The Volume of Volumes

Books sometimes seem destined to vanish from modern society, like the handwritten letters that used to arrive in the mail.  That makes it even harder to let them go.

How did we acquire so many books?  I know I began treasuring them as a child, and when I recently began sorting and boxing, I found proof:  the bookplate inside my copy of Bruce, by Albert Payson Terhune.  It notes that the volume was “acquired 1962” – when I would have been eleven years old.  The book itself is even older, a 1920 first edition.  (Hardly a rare one though; the same edition sells for five dollars online.)Bookplate

Old books always appealed to me.  An elderly copy of Huckleberry Finn from my grandmother’s house made a vivid impression when I read it as a teenager.  Turning the fragile pages made me connected to a distant era, perhaps as much as Twain’s storytelling did.  I began to think I wanted to have old books around me always, books my grandchildren might read.

So now we are inundated with books.  Some of them came from my late mother-in-law, a faithful patron of library sales, who rarely spent more than 25¢ for a hardcover.  Numerous pristine children’s books arrived through subscription services that I succumbed to, as a well-intended parent.  Dozens of trade paperbacks are proof of too many hours spent in airports.

We took four boxes (the kind that hold a case of wine) to the local library book sale, and six more to a nearby non-profit.  And still there are shelves full, and pounds more in boxes, waiting for me to let go.  Waiting for new readers, those who love old pages.

3 thoughts on “The Volume of Volumes

  1. We have a complicated relationship with books. As tangible artifacts of memory and knowledge they reassure us and ground us. I hold onto my tattered copy of Justin Morgan had a Horse even though the cover separated from the spine a decade ago and I haven’t opened the book in two decades because when I glimpse it on the shelf I touch a bit of the ten year old me. Like you, I have books that I acquired used and from friends and when I open the cover, see the name inscribed, follow the underlinings and read the scribbled margin notes I am in conversation with that other reader. Each book is a friend, a moment, a connection to the world around me.
    Books line the walls in several rooms in my home and office and some day they will have to go. I cannot keep carting them all around with me. When I contemplate this it causes me pain because I know that for all their personal meaning people’s books are a challenge to dispose of. The library where I worked for several years had regular book sales of deaccessioned and donated books. The inventory of sale books covered the tables that filled the library’s meeting room and when the sales were over a mountain of books always remained to be disposed of. Who really wants out of date reference books, grainy, worn looking picture books, biographies of the formerly famous, how to guides for the last five diet crazes, and multiple copies of yesterday’s best seller that now everyone has read?
    What to do with them? The staff agonized, fretted and researched (librarians are very good at research) and found a man who hauled away all the books in his truck. When pressed he explained he used them as fill, burying them on his property. I imagine some future home builder beginning excavation and discovering that their choice home site, the scenic rise with the lovely view, was actually a mountain of books.
    Where do/will all our books go when we are gone? People have gone to great creative lengths to recycle them as art projects. I have seen purses and lamps made of books, wreaths and flowers and jewelry made from the pages. I have personally considering turning the stack of immense unreadable bibles and religious tomes that people persist in dropping off at the church into a lovely book themed end table. But however persistent we are in our creativity we will all still have towers of printed material to pass on or recycle.

  2. Many of us have a visceral reaction to destroying books but there are so very many of them that have no real use. My mother,every time she visits my house, is disgusted at the amount of books I have. If I were honest I probably will never again look at about a third of them but I have not yet been able to let them go. That is the ever present challenge – to be clear eyed about what serves a useful function in our lives – and then let the rest go.

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