A reader complains of having to buy copies of books he once owned but discarded for various reasons including loss of interest, financial distress and the expense of moving them. I commiserate, having moved so often and generally feeling over-freighted with possessions. I like to travel light which can be difficult for a devoted reader. My library has always been a work-in-progress, culled with regularity and updated according to changing needs and tastes. It’s a working library, not a museum, used purposefully and often.
Just as we naturally outgrow certain writers (anyone beyond age 16 still reading J.D. Salinger with pleasure should be watched carefully), some we grow back into. I prematurely discarded A Dance to the Music of Time about 30 year years ago (sorry, Levi) and finally bought a replacement set in 2007. During a particularly thin period I sold my first edition of W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson to a book dealer in Schenectady, N.Y., and several years later Steven Millhauser told me he bought it (my bookplate was in the front). I still regret selling my two-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the compact (“four-up”) version with the magnifying glass in the little drawer on top.
As a corollary I thought of the books I’ve always been faithful to and that have remained on my shelves without interruption the longest. The oldest and most threadbare is The Bible, the Revised Standard Version published by Thomas Nelson & Sons. The inscription at the front in my mother’s handwriting shows she gave it to me on Sunday, Sept. 25, 1960, one month before my eighth birthday. I open it at random to an underlined passage, Isaiah 41:29:
“Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their molten images are empty wind.”
I own three copies of Ulysses. The oldest dates from 1967, when I joined the Book-of-the-Month Club and bought it as an alternate selection (about the same time I ordered Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy, which I wish I still owned). It’s the Random House edition with the black dust jacket, the most heavily annotated book I own. It’s too beat-up and overstuffed with taped-in notes to serve as a reading copy but sentimentally it’s my most valuable book.
My Shakespeare dates from a few years later. It’s the boxed, three-volume edition from The Heritage Press (1958) -- The Tragedies, The Comedies, The Histories. It’s not scholarly and the illustrations are corny but I like the large typeface, wide margins and the palimpsest of notes I’ve accumulated over the years. Of late, my reading copies are the recent Yale University Press paperbacks edited by Burton Raffel, but even those I read in tandem with the brick-like Heritage Press edition.
My copy of The Poetical Works of John Keats, I see from the ink stamp on the inside cover, I bought at Paupers’ Paperbacks in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 1973. I have three editions of Tristram Shandy, the oldest dating from 1971, when I bought it at Kay’s Bookstore in Cleveland, Ohio, where I went to work four years later. It’s a two-volume hard cover with a book plate saying it once belonged to A.C. Cudworth, who chose “Vera pro gratis” as his motto. Each of the books I’ve mentioned is, as Hazlitt says, “an old, tried, and valued friend.”
One of my new friends, the reader who inspired this little celebration, has just sent me the newest book on my shelves – The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World by Adam Jacot de Boinod. I particularly like serein, French for “the rain that falls from a cloudless sky.”