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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Purging the books

Every few years, it seems, some necessity demands removal of superfluous books from the shelves — or books that can be perceived as superfluous, if there are such things. When I was dealt a hand of aces and eights at The Sun in April, I had two cartons of books to remove from the premises. I can smuggle an occasional volume past Kathleen, but an additional bookcase would not escape her vigilant eye. Something has to go.

I am fifty-eight years old, and chances seem remote that I will ever make another run at Finnegans Wake. Off to the used-book sale at the Festival-on-the-Hill in Bolton Hill. Back editions of the Associated Press Stylebook are an easy choice.

But sentiment is hard to eliminate from these operations. I still regret having sacrificed the paperback edition of Philip Larkin’s High Windows that I bought in 1985 at Louie’s Bookstore Cafe while interviewing at The Sun, even though I have the contents in his Collected Poems. And despite the wreckage of my ambition to be an eighteenth-century man, I will not let go of Arthur Hoffman’s book on Dryden’s imagery or his late monograph on the plays of Congreve until I have to pack my bindle for the Old Editors’ Home. Professor Hoffman was a witty and engaging teacher of the old school, and he was kind to me. And I am not giving up Gibbon; one has to have something in reserve for retirement.

Discarding The Structuralist Controversy, however, leaves no pang.

Jane Austen and Barbara Pym stay, but perhaps it’s time to give up on Byron’s Don Juan. Nobody’s touching John McPhee or my ratty but complete paperback set of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. But Gravity’s Rainbow, which I have started four times without ever making appreciable progress, gets the boot. Boswell and Johnson, you may have guessed, are secure. So are Edmund Wilson and John Cheever. And the poets: Roethke, Jarrell, Lowell, Wilbur, Hecht, Kumin, Van Duyn.

But a shadow looms over numerous others.

Some of these books I have carted from premises to premises since the 1970s, with good intentions, but it is in the nature of things that the Long Parliament sooner or later gives way to the Rump. Farewell, my lovelies.


  1. It breaks my heart every time I purge my book collection, but it is especially hard doing it at the house I grew up in. These books have been on the same shelves for eighty years. No first editions or author signatures to justify their value, just the knowledge that my great grandfather learned how to read from this 1837 McGuffey edition keeps me from letting it and so many other tomes go.

  2. I like to donate books that are in good/excellent condition to my local library when it's time to purge my shelves.

  3. My husband and I have been using Paperback Swap to limit the number of new bookshelves we need.

    There are a number of my father's books that pre-date ISBN numbers that I do not want to get rid of even if I will not read them.

  4. I refuse to toss all my best detective books: Christie, James, Tey (try "The Singing Sands" when life is flat, stale and unprofitable),Daly,Marsh et al.I also keep all my music history books, although lately I've been eyeing Reese with a jaundiced eye. Even graduate students are spared Reese, in favor of more recent scholars. When the little creatures begin to pile up, the library gets the goodies. I don't weep over thinning the herd: let someone else have the goodness of them. Recordings are another matter altogether...

  5. "When I was dealt a hand of aces and eights at The Sun in April..."

    Do most people know what this means? I played poker professionally for a while so it is a common phrase, but I will be surprised to learn that it is used by the masses.

  6. Good question, Mr. Garner, and we at You Don't Say are always favorable to the increase of general knowledge.

    "Wild Bill" Hickok was holding two pairs, aces and eights, in a poker game in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in August 1876,when he was shot in the back of the head by one Jack McCall. The story may be part legend, but aces and eights has come to be known as the "dead man's hand."

  7. My wife and I have a library where the basement is supposed to be. When we moved ourselves here four years ago, we had about 40 backbreaking boxes of books. My wife won't let me discard any, so my only way to be rid of one is to leave it out for our table-surfing year-old boxer to chew beyond repair. Often I can't remember which of our books I've read. I have to see if any of the sentences have been highlighted, usually in yellow.

  8. Patrick's story reminds me of my own.

    When we married, I moved the contents of fourteen two foot by six foot book cases into her 2000 square foot home.

    Three years ago we had to box them all up due to an under-the-home drain system failure and replacement project.

    The repainted bookcases were arranged and the boxes moved in and the unpacking project began.

    There are still more than forty boxes stacked in the middle of the floor and all of the shelves are full.

    Each time I open another box, though, it is like encountering old friends.

    I do not throw those old friends under buses (cliche' inserted for the benefit of the editor). I clean them, scan them and put them on eBay,, or Those too old for the ISBN go on Bruce'sBasementBooks once I figure out the monetary worth.

    I will not, as my dear Mother did, depart the earth with my stacks falling in disarray upon my progeny.