“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
~ Charles W. Eliot
This is a revised, updated and somewhat expanded version of two essays which first appeared on my “literary” blogspot - “Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret” - in late 2009 and early 2010.
The Brazilian novelist and journalist Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist, The Pilgrimage, The Winner Stands Alone, and Aleph) has for many years shown an intensive interest in the Internet and its ability to increase access to literature and other media. In August 2008, he wrote in his blog that “books are trendier than ever - people are reading again, and writing again and why? Internet.” A couple months later he delivered a keynote address, “The Internet’s Impact on Culture,” at the Frankfurt Book Fair. He believed the Internet, as well as the Kindle and the Nook, was making books obsolete.
The December 2009 issue of Playboy magazine featured Coehlo’s essay, “Dust in the Wind,” in which he addressed the question of why he was breaking up his personal library. He confessed that he no longer had many books; years ago he decided to keep only 400 books (give or take a few); books he found himself frequently rereading along with a few that had sentimental value. The remainder he donated to a public library where they might be used and enjoyed by others. “Why should I keep all these books at home? To show friends I am cultured? To decorate the walls?”
When I originally read Coehlo’s essay in late 2009, I looked at my offices both at home and at work, and the walls of books in our bedroom and den, and I began to think that Coelho may have a good point. He originally kept all of his books, thinking that one day he would need to consult one or another. Later, considering that the Internet has become one of the most comprehensive reference libraries in the world, he decided to share his books with others, “trying to obtain a maximum quality with a minimum amount of things.” Coehlo continued to purchase books, but once he finished them, he allowed them to travel “like the mind of the author traveled as he wrote it.” He now believes that “a book has a course of its own and should not be condemned to remain immobilized on a shelf.”
I must confess that I love books. I always have. So it has been difficult for me to imagine ever giving them up, even after I have read them. That said, I have begun to understand why Coelho decided to simplify his life. There comes a time when one must face the consequences of a lifetime of buying and saving books.
In late 2009 my former office at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC had floor to ceiling bookcases covering two entire walls, and other books were piled here and there wherever space was available. Every time my wife visited she would look at all of these books, shake her head, and inquire where I intended to put them once I retired. A levitate question although at the time I had no concrete plans to retire. So, in my mind anyway, it was a moot point. My response was quick and to the point. “I haven’t got the faintest idea.” On top of all this, new books seemed to appear almost daily as out of thin air. Another one for this pile or that.
At home our den and bedroom have floor to ceiling bookcases packed tight with our favorite books, and there is frequently an overflow of books stacked up next to each side of our bed, and by the couch in the den. Add to this bookcases in the basement along with the many boxes of books packed up in storage. Most of these date back to college and graduate school, and although I have no suitable place to display them, I have always held fast to the notion that one day that space will somehow miraculously materialize.
The fate of the books in my office? I was faced with the dilemma sooner than I expected, and in March 2010 I did, in fact, retire and the hens came home to roost. I finally had to decide what I was going to do with all of those books. My wife and I braved a winter storm, driving into downtown DC to begin packing up my office, including these three plus decades of accumulated books. There were books that had sentimental value, and others I knew I would need at some point in the future. Like Coehlo, I would want to keep these. Would I be able to keep this number to 400? Only time would tell. We crated up over three dozen boxes, most of them books, which we brought home. Several other boxes of books moved from my office to the section’s library where my colleagues would continue to use them. Finally, we packed up more boxes which I loaded into our car, navigating a snow-packed Pennsylvania Avenue to a small bookstore on Capitol Hill. While the owner unpacked each box for inspection, his wife invited me into an adjoining room where she offered me a piping hot cup of coffee as I told her how I had come to accumulate so many books. They both understood how difficult it was for me to part with them, and they were generous, buying about half of what I brought in. The rest I donated to the store for its “books cheap” program to benefit the local neighborhood association . . . the idea being to find them a good home. Sounded good to me; Coehlo would have been proud. I made my way back through the snow to my office with a few bucks in my pocket, enough to buy a nice dinner for us when we finished our packing at the end of the day.
I cannot see myself ever not buying a new book. But Coelho may have found an equitable solution to this dilemma. Perhaps it is time to let some of these older books travel seeking their own course. Do I really need to decorate my walls with books, many of which I will never open again, to show that I am an intellectual and cultured individual? I still prefer to pick up a book when I am doing research. But I definitely like the idea of sharing books with others, especially those I no longer have need of. And, to be honest, I just don’t have anywhere to put them.
For the past three years those dozens of boxes of books brought home from my office have sat squeezed into the basement wherever there is space. And just like when she used to visit my office, my wife looks at them and asks me what I plan to do with them. Well, there is still no room for them here at home and so I am going to have to start making some of the hard decisions I have been putting off until another time. That time has finally arrived.
I have moved the car out into the driveway and have now unpacked all the books which lie stacked on two long tables in the garage. The sorting process has begun and I am trying to decide which books I am going to keep for whatever reason. Some I just cannot part with and so I will find room for these. I put a few interesting history books into a box which I gave to my son’s father-in-law who shares my interest in various historical topics. He was very happy to have them. When you give someone a book, you are giving them the most imaginative of gifts, because you are taking a personal interest in what interests them.
But what to do with the stacks of books for which I have no room? It is time to find them a new home. Perhaps I will be able to sell a few more, but when it all sorts out, I will probably do the same thing Coehlo did . . . donate them to a library which will share them with others. Perhaps I could get more money, if I continued to shop them around to various book stores, but frankly, I am not interested in the money. If I was, I would have acted long before now. I will be happy just to find a proper new home for my most constant of friends.
Thomas Jefferson, in his aging years at Monticello, offered to sell his private library to the US government in Washington to help rebuild the Library of Congress collections that were lost when the British sacked and burned he capital in September 1814. His library had grown so large that he could no longer accommodate it, nor did he have the time, energy nor the inclination to read all that he had collected over the years. Not only would these books be welcomed in Washington, but the monies from the sale would go far to help offset the growing debts of Jefferson’s estate. In April 1815, several wagons containing almost 7000 volumes made their way to Washington and John Adams, Jefferson’s longtime friend and confident (and sometimes bitter nemesis) applauded the gesture as an “immortal honor.” Jefferson, finding it impossible to survive without his books, began to establish a new library at Monticello.
The bookish Adams could well understand his friend’s plight as his own personal library at Peacefield, his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, numbered well over 3000 volumes. And still he wished to continue to increase his collection, as he once confessed to Jefferson. “What would I give to possess in one immense mass, one stupendous draught, all the legends, true and false.” This collection was deeded to the town of Quincy in 1826, two years before Adam’s death, and was eventually incorporated into the Boston Public Library, in 1894. Adam’s son, John Quincy Adams, who served as the sixth President of the United States, eventually authorized the construction of a Gothic Revival stone library adjacent to the Peacefield residence which was completed in 1873, a quarter of a century after his death. Today it houses over 14,000 volumes belonging to him and other members of the Adams family.
So perhaps my donation of my personal library will serve as my own “immortal honor”? Had I the means, I would certainly follow in the footsteps of John Quincy Adam and build a library to house all of my most constant friends. Instead, I plan to send them forth as my personal emissaries. Let them enlighten others as they have enlightened me.
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