For someone with pretensions to an intellectual life, books are the raw ingredients of that life. As a baker cannot create a full life of breads and pastries without flour, books stand in the same relation to a philosopher, or writer, or anyone who takes the process of thought seriously. When I retired last year, and began this blog, I had between 2200 and 2500 books in my house. Many had been with me since my teenaged years, and proved to be the truest and most dependable of friends. Others were recent discoveries, such as the novels of Richard Russo and Rebecca Goldstein. While retirement did not signal an end of my intellectual life, I hoped, there had been building in me for some time a recognition that these needed to find other homes.
So, I began to let friends, colleagues, students and former students know that they were free to come by and loot my shelves mercilessly. I chose a day early last fall on a warm Sunday afternoon, made wine and snacks available, as well as bags and empty boxes, and threw open my doors. Of course, not all books were up for grabs. Before the day arrived, I went through the collection to identify the ones that I would need to be buried clutching. Most were philosophy books that continually reward another reading, such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, referred to in my most recent blogs, and the writings of the late Ronald Dworkin, perhaps our country’s greatest philosopher of the law and how it reflects on our daily moral lives.
But the process of triage quickly became troublesome. Of course, I kept my father’s copies of Plato and Kant. He read them while he was in divinity school at Temple U., in Philadelphia in the 1930s His notes were still in the margins. These were too close to my heart. But what about all the Shaw? G.B. Shaw had been my closest boyhood friend, and taught me to love language as a lover does: playfully, wondrously, knowing that words carry a burden far heavier than a font. I had all his plays, the long and the short. “Man and Superman” was the one I tucked away to read on the bus to 1963’s March on Washington, but hardly cracked with all the folk and hymn-singing. They all went, as did some autographed copies, including a couple signed by the whimsical Kansas City cartoonist, Charlie Barsotti, who died this year while I was in California. Ansel Adams’s great lessons on photography, The Negative and The Print were up for grabs, even though no one has ever made either of those artistic creations more movingly. And so it went. Shakespeare was grabbed, but Ogden Nash stayed hidden from the horde. Books defy objective explanation. In all instances, I made a case for why I was saving something but not something else, often on pragmatic grounds. But no one could make sense of those arguments other than me, I am sure.
Today was the last day. I boxed up half the ones remaining last week, and my dear friend and former student, Jessica, helped me haul them to the library that had agreed to accept them without restriction. Philosophy journals mixed with cookbooks and travel guides to Asia. A huge hardcover, slipcased, of the collected photographs of Alfred Eisenstadt, a photojournalist now largely forgotten, was wedged under a collection of the philosophy of science, perhaps a forlorn reminder that the digital age in photography has all but eclipsed the technology Eisie used with his Leica and Tri-X film. That was my technology, too, but it is just a curiosity now, and maybe I am, as well.
As I approached the last two bookcases, knowing that tomorrow they would be taken from me by a former student who owns a used bookstore and needs to shelve her acquisitions, I began to slow down the pace of my boxing. Something final was in the air. Something I hadn’t recognized when I blithely sent Shaw to his doom, and Ansel as well. I was beginning to shovel dirt upon the casket and I didn’t like the feeling at all. Tears began to fill my eyes, just as they are doing now as I think about it. Just like in a funeral, you like to think the deceased are going to a better place, but only well-indoctrinated children believe that completely. The rest of us look knowingly into that deep hole and realize that’s where it all ends. At the beginning of this giveaway, I was optimistic that these books would end up in the hands of new, fresh-faced, enthusiastic readers. And my friends and students assured me this was so. But we’ve reached the end of the road. This final set of boxes contains the unadoptables. The time is up and the pound is going to snuff them. Maybe they won’t end up like Aristotle’s missing works in Alexandria, lost forever to the flames of fanaticism. But the life they gave me is unlikely to nourish another from a warehouse, or a landfill, or a recycling bin. It almost seems as if I am giving up a part of my life with this sacrifice, just as I did with retirement, and as I will when I bury my friend Bill this Saturday, one of the 3 great male friends I vaguely identified in my last blog on Sunday July 20. He died the next day.
The advice at other funerals is also useful for ones concerning books. Hold the ones that remain very closely, love them more intensely, squeeze from them every drop of meaning you can. The shovel is at the ready, and who knows which one of us is next.