Magazine | June 12, 2017, Issue

Letting Go

New York city skyline. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Came the chipper notice: My employer will be moving to a new office in the fall. It’s only a dozen blocks away from the current office, but to a city dweller sensitive to micro-geographies, that sounds like taking the Oregon Trail. This will be an opportunity, the notice went on, to go paperless. Great, and blindness will be an opportunity to avoid sun glare.

The solemn thought for me was that I must lose my standby bookshelf. This is a piece of furniture I picked up at Kmart and schlepped to work, disassembled, in the back of a cab. For years this is where I have put old books crowded out of my apartment, review copies that I decided to keep, personal items (college yearbooks, 1974–77) and other arcana. Now these must all be subject to radical culling.

One of my friends is an early adopter. One of his earliest adoptions was writing a blog, in which he tells the world about his other early adoptions. One of these was the digital reading device. He can stick a library in his tote, hold A Dance to the Music of Time in his hand all at once. It is convenient, indestructible, hip . . . I wail and rage. I want to feel the weight of an Eminent Victorian, and the difference in weight between it and an aphorist. I want the tapping sound you can make with your fingernails on the back of a paperback, or, for variety, the feel of deckle edges in old hardcovers. I want, when I am reading for work, to be able to write with a pen or pencil: stars, underlines, question marks, exclamation points, abuse. I want covers with artwork, author’s bios, blurbs. I want books, not their ghosts.

But that means I need space, and space in the city we don’t have, so I must cull.

Here are some categories, and their threat levels.

Books I have never read, and will never read. (Endangered.) Examples: A Treasury of Booth Tarkington. Bought it somewhere on a whim. I had never read a word of his, though I knew Scott Fitzgerald had. I’m sure it’s charming, but it makes a big fat hardcover. Maybe if he had written less. Good-bye.

The Great Peace of Montreal of 1701: French–Native Diplomacy in the 17th Century, Gilles Havard. I bought it when I was in Montreal once. I am somewhat interested in the history of New France, and this seemed a somewhat interesting piece of it. But I’m not a colonialist, and even if I were, this would not be my colony. Adieu.

Books that I have read, but will not reread. (Endangered.) The Worldly Philosophers, Robert L. Heilbroner. It had a great story about Frédéric Bastiat, but now I know the story. So long.

English-major snob books. (Safe.) Poetical Works, Edmund Spenser. I have never made it through The Faerie Queene, but my training tells me I ought to own it. I did once write a Spenserian stanza, as a class exercise. When I finished, I felt an immediate desire to write another, which may explain The Faerie Queene. N.B. Often rereading these word-mesas teaches you what you didn’t know the first time around. You probably shouldn’t try Paradise Lost until loss has become real. They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Books I read to write my own books. (Endangered.) Some are keepers — Herndon’s Informants, The Diary of John Quincy Adams (abridged, of course). These books, indeed, never left my apartment. But what about The Extraordinary Mr. Morris, by Howard Swiggett? Eccentric as its subject, charmingly clumsy, lousy notes, packed with anecdotes. It is still feathered with slips of torn paper I scattered through it, marking this or that point. I served you well! it pleads with me as I pick it up to appraise it. Be like Mr. Morris, patient before fate; now you will serve someone else.

Authors’ gifts. (Threatened.) No names, please. But if one is in one’s seventh decade, and if one has spent almost six of those decades writing, and if most of one’s friends and acquaintances have done the same, a lot of signed copies come one’s way. WFB, bless his memory, filled several shelves all by himself. Some must now go. I hereby give permission to all my friends to do the same with mine, if need be. Just don’t give them to the Strand, where I might see them; there must be dignity in death.

Author’s copies (one’s own). (Stuck with them, baby.) Not on the standby shelf itself, but sitting in boxes in my carrel. Gifts from my publishers, after each publicity blitz — what a friend calls the lull after the lull — has ended. They are like life’s mistakes, in physical form, which the damned carry around forever in Dante. Speaking of whom, one translation (Dorothy Sayers) and an anthology of different translators doing Inferno. (Safe.)

Duplicates. (Endangered.) Gad, two copies of John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, by Jean Edward Smith? One is 736 pages. No need for 1,472.

The Broadsheet of the Resistance recently published a charming portrait of an elderly English lady novelist. She lives in an apartment amply furnished with books that she refuses to cull, because each volume marks a period of her life. How I know the feeling. English major (see above). Wannabe political commentator (wanted not). Failed poet (lifelong). Should know more about philosophy (won’t). Christian fellow traveler (where am I?). Consumer of biographies (easier than living). Each book represents a different phase of consciousness, its use or disuse a mark of good or bad conscience.

But putting books on an off-site standby shelf is next door to hoarding. Hoarding, in the guise of preserving the past, effaces it, converting it to rubble, burying it under layers of itself. The standby shelf banishes it to the Lost City.

Thanks, boss, for picking everything up by the roots and forcing me to make some choices.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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