I wear a sweat shirt that says, “One can never have too many books.” But yesterday, as I tried to slide a volume sideways on top of a row of tightly packed books on one bookcase, I sighed in exasperation. There was no room. In my 950 square foot residence, there are 15 bookcases, some up to the ceiling, others extending the length of a wall under a window. A grand piano sits in front of one bookcase, and when I want to read those books, I must slither through a narrow opening between it and another bookcase. So it was with regret, that I removed a set of 1919 Encyclopedia Britannica from those shelves closest to the piano. Each volume was special, a dark blue bound book with more information than I could ever digest. But, but I had made up my mind. I was going to clean off each bookcase of its top layer, where books were piled or held hostage with book ends. On this particular shelf, was my Lewis Carroll collection; below that, foreign language dictionaries, and programs with abstracts from the past 20 years of conferences. Under that shelf were a set of ‘Cyclopedia of Medicine, Surgery and Specialties’ dated 1929, and beneath those, the remainder of ‘Cyclopedia and the first ten volumes of EB. On the bottom shelf, sat the rest of the set plus a couple of indices. As I removed each book, I nostalgically opened it to a page, looking at a picture of a plant, or insect, a piece of technology or just text, columns of text, neatly arranged with boldface titles and times roman text. I questioned whether or not I could really part with these. My reason told me that it had been at least one year since I looked at any of them but my emotions wanted me to delay the project. I stacked them on top of my piano, remembering hurricane Wilma pausing to check to see if there were any more ceiling leaks, then put some on the floor. This year we were lucky that no hurricane hit but I talked myself into rationalizing that if I make room for the books on the shelves, no leaky roof will destroy books on the top again. Just thinking about another room with roof damage and water logged possessions reminded me that books are better off with someone else than staying here and taking a chance at being destroyed.
It took about 25 minutes to load them into the car and readjust the shelves so that no books remained on top. And on the trip to the second hand store, I could rationalize again that these would be sold to someone who really valued them. In addition, their sale would benefit the organization that sponsored the shop.
In addition to my lifetime collection of books, I have a few computers. I must admit that I consult these computers far more often then my silent friends who sit in stacks, rows and shelves. But I mourn the trend that so many libraries are going from text to cyberspace. While it is convenient and efficient to look things up on the internet, nothing will replace the feel of paper, the smell of each particular books and most importantly, the date and place where the book lived until it came to stay with me. Each book has a meaning far beyond the author, title, and place of publication. “The Eater of Darkness” was given to me by Michael O’Donoghue in 1959. Even if he were alive, he would not remember me but I remember his rise from college student to writer for Saturday Night Live. I bought “Cannery Row” in Monterrey, California in 1974, when I was living in Santa Cruz and took a ride in my 1954 MGTF to Carmel and its environs. What better place to purchase a used Steinbeck book than there? And my two volume set of “Documents of Medical Anthropology” loaned to me by a fellow student in 1988 and never returned? Do I have the energy to search out him? I don’t think so. I did decide to return every book that I borrowed from a friend or ex-friend over the past ten years. I felt that was a good start and would hone the collection down a little more. Actually it’s a little more like 14 years because I found some books that belonged to a boyfriend and we broke up in 1993. Just to prove what a good person I was for keeping his other books for so long, I decided to return a book that hadn’t belonged to him but a copy of one that he had loaned to someone else, “Documenta Geigy, Scientific Tables. Excerpts from the Seventh Edition.”
Although I have not returned THAT book to him yet, I plan to do so. I like “Documenta Geigy” and want it to stay here a little longer. It has all kinds of values arranged in interesting tables. In the chapter on Metabolism, drawings of the molecules that control our life are displayed in geometric shapes with CHs, Ns and H2Ns arranged. The composition of the human body is succinctly described in six pages of elements, water, the organic composition of the adult brain and spinal cord and the strontium and barium contents of ashed bone. Can you see why it’s going to be hard for me to part with this one?
The internet will not take the place of my books and I worry about our institutions that discard volumes and cancel paper subscriptions to journals. They, too, are limited by space. But the experience of feeling paper, and seeing a variety of fonts, illustrators and formats can never be replaced. The beauty of a children’s book written in the 1930s with art nouveau designs on the cover and deckled edge pages can never be duplicated in cyberspace. I believe there will always be readers who value the printed word and the time to peruse it, even if it is only those 15 minutes before going to bed to savor a few lines of poetry embellished with drop caps and written on a page with a decorative border. And because I believe that books will survive the competition from electronic text, I am able to part with some of mine.
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