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April 16, 2015

Culling the Library

      You might think that I am a bibliomaniac, but that is far from the truth. I am not manic about books. I buy them, sell them, trade them and lend them. I certainly will admit to being a bibliophile, a lover of books. I have always been a voracious reader, ready to be immersed in the new worlds or alternate visions that books provide. As a writer, I understand that words are a form of power that can be used and abused. So when I find a book that I like, I feel that it imparts some of its power to me. My shelves of books are like my armor, Quixotic armor, rusty and dented, but protective nonetheless.

     So disposing of a large part of my library is like stripping away a protective shell, laying myself bare to a world that is not as neatly ordered as my volumes. Like a hermit crab abandoning its shell and trailing its soft abdomen as it searches for another, I feel vulnerable. Unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, I don't particularly want to be a pair of ragged claws, Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

     I will also admit to being a collector. The books that I collect are old, but not necessarily expensive. The most I have ever paid for the books that I collect is about $50, and that one was special since it had the bookplate of its previous owner in it; the previous owner being Harpo Marx. Which reminds me that his brother Groucho once said that, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark too read." Some that I own I bought for a few dollars at second-hand bookshops only to find later that they were worth hundreds of dollars. Many of these, although dear to me, will be finding new homes.

     The core of my collection consists of quarto-sized books primarily published by The Bodley Head at Oxford, England or Dodd Meade in the US. They are beautifully illustrated fantasies by Cabell, Anatole France and others. They are staying with me, as are the complete sets of Sir Richard Burton's translation of "A Thousand Nights and A Night" and Fraser's "The Golden Bough".

What, then, shall go?
  • Most of the poetry. 
  • All of the books on technical writing, semiotics, linguistics,
  • Most of the math, except for puzzles and Euclid. (I love my wife but oh Euclid.)
  • A lot of the science, excluding the natural history.
  • Most of the novels except for those that would be nearly impossible to replace. 
  • Probably half the books on design.
These will descend into the cardboard purgatory with most of the religion and philosophy.

     Ah me ... I know that I am doing the logical thing, but my heart disagrees with my head. Logic is like the the curate and the barber in Don Quixote, sorting and consigning the mad knight's books to the fire as he lies sleeping.

    That night the housekeeper burned to ashes all the books that were in the yard and in the whole house; and some must have been consumed that deserved preservation in everlasting archives, but their fate and the laziness of the examiner did not permit it, and so in them was verified the proverb that the innocent suffer for the guilty.

    One of the remedies which the curate and the barber immediately applied to their friend's disorder was to wall up and plaster the room where the books were, so that when he got up he should not find them (possibly the cause being removed the effect might cease), and they might say that a magician had carried them off, room and all; and this was done with all despatch. 
     Two days later Don Quixote got up, and the first thing he did was to go and look at his books, and not finding the room where he had left it, he wandered from side to side looking for it. He came to the place where the door used to be, and tried it with his hands, and turned and twisted his eyes in every direction without saying a word; but after a good while he asked his housekeeper whereabouts was the room that held his books.
    The housekeeper, who had been already well instructed in what she was to answer, said, "What room or what nothing is it that your worship is looking for? There are neither room nor books in this house now, for the devil himself has carried all away."

     The reference books stay. So what if I have three rhyming dictionaries ... they stay. The books on colonial history, agriculture and architecture stay.

     Sadly, the easiest to dispose of and the first to be packed will be the collection of books that I have written. It's not as horrifying as it sounds. I spent many years as a technical writer and wrote hundreds of software manuals, marketing guides, reference books, and contributed papers to many periodicals and proceedings. All of them are outdated and although I am proud of the work, they are now meaningless. This will be my responsibility. My housekeeper has no kindling at hand. There will be no garden conflagration. If some of my work must be destroyed, it will be by my hand. I will not make a Lady Burton out of my wife; putting her husband's manuscripts to the torch.

And the orphan books, crammed into their shipping containers, shall immigrate to good homes to be adopted by bibliophiles more settled and secure than I. 

I bid them farewell with a quote from Richard LeGallienne:

    "Thus shall you live upon warm shelves again,
    And 'neath an evening lamp your pages glow."

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