When books multiply

The first piece I ever wrote for this column [Bibliobuffet] was an account of what it felt like to pack up my library in preparation for moving.  I’m afraid I was a little poetic—I think I nattered on about archaeology and peeling away the layers of books on the shelves to discover the previous infatuations of an earlier life.

It has been nearly a year now since I first began to packing up the approximately eight thousand books I own and putting them into what felt like (and may well have been) hundred of boxes.  It has been about eight months since I moved house. It has been about two weeks since I took the last book out of its box. It will be at least six more months until they are all off the floor and shelved. Until that time, they litter the room I like to call my library, stacked in piles by subject, and occasionally moved from pile to pile as new topics and interests (obsessions?) begin to declare themselves.

It is perhaps the first time in over a decade I’ve had all my books in one place at one time, and it was a revelatory experience.  If the process of packing was one of self-examination, then unpacking has been one of critical reflection.  When I was putting books into boxes I reflected on the person I was when those books had first come into my life.  But as I took books out of their boxes weeks (and sometimes months later) I found I was much more focused on the book itself.  What was the story? How well did I remember it? How well was it written? What did I think about the author?

One of the funnier discoveries I made as I unpacked was that I have lots of “doubles”; one of the piles in my living room is made up entirely of books I already owned. These were extras. Doubles, ostensibly to be given away.  It is one of the taller stacks in the room-currently at about fifty books and climbing as I sort through the rest of my shelves and discover other multiples lurking.

When you own over eight thousand volumes, I guess it isn’t so surprising you might end up occasionally with a couple copies of the same book. But when the stack started to tower over the wicker armchair it was leaning against, I found myself contemplating it with some curiosity.  How did this happen? How could I have doubles (and in some case triples) of so many books?  I found myself thinking with alarm of the way we discovered my grandfather had been hoarding extra pull cords for the lawnmower he no longer owned, or the way my mother-in-law would, if left to her own devices, fill up closets with stockpiled rolls of toilet paper, a security against her deep abiding horror of ever running out.

But as I looked closer, I realized there were a variety of reasons for each and every extra copy in that pile.  I have been a career bookseller for twenty years—so publishers often sent me books. A fair number of the books in the stack were accumulated that way;  as review copies or promotional books sent to me for events and newsletters.  It was nice to know I hadn’t actually PAID for those.

Some of the books I had received as gifts, although this was a much smaller category because my friends rarely give me actual books. Instead, they give me gift certificates and the like—having long since abandoned the idea that there is a book on the planet I hadn’t already heard of and probably read.

There were a few, a very few, I had obviously forgot I owned, or thought I had lost, so I bought replacement copies (Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris falls into this category).  And there were a few I had apparently read in paperback, and liked enough to search out in the hardcover, which I tend to prefer because I’m as hard on books as I am on shoes and clothes—much to the despair of friends and family. “You’re like a crash test dummy for shoes” grumbled one, after the latest pair of sandals gave out within two months. I’m murder on books as well, so the hardcover edition of The Great Gatsby and most of the novels of Jane Austen was by way of an investment.

But the largest portion of this pile of doubles are indeed books I had bought quite deliberately, and these I find a little more interesting—or perhaps the word is “revealing.”  There are, for example, a whole set of books that I can’t seem to decide if I want to own or not. They will get purged in my rare attempts to get rid of books I think aren’t “serious enough” to keep. Invariably, a year or so later I will find myself craving those supposedly “fluffy” books, and buy them all over again. This has happened to me with most of the novels by Dick Francis, Ngaio Marsh, and various other mystery or science fiction/fantasy writers. I believe I have repurchased the first three of Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” novels at least six times over the last twenty years.

And then there are the books I am obviously compelled to buy from sheer lust and obsession.  How else can I explain the fact that I seem to own not one, not two, but three complete sets of Samuel Delany’s fiction? Four separate copies of Robin Morgan’s poetry collection called Monster? Three different copies of an obscure travel book by Hilaire Belloc called A Path to Rome?  Two copies of a weird little book called The Outlaw Cook by John Thorne? FOUR editions of Olive Schreiner’s beguiling The Story of an African Farm?

The truth about this last, most important set is that I am driven to buy these books. There is a moment in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s wonderful novel The Shadow of the Wind where the young protagonist, Daniel, is told to choose a book from a library to be his forever to guard and cherish–to “…adopt it, making sure it will never disappear, that it will always be alive.”

I think I have dozens of books I have “adopted” in this way. They are books that more or less obscure, go in and out of print, are sometimes hard to find, and sometimes rediscovered. But whatever their current status, I simply cannot stand the thought that they might fall out of existence altogether, so I buy them when I see them. (In that sense, I am more like my toilet-paper-hoarding mother-in-law than I thought). When they are republished, I purchase the new editions—a weak voice of grateful support for the publisher who has brought them back into the world. There isn’t a bookseller on the planet that hasn’t, at some point, purchased a favorite book from their own store just to give it a sales history, just to have an excuse to order another copy, or keep it in stock a little bit longer. And if they are out of print completely, I ferret them out from the dusty shelves of the used bookstores, take them home, and dispense them with loving care to people who I think may find them as wonderful, as transformative, as I did.

Because ultimately, what makes a book alive is that it is read, and loved.  The books teetering in that stack on my living room floor may not ever reach a bookshelf, but they are some of the most ALIVE books in the room.


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