America," stories by Rick DeMarinis, which doesn't have my fave DeMarinis story ("Under the Wheat") but does have "The Voice of America" and "Aliens;" and a 1968 Fawcett Crest Book edition of Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" or, if you prefer the German, "Im Westen Nichts Neues." I have been tempted lately to reread the latter book as I am working on a novel set in the years after The Great War. But I have other research to do and may never get to it.

Therein lies the bookie's dilemma. What to keep, what to send to the library? I cannot bear to throw away a book as it seems too much like burning a book. Someone, somewhere wants to read the book that I don't want. Just as I want to read a book that someone else doesn't want, which is why I stop at garage sales.

I am 66 with grown children who are both readers. What will I make of all of this when I am gone? My accountant father painstakingly put the division of his library in his will. He read history and presidential biographies and autobiographies. I got everything from Lincoln to Kennedy, including a beat-up 1885 edition of the "Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume 1." Not sure which of my four brothers got the other volumes, if there were any. But I also got a trade paperback of the Grant memoirs which is comprehensive but not nearly as compelling as the original.

Technology is changing reading and collecting habits. Old books fall apart. Indie bookstores die along with their proprietors and aging customers. Good news, though -- it appears that this trend may be reversing. Our kids read books but spend a lot of time on Kindle and online reading.

I am tempted to bring up all these issues with my family. But I am in a losing battle against time. Nobody will care for these books as I do. Some will be claimed by my heirs but most will end up in library second-hand sales or in paperback bookstores or on the curb in garage sales. I will get rid of those that I can now and let time take its toll on the rest. John Donne said it well, and I don't have a single Donne book, not even holdovers from my undergrad and grad school English courses.

Here's the quote, which you may recognize:
"... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Before those bells start tolling, I need to tackle these books. Wish me luck.


Lynn said...

Boy, howdy, can I relate. I just went through a box of books from my sister's garage. All old tomes that had belonged to my paternal grandfather, then my father, then had been shipped from Arizona to Wyoming after Dad died. "Time to get rid of these old books," my sister said.

"I want to go through them first," I told her.

Now they are on my bookshelves.

RobertP said...

Mike, Lynn,

Compliments on your reverence for books. Reminds me of when my wife, without asking, threw away my copy of the Grimms Fairy Tales....with the original stories and not the sanitized Disney version. The one where Cinderella's step sisters cut off part of their heels to try to fit in the slippers. Look back, look back, there is blood on the tracks....yeah those ones. That really hurt.

But, I know someone that has us all beat. Mike, this is the former President of my beloved bank, Crosby Kemper who left to pursue his first love, books, and is now the head of the Kansas City Library system. Here is a link to a recent KC star story about his 25,000 books. The story includes this line:

“They’re my friends, and my children’s inheritance,”

MIke, think I may have told you this-the main Library, downtown, has a large sculpture or display of several book spines and one of the titles, proudly displayed for all to see, is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Thanks again for introducing me to that masterpiece. I have passed on copies (I still have the original paperback you gave me) to several others.


Michael Shay said...

I like Kemper's final quote in the article: “I’ve been trying to get rid of some books,” he said. “It’s hard for me.” Yes sir, you said a mouthful. The man has quite a book collection. One of these days, I will get to the Kansas City Library. A tour of public libraries sounds like my dream vacation.