Friday, June 02, 2023

'Amidst the Lumber of Libraries'

Americans, at least, will think of lumber as a building material, wood cut into usable lengths and sold at the lumberyard or hardware store; or, in the words of the OED, “timber sawn into rough planks or otherwise roughly prepared for the market.” But there’s an older usage in which lumber meant junk, useless odds and ends, the contents of many attics and garages. Dr. Johnson uses the word figuratively in this sense in his Idler essay published on June 2, 1759: 

“Of many writers who filled their age with wonder, and whose names we find celebrated in the books of their contemporaries, the works are now no longer to be seen, or are seen only amidst the lumber of libraries which are seldom visited, where they lie only to show the deceitfulness of hope, and the uncertainty of honour.”


In his Dictionary, Johnson defines lumber as “any thing useless or cumbersome; any thing of more bulk than value.” That certainly describes many books. I’ll confess to sometimes fetishizing, for sentimental reasons, books that probably deserve to be discarded. The copy of Finnegans Wake I bought more than half a century ago is held together with rubber bands. The same goes for my paperback of Liebling at Home, loaned to a newspaper colleague thirty years ago and returned, like all of Gaul, in three pieces.


Let’s consider the deserving discards, the kind of lumber we hope even public-library book sales and Half-Price Books are reluctant to accept: last week’s self-help bestseller; Harlequin romances; Dianetics; most self-published and presidential memoirs; any “novelization” of a movie; Reader's Digest Condensed Books; any volume associated, however distantly, with Joyce Carol Oates; volumes pro- or anti-Trump; and so on. I’m not suggesting Säuberung-style book-burnings, though old paperbacks make excellent kindling; merely good taste and common sense.


Richard Zuelch said...

Our version of Half-Price Books in my neck of the woods is a 3-store (so far) chain called Bargain Book World. I should lumber over to the nearest one and have a look around.

Faze said...

Nicholson Baker has a long and obsessive essay on the word lumber in his collection, "The Size of Thoughts and Other Lumber". Lumber, he shows us, has many more meanings and appearances in literature than you could imagine.