Harback Mountain: Giving books the kiss-off

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Harback Mountain: Giving books the kiss-off

Post by Haydnseek » Fri Feb 16, 2007 4:14 pm

Hardback Mountain
Giving my books the kiss-off.

Friday, February 16, 2007 12:01 a.m.

I was once told by an old graybeard (was he a teacher at school? an uncle in Madras? alas, I can't remember . . .) that a cultured man should have very few friends but very many books. I must have been a youngish mite at the time, for I feel that I've carried the imprint of those words for as long as I've been sentient.

As my friends--all 2 1/2 of them--will testify, I've remained true to the first part of the sage's dictum. And my wife, bless her--and bless, also, her fortitude--will leap to give evidence that I've not merely been faithful to its second half but have complied with its dictates in a manner that might easily be described as fervid. A veritable Katrina of books deluges the two places we call home, and a day seldom goes by without my slinking in the front door with even more of the darn things in the pockets of my trench coat.

And so, as my wife might have said of my books had Walt Whitman not said it first: "Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding, / Outward and outward and forever outward." My recent suggestion, that we have a handyperson come around to put bookshelves in the last unshelved room in the Brooklyn apartment--the master bedroom--was met with an opera-perfect rendition of the riot act.

So imagine my consternation when, on having to pack up the contents of my office last week--I start a new job at the Journal, and must park myself in a new cubicle, with fewer shelves--I was faced with a devilish question: What to do with the books I'd accumulated there these last four years, books numbering, conservatively, well into four figures.

Seduction is a reliable path out of domestic cul-de-sacs, so I decided to try it on my wife--all for the sake of my books. Grandparents enlisted to take our young son for the night, I proceeded to cook a nifty meal for two, to be gargled back with a brace of bottles of her favorite red, L'Esprit des Pavot from the Peter Michael Winery in Calistoga. (Wine-buffs will know how hard it is to score this stuff, and I can only hint at the abundance of books I might have purchased with the funds I had to set aside for the vino.) And then, halfway through dinner, with the mood suitably softback, I popped the question: "Love," I said--sincerely, but not unmindful of the word's diplomatic possibilities--"do you, er, mind--the wine's good, isn't it!--er, may I bring . . . a pile of books home from the office?"

She (brusquely actuarial): "How many?"

He (now a quivering wreck): "Oh, I think about 3,000 . . ."

She (for there is a God, and He enabled a munificent compromise): "How about 1,500. And not one book more."

And thus began a process with which I have grown--as a man who has led a peripatetic life--heartbrokenly familiar. You take root someplace, then a call comes from Fortune herself and you move on to another place. And since there is no moving on without a leaving behind, you teach yourself to discard.

You cannot take everything with you--even the Scriptures say that, though in respect only of the Last Passage. So acquaintances, clothes, furniture, pictures, all must be culled; as, too, must books, whose loss can sometimes weigh most heavily of all. Some measure out their lives with coffee-spoons; I do so with books left behind (in such places as Delhi, Oxford, London and Madrid).

I stood in my office, beside my wall of books, and sifted as gold-miners do: looking for what to keep and what to throw over my shoulder. Gold is a good measure in these things, for unless one sets standards ruthlessly, one can be distracted easily from the truths of onward movement. "Why did I want that book in the first place?" and "Can I live without that book?" are my tests--my cyanide solution to separate the aureate book from the dispensable.

Take "Industrial Landscapes," a big book of ghostly and quite affecting pictures of abandoned factories in the Ruhr Valley. Did I really need to bear that home with me? Or that new hardback novel by a "gifted, deft and luminous" (I quote from the blurb on the dust jacket) Trinidadian writer--must I keep it? Or that Bantam Classic edition of "Leaves of Grass." It's a handy size for subway reading, but don't I already have about eight different editions of the Whitman at home, not counting Complete Works, etc.?

Only a few books are slam-dunk discards: "Secrets of Longevity: Hundreds of Ways to Live to be 100" by one Dr. Maoshing Ni (a 38th-generation doctor of Chinese medicine) was one such. What could I have been thinking when I elected to take it from this newspaper's books-for-review giveaway pile? Could it have been on a morning on which I was hung-over, a cameo of mortality playing before bloodshot eyes? "Sleep like a deer," the doctor exhorts on one page; "No Raw Foods" in winter, he says on another. Bye-bye book.

Such books are an exception. Most are like "Love After War," a selection of contemporary fiction from Vietnam. Certainly I could go through life without opening it and not be dismissed--except fastidiously--as poorly read. That said, the philistinism in its abandonment is plain to see. But 1,500 is a cruel number--remorselessly rounded and inflexible--and the tome had to give way, along with many others.

There is in all this sloughing off a sense that I'm sinning in some way and that the old graybeard who taught me to hold fast to books would have disapproved quite thoroughly. Easy enough for him, of course, for it is not he who must abide by another, greater dictum: What the wife says, the husband does. And the wife has, here, her reasons.

After all, we do need room for the children's beds, and a dining table, and other things now regarded as essential in a well-tended home. But I'm reminded, as I write, of those bitter words of Joseph Brodsky, who died in a house just a stone's throw from mine: "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them." Where, I wonder, would he have ranked the act of leaving them behind?

Mr. Varadarajan is The Wall Street Journal's editorial features e
ditor and will soon become an assistant managing editor.

Copyright © 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

"The law isn't justice. It's a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law was ever intended to be." - Raymond Chandler


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