Books, Books and more Books
I have always loved books; from the dust jackets and canvas-covered boards of hard-covers, to the french-folds of trade paperbacks, from the texture and grain of the pages, deckle-edged or smooth-trimmed, to the layout and typography. I love the inky, gluey smell of new books and the tangy musty scent of old ones. I relish the cracking sound the spines make when you open them. And that’s just the physical aspect. I love the unique universe each book represents, the heart and mind and spirit conveyed through language. It feels simplistic, verging on cliché, to say that my love for books and reading led me to becoming a writer, yet that’s how it is. Though I’ve had setbacks in the publishing arena, I habitually return to this deep appreciation of books. And remember why I’m in the game.
But, recently, I was bequeathed approximately four thousand books, and my love was severely tested. Like many New Yorkers, I own more books than I have space for. They overflow the shelves to inhabit every surface, including the floor. But they number only a small fraction of what I inherited–four thousand books, contained in four book-filled rooms. The only rooms that held no books in that apartment were the bathrooms. Yes, two bathrooms, rent-controlled, in Manhattan.
There is no way around the work of clearing after someone dies. The living must do it. The work must be done. But at first I couldn’t touch the books. They had meant so much to me over so many years—evidence of a deep, intuitive, alignment I’d formed with a complex, gifted woman. She had always thrust books on me. As a teenager and into my twenties, much of what I read was at her behest. We had long discussions, she and I, of writing and writers and literature, of sentences and paragraphs and poetry. You’ll get the books when I’m gone, she used to say, which made me covet them and feel ashamed.
Now they were mine. She was gone, and her books seemed dead, too. Inert, neglected, gathering dust, all the life inside those pages, all the drama and humanity, had become quiescent. The sad and bitter irony is that she had lost the capacity to read. Suffering from dementia, she had devolved, year by year, month by month, from comprehending the philosophy of Wittgenstein to barely grasping the plots of James Patterson, to being unable to recognize written words at all. I can still see her sitting in a chair in front of her bookshelves, mute and bewildered, only the pining in her eyes revealing an awareness of what she had become.
After she died, the books came alive. They clamored at me, demanding to be read. But their overwhelming number exposed my own mortality. Even if I’d quit my job and done nothing but read and read and read, there were not enough years. How finite I am and how infinite in number these books appeared to be.
They haunted me. Night after night, I was screamed at, berated and cast out. I was trapped in fires, fleeing floods, serious nightmares. Woken by the sound of my own wailing, muscles coiled, throat and jaw aching, I would lie awake, drenched in sweat and shivering. The books, the books, the books! What will I do with all the books?
As I began the seemingly insurmountable task of sorting through them, I was beset by questions about the books. Why did she possess three 30-volume sets of encyclopedias, from 1910, 1954 and 1987, respectively? Was David Hume’s History of England relevant today? Had she purchased the 15-volume set of the complete works of Balzac with the pages still uncut intending to read them? Had she actually read Frances Parkman’s works in twelve volumes? Could the Oxford English Dictionary, both the compact version with magnifying glass and the enormous 20-volume set with supplement and bibliography still be valuable when the electronic version exists? Why was Volume Seven missing from the gilt-edged, 10-volume, first-edition set of the Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen? The questions continue to plague me.
Even alive, she wouldn’t have been able to answer. The books symbolized the intellect that had vanished long before she died, vanished along with my younger self who’d latched onto everything she’d said, who’d admired and loved and emulated her. Her death reminded me of what we’d once had, of what I’d outgrown. How easily I’d forgotten what she once was, who I once was. For, before we’d managed to negotiate a relationship of mutual adults, she had lost her bearings and her mind, a long, slow quietus.
The books were so dusty, handling them blackened my fingers. In latex gloves, my palms perspired profusely. Bits of paper and old receipts fluttered out from between pages. I stripped off countless post-its. Brittle and discolored with age, the post-its were the most painful. Torn and crumpled, unmoored from the text they’d once marked, they dispersed the ghosts of her former selves, intelligent critical women who’d once been in charge; powerful, angry ghosts. Alone in her apartment, I jumped at the slightest noise. I wept and sneezed and apologized. Dust caked my nostrils and coated my skin. As I drifted from room to room, sorting, sifting, browsing, and stacking for many hours and many days, the only evidence of having accomplished anything were the filthy latex gloves I peeled off, and the scabby painful rash that covered my hands.
Sorting books, however, is not unpleasant. It’s a meditative task. Opening pages at random, reading a line here, a poem there, it’s easy to get lost in all the voices and remember how life can expand while reading. I had to do right by these voices. I had to find them homes.
At first, I thought I’d create a database of all the books. Open Excel, start a file called “books.” But entering titles, authors, publishers, dates, and ISBNs proved impossibly laborious. Many had been published before 1970, pre-ISBN, and many before 1898, pre-Library of Congress Control Numbers, which meant the data was inconsistent. The inconsistency bothered me. I had entered about two hundred books into my database before I realized I simply did not have time. The apartment had to be cleared in a month. Forget the master database. I decided to inventory only those books that might be valuable. I could sell those. The rest I’d keep or donate. But how to choose? By what criteria is a book “valuable”?
Biographies of people no longer relevant, poems by forgotten poets, historical incidents no one remembers, were, I discovered, of value to no one. Old books are simply old. And no one wants them, even as a donation. I gave books to friends but those giveaways were drops in the vast sea. I contacted several organizations, hoping to donate the books but only one place responded: Housing Works Books. If I could deliver them, they would take them.
Reluctantly, I packed up all the books I’ll never read, the visions I will never see, the perspectives I’ll never absorb. Like a crowd of elderly people with so many stories to tell, they chattered and exhorted, but I had no time to listen. I passed them by. Hopefully, someone will connect to some of them.
Letting go is my life’s lesson. I’m a person who clings and saves and hoards.
I’m still clinging to thirty boxes of books currently piled in my living room, developing the permanence of furniture. I can’t bear to give them away but I don’t have room to keep them. When I find the time, I hope to sell them on e-bay or somewhere.
Yes, my love has been tested but I can’t help it: I’m still devoted to these extraordinary objects called books, with their promise of undiscovered constellations, of visions and worlds, rich with wisdom, curiosity, language and culture. My intent was to fulfill the obligations of this gift as decently and thoroughly as possible, and emerge unscathed, and wiser. But I’ve already been scathed. People die. Words fade. Minds vanish. Books gather dust. It’s all true. I don’t know if I’m any wiser.