What can you say about a fifty-seven-year-old book that has outlived its usefulness? That it was beautiful. And brilliant. And taking up valuable space in my personal library.
Our household has six 84-inch bookshelves lining two living room walls, and four more in the bedroom. All of the living room bookshelves and two of the bedroom bookshelves hold the kinds of general reading that line the living room and bedroom walls of most households that still bother with bookshelves: novels, nonfiction, reference works. But two of the bedroom bookshelves hold volumes that are not the kind you typically find in a home, unless one of the people who live there happens to be someone who writes about science.
I am between projects at the moment, and I’m using this breather to reclaim my workspace. Over the past few years I’ve migrated around the apartment as I’ve moved from one project to the next, like a nomad leaving behind campsites as he follows the herd. The bedroom desk and shelves I abandoned three books ago. I next set up shop in my older son’s bedroom, once he left for college. That was two books ago. I researched and wrote much of my most recent book from the living room couch, accumulating an archeological dig’s worth of files and books and drafts on the coffee table and the carpet beneath it. Madness.
Hence, the purge. First priority was clearing the living room. Last priority is my son’s bedroom. Current priority is the bedroom workspace.
Clearing my desk was relatively easy and painless. Papers, clippings, notepads, and magazines that have sat untouched for as long as they’ve been cluttering corners of my desk have probably outlasted their urgency. (The irony of finding the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things under a slurry of papers was not lost on me.) I set aside one tiny pile of material that I deemed worth keeping, threw the rest down the incinerator, and turned my attention to the bookshelves.
I had culled these books over a five-year period of fevered research. Many of them still bear the signatures of their original owners on the front flyleaf, or a library circulation card pouch on the back flyleaf. Here were books that I had greeted rapturously as each arrived in the mail. Books that I knew would prove indispensable in solving research problems, providing historical context, illuminating philosophical quandaries. Books that I could talk to late into the night, or dine with by candlelight, or take for long walks on the beach. We would grow old together, these books and I. They would, I had unthinkingly assumed, last a lifetime.
Now I see them in a less romantic light. Yes, they bring back happy memories. Actually, they’ve never stopped bringing back happy memories; over the years I have often glanced at that corner of the bedroom with fondness. But the fondness is for the spent passions of youth as much as for the books themselves. Now I’ve discovered—just as Robert Grimm once did, long after he’d signed his name and the date 1960 in this book over here, or just as the Mary D. Reiss Library of the Loyola Seminary in Shrub Oak, N.Y. did, long after an anonymous clerk had inscribed “BF 173 .N44 1958 c. 2” in white ink on the black spine of that book over there—that I can live without them.
It’s not their fault. It’s mine. I need my space.
And here, dear reader, is where you enter my little melodrama. These books, like the papers and magazines on my desk, have been long untouched; they, too, have outlasted their urgency. But I can’t just jam them down the trash chute. I can’t just cast them out on the street. They’re books! Nor can I stuff them into several boxes, stack the boxes on a Radio Flyer, and lug them to the neighborhood used-book store; the nearest to my apartment is the Strand in the East Village, a $20 cab ride away. (Besides, if you’ve ever tried to sell your long out-of-print and dust-jacketless library rejects to the angry mole people in the basement, you know it’s not an experience you wish to relive.) And in the Internet age, would any used-book store even want these cast-offs? Would any reader?
So I ask you: What to do with these books? Suggestions are welcome. So is a U-Haul, backed up to the curb outside my building. And if the doorman objects, just remind him that double-parking in Manhattan means never having to say you’re sorry.
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Images: top, Andreas Praefcke, card catalog from the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library of the Princeton University Library, via Wikimedia Commons; middle, Stewart Butterfield, from flickr via Wikimedia Commons.