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The Way I See It: Giving Away My Library

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Books are magical. As readers, we wizards conjure up entire worlds from their pages.

The contents are as limitless as human creativity: poetry about the tongue of a lark seen across a valley; the obscure mathematics that describes liquid frozen on Titan; memories of distant relatives, admiring the blossoms of a spring plum a century ago; symbols from languages that haven’t been spoken since before volcanos sank islands in wine-dark seas.

Written on blank, dry, bleached wood of unknown species, inked words can evoke sounds and joys that we would otherwise never experience. To hold a book is to hold the impossible.

Which is why, when I told my friends I was leaving town and they could have any books they wanted, I was bewildered to find a vague, gray apathy. “I’m all set.” Or, “I have enough books already.” Or, “I don’t have room in my house.” To this, I texted back: “Liar. The floor is the biggest bookshelf in your house.”

For as long as I can remember, the main purpose of a job is to be able to afford books and a watertight apartment to keep them in. No free pile has gone unscoured. No bookstore in any city I have lived in has gone unvisited.

If I am on a walk with friends and I see a bookshop I haven’t visited, I can often judge the strength of the friendship on two factors: whether they understand that I turned aside and entered without letting them know, and if they join me along the way.

As a result, my apartment has very little free wall space. There are bookshelves everywhere. Books are under plants. Books are on top of the bread box. Books are placed above the bed. The April 5 earthquake was almost really interesting.

This isn’t a problem for me. I’m happy to have too many books. I regularly give books away. I bought an air purifier to deal with the dust. It’s all fine. The problem is moving. It’s figuring out which ones go into storage, which ones to give away, and which ones to give up. That’s considerably harder.

Some bibliophilic friends understand this problem. They’d be up for taking some books. But even then, strange sensibilities slink in. When I asked a fellow Ph.D. student if they wanted to peruse my shelves, they said they only wanted “Eastern Europe stuff, medical study of sex and gender, synthesizers, old electronics, old games. I’m predictable.”

I struggled to think of a book that covered all of those bases. (Neil Stephenson’s “Pattern Recognition” might do it. Maybe “Snow Crash” by Gibson, too.) One neighbor only wanted books about carpentry or native wildflowers. I have three, maybe 10, books on those topics. Tops.

It turns out that when people say they love books, what they normally mean is that they love the books they’ve personally read. They like Harry Potter. They like “Eat, Pray, Love.” Occasionally, they’ll like a copy of “Hamlet” or something by Tolstoy. It’s rare to find people who genuinely love books for the objects they are.

Umberto Eco was one such person. He separated people who looked at his large personal library of 30,000 books into two camps: those who said, “Have you read all of these?” and those who got the point. A library is a collection of books that you one day could read. Or are there for the moments when you think, “I need to build a flower bed for my native plants, out of native wood only.” They’re research tools — and this kind of library, as the essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it, is an antilibrary.

My library is an antilibrary. It’s been marvelous to live in. But what happens when an antilibrary goes into storage? Of what use is a research tool you can’t access?

So, I’ve been giving them away. I think books should breathe. They should be on the shelf, gathering dust, but present, reachable, imminent. I’d rather they sit on a friend’s wall for a few years; maybe they’ll be read. Maybe not. They would be of more use to others, in any case, than they would to me.

There’s another benefit to downsizing: Some people love books. But everyone loves gifts. And giving books to friends is a supreme joy. Oh, you have to read Mary Oliver. You haven’t heard of Jhumpa Lahiri? Wait, I do have some French children’s books, s’il vous plaît.

I find that I’ve briefly become an anti-antilibrarian; a prodisestablishmentarianist, breaking down my own establishment. I haven’t heard of anyone else who has had this experience. But if you give me a few minutes, I can probably think of a book that talks about something similar, if you want it.

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