One of my vacation tasks is to sort through the junk in my parents’ attic, which is dominated by books accumulated from years of library book sales for as little as a dollar a box. Old books as such became a near-worthless commodity in late 20th century America, well ahead of the Internet, and more space for books had of course been one of the attractions of the house. Once we had an attic and could no longer see the whole collection, stockpiling and duplication were inevitable.
Categories we are very long on include British political and military biographies (my mother’s favorites), books with science in the title (my father), foreign language (me), essays and journalism (again me), philosophy (especially existentialism, I don’t know why – possibly my brother was a secret Sartre fan), architecture (my brother), sociology, murder mysteries, scifi, Judaica, Australiana, poetry, drama, art and museum catalogs, modern and ancient classics, humor, printing and typography, machine and electronics manuals, one-volume encyclopedias and textbooks of all kinds. In other words, most of the interesting categories that show up at bulk book sales for Friends of the Library in any Massachusetts town. I was fortunate to grow up bathed in books and even if most of them were not the right books or the right books for me, some of them were.
Every day that I visit the public library where we got most of these books, I have deposited a few volumes to be recycled in their future sales, beginning with the duplicate and triplicate copies of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Demetrios, Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, and Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd, the pedantic musings of Edwin Newman and William Safire, and proceeding through lesser-loved singletons such as the two-volume life of the Earl of Sandwich, which will never be read by any family member still living.
I’m still holding back on far too much of the hoard, unwilling to let go, since all of it is textual data – anyone want to write a PhD on popular physics paperbacks of the 1950s? How about mid-twentieth century French and German language textbooks? Perhaps a reappraisal of Pearl S. Buck and her appropriations of China? I feel clutchy about sending older books back to a system that exists to circulate and not to preserve them, and may well pulp them instead. That is not a slam against our very fine local library and regional system, which regularly surprises me with its range of current books and e-books, but in order to reduce our personal library footprint – something we must do to survive, as living space soars out of our reach – we need be able to trust that the system will hold onto things for us as they fall out of popularity. An online Library of Congress/Google Books mashup can’t come too soon.
Going through the bookshelves and boxes is one of my favorite and yet most feared chores, as it surfaces dread of the casser-maison not too far off and the mortal limitations of reading time. It becomes a joy when I come across a book that is of more than bibliographic or family-historical interest. Some of these treasures will be presented in upcoming entries.