I am currently without my books. We are selling our little condominium and on the advice of my realtor, I have removed my books from the shelves. I have even removed the shelves. I’d like to think that there is a Buddhist’s simplicity in the apartment now, but really it’s just empty and crude.
My collection was not impressive. I have known some very good collectors in my time, and my library of some couple hundred volumes doesn’t compare. I am neither voracious enough, nor wealthy enough to build a proper collection.
Yet, I am satisfied with mine. I have read most of the books. (I should hate to think I’ve read them all.) From time to time I go to the shelves to look up this or that passage, to find inspiration, or a mimic a certain style. This I think is the important point about libraries. Because there is a kind of vanity that comes with collecting and libraries, like Art, should be thought of less like nouns and more like verbs. “I like to library.” “One of my hobbies is librarying.”
Perhaps I am peculiar in this way of thinking. I could tell by the way my realtor surveyed my collection and the bitterness of her phrase “well, I think you’ll have to get rid of the books” that she found them distasteful. My wife, picking up on the scorn, endorsed this thinking. Right? My wife and I have discussed this many times. On the spectrum of annoying traits a spouse can have, my books register somewhere between snoring and an obnoxious best friend.
I get it. For them, the books are dirty, musty, and impractical things. To sell a home, one should make it look as if it had come straight out of a Crate and Barrel catalog.
There are no books in Crate and Barrel catalogs.
But I acquiesced. The books are in boxes. Every so often I think of some beautiful passage I’d like to reread and absentmindedly walk over to where one of the shelves used to be. I pass my hand through the air as if I were caressing a missing limb. I hope I never lose that inclination.
And now I must think of two anecdotes that remind me of my situation and give me comfort. Mind you, I must recall these stories because the books themselves are in storage and I cannot verify the truth of them.
The first is the story of how Erich Auerbach wrote his masterwork Mimesis. Having to leave his formidable library to escape the Nazi’s, he fled to Turkey with only a handful of choice texts under his arm. This is the World War II edition of the desert island scenario. Yet, with only these few texts (and an amazing memory) he was able to produce one of the most penetrating works of criticism ever written. The lesson here is that sometimes limitations make one more creative.
The second anecdote is from “Unpacking My Library” in Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. He describes finally opening the wooden crates of books that have been in storage for an eternity and joyfully he ruminates on his books’ return from exile. The essay is wonderful example of how far a mind can roam in the idle pastures of time and ideas.
And now I can see that it is a fleeting joy it is to have time for one’s books, a luxury even.
For if they teach us anything, it is that we mustn’t grow too attached to our possessions. One or two volumes in a suitcase by the door is all that you’re entitled. That is, unless you want history make an example of you as it did to poor Walter Benjamin.
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