One of the earliest stops on our annual return to New Hampshire used to be to the beautifully appointed Victorian house in Francestown where our dear friends Edith and Peter Milton lived. But when maintaining the house and navigating its stairs became more a burden than a delight, they exchanged the house for a cottage in a comfortable retirement community in a nearby town. The cottage’s footprint is considerably smaller than that of the house, but it has everything they need, even a separate room that contains the studio where Peter continues to produce his uniquely brilliant art.
Sitting in their living room on our most recent visit, something in our conversation led Edith to reach behind her to pluck a book off their bookshelf. And it struck me that this modest bookcase with several shelves containing perhaps 75 books at most is now their entire collection. Edith, like Rosellen, is a writer and their house was filled with the literature and criticism accumulated over a lifetime of reading and writing. What happened to all those books and how was their life changed by their disappearance?
Recently, I have had reason to be thinking about the Miltons’ sparse bookcase almost daily. The announcement a while back that an annual book sale near us was accepting books to be sold at that event has driven us into a frenzy of culling books from our many bookcases and hauling bag after bag to the sale’s collection site. By the time you read this, the drop off deadline will have passed, and we will be left to assess the impact of our efforts. To a certain extent, we can already do that. Any visitor, unaware of our efforts, would see bookcases that seem nearly as engorged as they’ve always been. There’s something magical about the process. No matter how many bagsful are gone, others have come to take their place. That pile of recently read books on the radiator can now be transferred to a new home on a real shelf. Books that have languished on the shelves in our exercise room are now visible in more accessible locations.
People are quirky about the way they organize their books. In his memoir the late great Israeli author Amos Oz describes getting his first bookcase, a gift from his father. When he chooses to arrange his books by size, his father is infuriated by what he considers a sacrilegious choice. There are people who organize their books by color, disregarding the books’ contents. I’ve heard of someone who arranges his Shakespeare collection by the year in which each play was published.
One thing we’ve learned in the culling process is how incredibly disorganized our book collection is. We began with a basic structure separating fiction and poetry from non-fiction and then refined those into categories like biography, Jewish topics, Mississippi and civil rights, etc. for the non-fiction while the fiction is separated by nationality and recency among other things. But inevitably the collection tends to grow faster than the available shelf space in particular areas so we begin cramming books in wherever there’s room and soon chaos reigns. We have several late writer friends like Frederick Busch and Norma Klein who were prolific, and I have found their titles scattered across numerous bookcases. Organizing what’s not being discarded is more than I have energy for right now, which means that the following crazy dance will continue to be performed. We search for a book which we know we own, fail to find it, then purchase another copy, only to find the original days/weeks/months later.
So, what have we accomplished, exactly how have we gone about this process and what should be our measure of success? Early on, Rosellen brought the process to a temporary standstill by asking what seemed to be a simple and sensible question, “What’s our criterion for what stays and what goes?” This question was prompted by an early round in which I made a first pass through one of our bookcases and Rosellen followed by returning about a third of the books I’d pulled to their original places. The truce agreement called first for retaining any books written by people we know, many of which include inscriptions that would be an embarrassment if they fell into the hands of a buyer. Rosellen has built a wide circle of fellow writers over the course of her career so this category is larger than you might imagine. This group also includes books she’s written blurbs for. Her generosity in responding to blurb requests once led a friend to call her a “blurb slut,” so back on the shelf go all those volumes with her name and endorsement on the back cover.
The remaining criteria are far more subjective and therefore more open to dispute. Is there a personal association with the book that would be lost in the absence of the physical book itself – the book Rosellen was reading in the final months of one of her pregnancies or the book we read aloud to each other in the bathtub in the early years of our marriage?
Then there’s the question of whether there’s even a remote chance that we might have occasion to refer to the book to snatch a quote or to confirm a fact. Will we ever need to return to Torregreca by Ann Cornelison? Her story of an isolated southern Italian village where all the men have departed for other parts of Europe in search of work is already etched into our memories. Will we ever need to search its pages again? Finally, there are books of such stature that it would border on sacrilege to dispose of them. Proust, Hardy and Tolstoy have earned a permanent resting place on our shelves that will only be disturbed by the unfortunate soul who will do the final clearing of our shelves, free of our personal attachments and associations. Alternatively, if and when we have to make a move that parallels that of our friends the Miltons, we will be forced to be a lot more hard-nosed about what makes it into the core set of books that will stay with us till the end.
Some of the books that have gone to the book sale are virginal in the sense that they leave here unread. When we used to have students over for classes and celebrations, they often asked, wide-eyed, whether we’d read all these books. “Not all,” we would say, “but we hope to.” Parting with those unread books is accompanied by a sense of failure. We allowed what might have been a memorable experience slip past us. That’s how you think when you’ve lived a good portion of your life with your head in a book. It’s the feeling of defeat and failure I encounter when I’m in a bookstore surrounded by so many such untapped experiences. If I’ve come in search of a particular book, I want to grab it and flee before I suffocate.
The deadline for drop-offs is now passed. We didn’t get to every bookcase in the house. We hope to tackle those later and arrange for one of the operations that picks up your donations directly from your home. It doesn’t feel like we eased the burden of whoever will do the final culling by more than 5%.
Perhaps the best part of an otherwise painful experience has been the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the books that have enriched and inspired us and have played a key role in making us, for better or worse, the people we are. People who are not pet lovers have trouble understanding the profound attachment pet lovers have to their animals and the deep sense of loss they experience when their beloved dogs or cats die. Similarly, people who are not book lovers will wonder what the big deal is about getting rid of all this excess baggage. What we’ve been about these past few weeks is a wake of sorts, a celebration of the pleasures these books have brought us and a chance to mourn their loss.