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On Accumulating Books

There was a period in my life, roughly from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, when I was not only a voracious reader, but also an out-of-control collector of books, most of them used paperbacks. While living in East Lansing and Lansing, Michigan, shopping for me meant heading down to Flat, Black and Circular to look at records, and then on to Curious Books. These were the main sources for maintaining my habits.

When I moved to North Carolina, I would visit several used book shops in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Durham, stores like Books Do Furnish a Room in Durham, and Nice Price Books (in Carrboro and in Durham, where it was probably less then 200 yards from my apartment). My little joke was that a wall full of books was "heavy wallpaper."

As I close in on fifty years of age, my ideas have changed. My goal now is to lighten my load. For reasons that I still don't completely understand (which transcend mere simplification and reducing clutter), I want to get rid of all but those books that hold a special meaning for me. What I do is put the books on a table outside my office, and little by little, they disappear.

It's not as easy at it seems. In the first part of Don Quixote de la Mancha, there is a "Scrutiny of Books," in which Don Quixote's friends, the priest and the barber, go through Don Quixote's books, deciding which ones to burn (like heretics) and which ones to save. This is because Don Quixote's madness is the result of the excessive reading of chivalry novels, and the idea is that by removing the cause one can cure the sickness. Well, in my own scrutiny, I sometimes find it hard to justify getting rid of a book, but it's something I'm working on.

All of which is just to say that the following passage, from Wenceslau de Moraes, resonates with me. He is moving from his prestigious post in Kobe to his life as a hermit in Tokushima, and writes about his books:

"My books, they are upstairs, lining my shelves of simple and humble pine and reminding me of soldiers with good posture. My books! More accurate to say: the others, the rest of my books which I want. The big mass of those, which are not stored here, were sold by weight to the rag merchant before leaving Kobe ..

"But as I selected my favorites patiently, the best choice still remains with me, luckily.

"I do not wish to give the air of something that I am not - a scholar quite absorbed in study, a habitual consultant of books. No, my readers, far from it. After all, for any person in isolation, who does not speak because of not having anyone with whom to speak, books, if he knows how to read, will become companions, dear friends with whom with all his heart, he can exchange his impressions. It is for this reason that I like mine."

For one, I like this idea of selling the books, not to a used book dealer, but to a "rag merchant" (!!!)

For two, Wenceslau, I'm feelin' ya'!

For three, here are a few verses a propos, by Francisco de Quevedo:

Retirado en la paz de estos desiertos,
con pocos, pero doctos, libros juntos,
vivo en conversación con los difuntos,
y escucho con mis ojos a los muertos.

Si no siempre entendidos, siempre abiertos,
o enmiendan, o fecundan mis asuntos;
y en músicos callados contrapuntos
al sueño de la vida hablan despiertos.


translation of the verses

I'll work on it, and amend the entry when I have it satisfactorily.


I understand what you mean, but if I had to part with most of my books, I would agonize over this decision. Don Quixote wuld certainly be a keeper. Other than that I am not sure how I would proceed...

books as wallpaper

Used to think bookshelves full of books look good. Now the neat bookshelves lined with metallic-covered pulp fiction have overflowed into boxes of paperbacks. Time to purge. Want to add anything to the yard sale? Maybe I'll just give them all away, one by one.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

"A child's garden of grass" is one I would keep. I borrowed someones once back in the 70's and my mother threatened to burn it, so I was elated to find an old copy in a book store somewhere in North Carolina a few years ago.

Also, A Clockwork Orange, which I just ordered used last week and anxiously await it's arrival!

October 2018



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