Books In My Life

This past Friday I sorted through about 2500 books imprisoned for the past three years in a storage unit in Westchester County, New York.  They ended up there following the sale of my house after the divorce.  Sixty-four boxes of these books were donated to the Mt. Pleasant Library in nearby Pleasantville.  I mailed seven boxes back to myself in San Francisco.  My son David helped me sort, load and deposit these boxes at the library, saving my back from breaking—as well as providing emotional support to let go of the past.  We spent a happy day together. I’m immensely grateful for his help.

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Nearly twenty-five boxes of books are still in the unit, along with furniture, dishes, a trunk, a large box of letters, tools, framed pictures, and bins of things I no longer remember.  I have no need for any of this, and regret having not disposed of it when I moved out of the house.  Another trip, or two, will be needed to finish the task of clearing the space.

Still, I was sad to give away so many books, collected and read over a lifetime. I once had the antiquated, and absurd, idea that a “gentleman” had his own library, representing evidence of sophistication and learning.  Clearly I had read too many 19th century novels, all of which ended up in the mass give-away.  These books also provided evidence that I was different from my father, a successful engineer who preferred shooting large animals to reading a book.  The only book I remember seeing him read when I was growing up was William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, perhaps not so unexpectedly since he had briefly served at the tail end of World War II.  (The war ended as he sat in a ship at Fort Mason in San Francisco shortly after he enlisted.)  I know today in retirement he reads popular fiction in between watching sports on television.  He gave up hunting only a few years ago, although occasionally goes fishing.

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I realize there’s a good deal of snobbism in the previous paragraph.  My thousands of books are serious books: literature, history, politics, poetry, art, culture.  I would no sooner buy a drug store novel than a bag of fried pork rind.  The books I saved are all valuable to some degree, a few very much so.  I was an English major in college, and obtained a master’s degree in Anglo-Irish literature.  The only gun I ever touched was an over-and-under shot-gun for shooting skeet, a “manly” sport mandated by my father who was a champion skeet shooter. (I hesitate to admit I enjoyed the sport, and the tweedy country club trappings that went along with it.)

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Giving away so many of my books, while so evidently a necessity, touched memories and emotions I’ve harbored for decades.  There goes Middlemarch, unwisely assigned by Miss Wilson in 9th grade! There goes all of senior year in high school’s English class, great novels taught by Sewickley Academy’s one Ph.D., Dr. Robb, our cynical, heavy smoking, Smith and Yale educated, much-loved teacher. I won the English Prize at graduation, and achieved the highest verbal SAT score in the class (while objectively a high score, the distinction wasn’t much, given we were only fifty in the class.)  The evidence started early.

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Giving away my college books was harder.  I associated each book with a class and a professor and a time in my life that was academically filled with happiness while personally painful. The books from five English courses I took with Larry Hall; from all three courses with Franklin Burroughs, Bowdoin’s soft-soften Southern professor who taught me Chaucer and Milton. Among the books I saved are two he wrote.  More difficult yet were the books from C. Douglas McGee’s Literature as Philosophy course, the most influential course of my college experience.  In truth I own nearly all of these in finer editions than I had in school: George Santayana’s The Last Puritan, Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus and The Magic Mountain, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.  In my final paper I wove Elliott’s Little Giddings together with my mother’s attempted suicide, the first time I told anyone in the four years since it occurred in front of me. Learning this, Doug and his second wife Phoebe gave me much-needed solace and remained friends for the rest of their lives. Doug’s sterling ship captain’s whistle, engraved “CDM Bowdoin Alumni College ’65  Tace Explicuit”, which Phoebe gave me after Doug died, is one of my fondest treasures.

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In league with my ideas about a gentleman’s library were my notions of “the collected works” of favorite authors.  Hence, fourteen Jane Austin novels, in handsome turn of the century heavy buckram, rows of Henry James, Sir Walter Scott (how could I have endured reading all of those!); from my junior year thesis on the Bloomsbury Group, all of Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster, Leonard Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey (I kept my first editions of Eminent Victorians and Elizabeth and Essex), G.E.Moore’s Principia Ethica, memoirs by John Maynard Keynes, Ottoline Morrell, Vita Sackville-West, Clive Bell, and all the other hangers-on.

The only collected works I still shelve in San Francisco are a fine twelve volume edition of The Golden Bough and every book written by the English travel writers H. V. Morton, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, Simon Winchester, Wilfred Thesiger, among many, many one-offs.  (All of Freya Stark went to Pleasantville.)

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Art books posed no psychological burden.  I felt a twinge giving away books with which I was specifically associated, such as Aperture photography books from when I was managing editor, or Corinth Press books published by my friend Eli Wilentz, owner of the sadly long gone 8th Street Bookstore in Greenwich Village. I kept all of my Jargon Society books, published by Jonathan Williams, to give to Bowdoin College. I was treasurer of the Jargon Society for many years, and through Jargon gained my friends Paul and Nancy Metcalf, Paul, an author himself, being Herman Melville’s great grandson. (Paul’s mother Eleanor Melville Metcalf discovered the manuscript of Billy Budd in a trunk.)  I couldn’t bear to part with anything published by my friend Leslie Katz’s Eakins Press.  These will have to go on another day. Eli, Jonathan, Paul, Nancy and Leslie have been dead for many years.

Still left at home are all my books from my time in Dublin, a thorough survey of everything of note written in English in Ireland.  Oh yes, among these are all the books written by the Anglo-Irish lady co-authors Somerville and Ross.  Who can’t be delighted by Experiences of an Irish R.M?  All of these remain because I harbor the wish to someday teach a course in Anglo-Irish Lit.  (Stanford Continuing Studies turned down my proposal, requiring a Ph.D., not just an M.A.)

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This parting with my books in storage also lifted a weight I no long need to carry.  I don’t need all of this evidence, other than what I know, and how I behave as a result of reading these books.  The physical books aren’t evidence of anything other than vanity. In truth I shouldn’t have saved any or spent money shipping them across the country.  They will eventually have to be given away.  The idea that my sons want to inherit my carefully composed, now smaller, library is ridiculous.  Maybe a book or two, but not the thousand or so, I’m embarrassed to confess, I still retain.

I’m at a point in my life wanting less of everything.  Anyone who sees my apartment knows instantly I have too much of everything. Many things have gone.  Books sold to Russian Hill Books or donated to Friends of the Library, clothes, odds and ends, dishes, unused kitchen equipment to the Town School Thrift Shop, clothes consigned to Goodbyes, eBay and Craigslist sales. (eBay has been especially helpful and lucrative.)  Helping Adam and Rachel furnish their new apartment helped all of us.

Much more remains to go. I’m getting more ruthless and less sentimental.  Things aren’t life.  I want my life to be lighter, freer.  I want to feel the lightness, the unclogging of drawers and cupboards, the extra space, a little emptiness.  Two glass fronted sets of shelves filled with almost fifty years of collected treasures—my own small Wunderkammer—present a problem I haven’t resolved in my heart much less solved in reality.  Their day will come, and when it does I’ll know that my old, past derived, life is gone and a new surprising one can emerge.

Yet some books will be saved, and enjoyed, for many more years.  In the current issue of Harper’s, Mark Kingwell writes in an essay on the future of physical books, “ Books are my friends when nobody else can be; they offer a form of intimacy nothing else does. They do not make me a better person, but they give respite from the incessant noise of existence.”

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