“It is with books as with men: a very small
number play a great part, the rest are
lost in the multitude.”
There’s a character in the Peanuts cartoon strip called Pigpen – a little boy who attracts dirt like a magnet. I am a Pigpen for books. They come at me from all directions and they stick to me for decades.
This is not a complaint. I love my great unwieldy mass of books, although moving them from place to place over the years has left me with a bad back and an allergy to cardboard boxes. I have made fourteen major house moves in my lifetime so far. Each time I have sorted through my books and sold or dumped many of them. Mysteriously, I now have more books than ever. They fill every bookshelf in the house and in my office, and the overflow lurks in the basement.
Before our last move I said to myself: “This time I will really sort out those books.” There were volumes I hadn’t looked at since we last moved house seventeen years before. Obviously there was no point in keeping them any longer. There were hundreds of dull academic books from my former professorial life, relics of the past – away with them! Then were are all the paperbacks purchased to read on a plane, and never to be opened again – into the oubliette!
It sounded much easier than it was. Every book is a slice of the past – personal or professional. When I pick up a dusty old volume I can usually remember when and where I first read it, or who gave it to me, or what particular thing I learned from it. Going through one’s book collection is like conducting an archaeological dig of one’s own life.
My immediate practical goal was to reduce the number of books that must be moved to the new house by about half. Our new house has a room that is humorously called “The Library.” But this has fewer bookshelves than most of the nameless rooms in our old house. Something had to go.
The first triage was not too hard. I retained all the classics and near-classics, plus all the books with really nice bindings, plus all the books I had really liked, plus all the books I could imagine myself using for some future project.
Then there were the difficult cases: for example The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom’s 1987 diatribe against American education and in support of Plato. It was an influential book in its time. But it is 382 pages long, and I know the plot. On the other hand it is full of wisdom and rhetoric that I may be able to steal some day. My hand wavered between one pile and the other. Bloom ended up on the “save” pile. It’s an important book, it looks good on my shelves.
All these agonizing choices left a large heap of volumes that I had to admit I would never read or refer to every again under any circumstances, and in some cases had never read at all. I hated to admit it, but these were useless books.
What to do with this treasure trove of eclectic reading? It was an odd collection, ranging from the strictly academic to the highly popular and the merely bizarre. I started by trucking them over to the used and antique bookshop. The owner shook his head over my books, and bought only a few for his stock. My low-end tastes were not sufficiently commercial for his casual customers, and my high-end tastes were not sufficiently erudite for the more intellectual ones.
But I am constitutionally incapable of throwing books away, even when I know they are worthless. I was determined to find a good home for these hundreds of discarded volumes. After all, some writer had labored long and hard over each one. It would be an insult just to throw them in the garbage.
The popular paperbacks were easy to lose. I gave them to a big charity garage sale at the local university, and they vanished without a trace at 25c a copy.
The more serious books were harder to place. A lot of my research in the past was concerned with radical social movements – attempts by ordinary people to change their lives outside the framework of regular politics. So I had hundreds of books about socialism, anarchism feminism, civil rights and the counter culture. They are all out of date now – indeed social movements themselves seem to be a thing of the past in the new imperial age. So I threw them into the trunk of the car and took them to the public library in Riverhead, Long Island where they can be sold at bargain prices at the Yellow Barn. This is a real historic barn, alongside the library where surplus books are sold to benefit the Friends of the Library, of whom I happen to be one. Charity begins at home.
It was as I did this that I began to get a sense of mission, a feeling that my discarded books might still have a role to play in the human comedy. Many of them, both fiction and non-fiction, were not mainstream public library reading. They were full of radical ideas. Spreading these books through the community could be a subversive activity. Books always were subversive, which is why churches and governments down the ages have tried to ban them. Radicals with a pen – Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Tom Paine – can cause any amount of trouble. The People’s Revolution, Class War in America and The Fire Next Time were just three of the titles polluting the bland reading habits of my Long Island neighbors. I like to imagine that my books have injected the stimulant of radical thought into the flabby arm of suburban conformity.
There’s more. Back in 1984 I wrote a book about radical feminism, and the books I used for that project were and are dynamite. They have titles like The Coming Matriarchy, The Battle of the Sexes, Women Rule, The Feminine Mystique and The New Feminist Revolution. These poisoned gifts were also cunningly inserted into the weekly book sale at the Yellow Barn, where the majority of the buyers are women.
There’s a group in France with a name that translates roughly as “The Book Crusaders.” When they buy a book they enjoy they leave it in a public place with a note, rather like those find on Gideon Bibles in American motels, explaining that this book has been left for your pleasure by the Book Crusaders. Sometimes the Crusader lurks in hiding, just to see who picks up their literary offering – a nun, or a gendarme? If I lived in France I’d join, and lurk with the rest of them.
Placing my books in the Yellow Barn is the best I can do on Long Island, and I hope it works. I rather like the idea of new-minted socialists, anarchists and radical feminists raging through the streets of Riverhead. I will naturally disclaim any legal responsibility. But I’m glad that I passed those books and those ideas on to a new generation of readers, who may or may not decide to change the world. That’s what books are for.