Not Collecting Books
My house is in the midst of the post-Christmas clean-up. The tree is packed and put away with all the ornaments and doo-dads that go with it. Our table and shelves and windowsills are suddenly bereft of snowmen, santas, and sledding teddy bears. It is a very sad time. I think my son has hidden one or two favorite Christmas things around the house, to be discovered later when I will groan and delay putting them in the shed, leaving him in joyful possession of them until the next post-Christmas clean up. So it goes.
Why do we do this every year? I don't mean why do we put Christmas in its boxes, but the rest of it--the sudden compulsion to reorganize, de-clutter, and clean absolutely everything in the house, as if we can, and must, scrub the holiday away. That is easy--we exit the season with a hell of a lot more stuff than we entered it. This Christmas it is all the boy: times being what they are, my wife and I filled our son's stocking and piled his gifts under the tree, giving ourselves the fun of watching him tear through holiday wrapping paper and put some solid hours of Minimates play into Christmas Day alone. It was a great Christmas, too, for all of us.
So, here we are in the aftermath trying to figure out where we are going to put a Lego Police Command Center, Captain Jack and his cannibals, a Lego dinosaur, and various other new acquisitions. We have to move things, and if you are going to move things, you have to clean them, and if you are going to clean them, you might as well get rid of those other things you don't use or don't want anymore…and Project House Cleaning begins.
I don't mind. I realize I am a full-fledged, avaricious little pack-rat who must be given a good reason to shed the accumulated debris that has followed me into the house. Most of my debris consists of books. There are the books I have not read yet, but are awaiting me in all their mystery. Those can't go anywhere, not yet. There are the books I am reading, which also cannot go anywhere. When they do go someplace it pisses me off. There are the books I have recently finished, or which have remained where I finished them some time ago, and they should go someplace, but I don't know exactly where, so they pile up, forming toe-deadening pylons of instability. I do have bookshelves, but not enough. Somehow the space I have for books is always being exceeded by new acquisitions. Every time I tell my son to put his Legos away, or argue that we should not get anymore right now because we are running out of space for them, I realize I am being a hypocrite, cringe a little, and change my mind.
I am facing up to my books now. There are some that just have to go. First, there are those which were not good in the first place. I read them on recommendation, for a class I am no longer attending, or out of an expectation that was disappointed. Letting them go won't hurt too much. Second, there are some books I can manage to read once, but I'm not going to read them again in the near future. They need to find a more appreciative home. These books were all right, but they aren't on my list of literary treasures. Third, there are books that have been ravaged by the pets. All right, not by the pets--by the Jack Russell and his little terrier teeth. Or by my son and his magic crayon of doom. Some of these losses do hurt, but it is time to be brave.
This still leaves me with a volume problem: too many books, too few shelves. But there is no more shedding that I can do. What is left are my literary treasures--Faulkner, the complete plays of George Bernard Shaw, my nineteenth century Browning, my engravings by Dore and Blake, my histories and memoirs of the Holocaust, my medieval histories, my books of maps and…well, let's just say over a thousand of my very best friends. I saw my mom over Christmas. My son played with his cousins outside and my mom and I sat down with her newest acquisitions--she has developed a love of old dictionaries--and prowled the pages together. Another highlight of the season.
A few of my friends have very neat, clean, gently treated books. They collect them. And I don't mean they buy a lot of books, I mean they treat the few books they do have as objects of great value whether they are read or not. I am not a collector of books. I accumulate them. The value of a book for me is in reading it, in arguing with it, in seeing where it takes me. I can't, as a rule, use a book gently. I am too greedy for it, and there is damage. There are a few editions on my shelves that are there as collector's items, that I bought, or received, for their beauty as objects, or for their historical value as antiques. These I treat differently from the others. I have to. One is gentle with a nineteenth century Browning, or one soon has nothing more than rather thin scrap paper.
My younger brother hasn't met a book he cannot mutilate. I often imagine him reading like a Visigoth at a monastery--ripping out the pages as he goes. He does not really do this, of course, for he does like to read. But he splays a book out to keep his place while he wanders off to do whatever it is he is going to do, breaking its spine out of laziness or clumsiness. He dogears the pages for the same reason. He leaves his books out on the bathroom floor or the sink because it was time to move on and he was sure he would get back to it later. I am not the worst abuser of books in the family, but I am not the gentlest of readers either. That is my wife. You can always find her books, and they always look neat, clean, untrampled. She even keeps the dustcovers on her hardbacks. I use them as bookmarkers, or tear them off and cast them aside because they were getting in my way.
Collecting objects differs from merely accumulating them. It implies a different way of looking at the object in question, of relating to it, of valuing it. My books are not a collection, but a smorgasbord. I have torn into the heart of them and come out still hungry, and so they stay. The others can go.