Yesterday I went to the used book sale at Spencertown Academy.
I was overwhelmed by the number of homeless books and people selecting them to bring home. It wasn’t quite like visiting the morgue, though at first I thought it seemed like rows of dead books, a price tag tied to each of their big toes. No, it was more like an orphanage for the mute or a dog pound. The lucky, cute ones are retrieved, lugged to a new home, and end up on a shelf or under the bed, or God forbid, in the trash. And the unlucky ones, what happens to them? What happens to great ones initially purchased as required reading, ignored for semesters, always resold, eventually tattered, on their last legs, trying to look cute at this sale, trying to avoid the land fill?
I didn’t bring anything home. I thought about a not too battered “The Sun Also Rises” and a thin Kawabata with a stiff binding. But I’ve taken a vow of some kind to stop trying to recreate the basement of Strand Books in my house. Only the most indispensible books are coming home with me, and the definition is a moving target that doesn’t expand just because they cost only 25 cents each. I was relieved not to find books by Alejo Carpentier or Carlos Fuentes, books I would have to rescue. I was also relieved not to see a book I wrote in one of the bargain bins, where I would have had to rescue it, or worse, lurk until someone considered giving it a new home and then initiate a sales pitch so that my offspring would find suitable lodgings. "This is an excellent book," I'd say. "Very enjoyable. You'll love it. I do."
I left the sale sad and confused and depressed. I really don’t have room. If I were a book and could talk like one, maybe I could have consoled some of those great novels, Tolstoy and Dickens, for example, who were left behind, the ones whose time has finally come. “Look,” I would have said. “It’s disgraceful. Readers aren’t what they used to be. They cannot appreciate someone as wonderful, as loving, as well crafted as you. It’s not your fault. And owners aren’t what they used to be either. They won’t keep you. That, too, is not your fault. In the name of feng shui or elimination of clutter or God knows what other golden calf, they’re cleansing you without a thought. It’s a really rotten business. It’s not like the old days when once you found a home they respected you and kept you until an estate sale.”
Later that evening my remorse grew. I was walking in Hudson. I saw a used book I myself gave away living on the street, in a free book bin at The Second Show in Hudson, New York. No, I didn’t bring it home again. Seeing it just increased my feelings of morbidity. I made believe it hadn’t been mine and walked down the block in embarassment.
Maybe I’ve been missing the point. Maybe the book is just a body, a container, a husk, and the story is its eternal soul. The books are obviously impermanent. They end up dog eared, in sales, in free book bins and in the land fill. They end up under the bed, covered with dust bunnies. But the story, once its written and told, can go on and on and on. The books, themselves, don’t seem to mind, and in fact, they seem to accept their circumstances. They know it’s not about the preservation of paper and ink and glue, it’s about the stories. If the stories are like trees, why was I yesterday so concerned about the fate of the acorns?