Saturday, February 25, 2006

Giving It All Away

The ever-thoughtful George Hunka at Superfluities posted an essay on Friday devoted to culling his library. It's a trivial subject to which I devote a ridiculous amount of thought. I'm not an acquistive person. I don't need a lot of props to remain functional and relatively content. I've often thought the ideal dwelling is a clean, well-lighted motel room, where almost everything belongs to somebody else, and I can be packed and on the road in less than five minutes. I happen to be staying in a motel as I write this, in Westchester County, N.Y., and the one flaw in my romantically ascetic logic, the one exception that betrays my hypocricy, is vividly exposed: I miss my books.

After a lifetime of acquisitions and periodic purges, my library (I share George's discomfort with that word, a sense of its pretention) for the last decade or so has reached an equilibrium of about 2,000 volumes. I've wondered how many books I would have if I had never shed even one -- but that's silly, because very few books I have disposed of (sold, loaned, lost, given away) do I wish returned. I can think of only one exception: About 30 years ago I owned a first edition of the late William Gaddis' The Recognitions, perfect but for a missing dust jacket. I didn't own it long enough to become attached to it, the way we do with puppies, and I bought it in part with resale in mind -- a rare example in my life of purchase-as-investment. I sometimes pine for that volume, especially because I later met and interviewed Gaddis several times and had him autograph my copies of all his books, only two of which were firsts.

There are two components to the manner in which I miss my library. First, and more important emotionally than rationally, I have come to think of the contents of my bookshelves as a fragmented and necessarily incomplete autobiography. Who I am and was, selves I have forged and cast off and retained, are reflected in my books. There's the James Joyce self, including my heavily annotated Ulysses, which is only a fraction of my larger Irish self (Yeats, Beckett, Flann O'Brien). There's the Russian self, especially Chekhov and Nabokov. There's Shakespeare and what remains of the postmodern self -- Pynchon, Gass -- and so on. Memories reside densely inside my books, and I can call them up at will, sometimes merely by thinking of their spines on my shelves.

I also miss my library for more pragmatic reasons. My mind is associative -- one thing invariably reminds me of others -- and I cannot track down allusions when my books are absent. I'm still reading John Williams' Stoner, a novel about about an English professor, and I've several times wanted to trace references to Shakespeare, Marlowe and others. My books are linked by unseen connections.

Could I give up all my books? It's like the melodramatic question little boys test themselves against: If I were a prisoner of war, could I withstand torture and not betray my comrades? The answer, ultimately is unknowable because we are weak and blind, and most of us, fortunately, will never face such situations. I think I could, though. I've always relied on libraries, and I'm assuming they will remain in existence in some form even in our digitalized, post-literate age. The worst part of losing my books would be losing one of the better, more cherished reflections of who I am.

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