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October 16, 2010


It’s been a problem for some time, this collecting of books. Bookshelves line the walls in nearly every room of my house, and each shelf is full to bursting. Stacks of books surround my desk and totter near the shelves in my study, and boxes from Amazon arrive on my doorstep with disturbing regularity. When my husband asks, “where did you spend all that money?” I just shrug, and tilt my head toward the bookshelves.

From my library

None of the books I own are particularly special. There are just a lot of them. Most are paperbacks. Many are marked up, dog-eared, and crumbling. None is worth the price I paid for it, which is saying a lot — the lowest priced book on my shelf is labeled fifty cents.

I know there are collectors who lust after first editions, rare manuscripts, and incunabula. Some collect miniatures – I’ve seen one Bible printed in a book no bigger than my thumbnail. Such books are valuable beyond imagining, but price isn’t everything. To me, what happens to the collections is what matters.

I think, for example, of Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631). Did he worry about money when he acquired the Beowulf manuscript? Did he fuss over the prices he paid for his ancient and medieval manuscripts? Did he worry about the cost of housing his massive collection? Surely not. Bibliophiles scoff at price tags, however high. But to my mind, the true value of a bibliophile’s collection lies not in what lines the bookshelves, but in what he or she leaves behind. For example, Cotton’s library – what is left of it (there was a fire, alas) – is now in the hands and on the shelves of the British Museum. As rare as its contents are, one can still visit bits of even its rarest manuscripts. Visit, but not touch.

My collection, on the other hand, is entirely touchable. Every book has been touched, and more than a few have touched me. Some, I like to read over and over again. B.J. Chute’s Greenwillow is one such book, one I save for late winter, when the light is cold, and kindness seems in short supply. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (like Beowulf, a one-of-a-kind rarity from Cotton’s library) is another — I revel in its eeriness in the dark days between Christmas and the New Year.

The value of my books lies mainly in my memory of having read them. I like to let my eyes wander over the titles as I remember where and when the books and I first met. I remember classrooms, park benches, childhood nights beneath the covers with a flashlight and a Nancy Drew. I remember reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land when I was in love with Billy Holbrook. I remember Kazantzakis from an ill-advised affair with a Greek fellow who was all looks and no character.

Now, I think, it is time to let go. It’s time to give someone else the joy of discovering my books. And so, I empty my shelves and carry my books — box by box and bag by bag — up the sweeping steps and through the doors of our community college library. It’s time to settle my books on a new set of shelves to enter the memories of someone new. It may not be Cotton’s donation to the British Museum, but it’s all the richer for that.

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