5/4/14 – MY BURDENS, MYSELF: WHY I CAN’T GIVE AWAY BOOKS
My daughter is giving away her books. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.
I’m being irrational. Her reasons for giving away boxes of college textbooks, play collections, sociological studies, and even timeless works of literature are perfectly understandable. She is moving out-of-state to a home with very little storage space. She and her new husband don’t have the money for long-term storage. They don’t want to let their material possessions restrict the freedom they know is the precious possession of youth.
She had the books in the trunk of her car, several boxfuls, and was offering them freely to me, her younger sister, or, really, anyone who might want Sarah Ruhl’s collected plays, Karl Marx’s selected writings, and other detritus from her college years and young adult life.
I understand this. I have spent a lifetime beholden to my books, paying embarrassingly large amounts of time and money packing, moving, and shelving them.
Still, having my daughter give books away feels like a betrayal of all I hold near and dear. As a writer, of course, I regard the book itself as the symbol of all meaning. To have and to hold a book is what has defined me. I’m one of those people who judges others by the books on their shelves – I admit it – and to have a de-booked daughter saddens me. Why, it occurs to me in a moment of meanness, did we pay all that college tuition? What does she have to show for it?
Of course, the more rational part of me knows that what she has to show is the person she has become, the way she thinks and sees the world, the lessons from those books rather than the physical shells from which those lessons hatched. Besides, if she really needs a book, there are libraries, cheap replacement paperbacks, and, of course, electronic resources. The need to carry a library on your back for a lifetime is a thing of the past.
Then too, a part of me envies my daughter. I wish I could be so free. I wish I had her strength of character to winnow my collection down to a portable size. There’s no question that material possessions tie us down, and make us put our own arbitrary world above what really matters in life: other people, noble causes, working to make the world a better place – your choice.
For those reasons, people for millennia on the quest for spiritual fulfillment or meaningful lives have told us we have to free ourselves of material burdens. Even my mother, more interested in simplicity than in spiritual enlightenment, has preached the gospel of uncluttering for as long as I can remember, including uncluttering clothes, uncluttering toys, uncluttering my brother’s ostensibly priceless baseball card collection, and uncluttering books that haven’t been picked up or used in a year or so. Still, pack rat to the core, I sing the song of arbitrary possession, at least to some extent. Or life has no meaning at all. This need to accrue a library of books reflecting one’s taste and intellectual history is akin to the need of 16th century Dutch collectors who carefully chose home “cabinets of wonders” to reflect their personal taste and sense of self.
The problem is that in the name of uncluttering, we may free ourselves so much that we lose all identity. Janis Joplin knew this when she sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” So did musical theatre’s Pippin, when he sang, “If I’m never tied to anything, I’ll never be free.” All of us forge irrational ties – admittedly arbitrary, admittedly unnecessary – to unfree ourselves, or we wouldn’t know who we were or how to live our lives.
Some of these ties are ideas, or people, and I suppose these are the most admirable of ties. But we all have our material ties, too, to become, and continue to be, who we are. The Little Prince chose his flower. One of my choices, I suppose, is my book collection.
It was always my dream to have a home library (well, that and a pool). I never did get that completely superfluous room of my dreams sporting an oriental rug and oversized mahogany and leather armchairs, but the day I was able to purchase bookshelves cum ladder spanning my home office walls, I was a happy, fulfilled woman. Having my books on hand allows me to spy the same physical book I had read at age 16 or 23 or 35 and immediately re-create the person I was when I bought or read that book.
I cherish being able to see what my husband, and his father before him, scribbled in the margins of the copy of Buddenbrooks that still sits on my shelves. I cherish reading the loving inscription in the frontispiece of the tattered copy of Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam, which was given to my father on his 9th birthday back in the 1930s by family friends. I cherish seeing my own underlined page of Montaigne’s essays, and wondering, then remembering, the former me who found that paragraph so deeply meaningful.
When my father died, going through his books was a major time sucker for my mother, brothers, and myself. It involved discovering some things we didn’t want to see, inhaling an inordinate amount of dust and mildew, and making agonizing decisions about whether anyone needed a copy of Jewish Jokes for the John. But going through this vast library also involved a lot of laughing, reminiscing, and rediscovering the father who had just left us physically. I took home many of the books that reminded me of him, and those I knew he would want me to have so that I could carry him with me.
Now my library is even heavier, and binding me to my home and its bookshelves even more. I realize that, as a result, someone else will have to deal with the burden of books I am likely to leave. I hope they get the same joy I have had from this burden.