I’m a reader. Always have been. I reckon that in my lifetime I’ve read over 10,000 books. Now, I’m not always a disciplined reader. I mean, I read for pleasure, pure; I read for information, I read to understand, but in the end its’ all about finding out. Things, thoughts, other people’s life voyages. I can’t meet and talk to enough people to find out what I need to know. Curiosity trumps time.
All books are true; and untrue too. Writers make things up in case you didn’t know. All of them. Everything I’ve every written or read is filtered through either my personal experience or someones elses. There is no truth. Every written thing is a combination of wishing, hoping, thinking, lots of thinking, lots and lots. Can’t stop it.
We all see throughout own particular lens and thoughts are bent, refracted as light is when passing through space. Ask Einstein, he’ll tell you. Or, better yet, read him. Einstein for beginners. He let us see the impossible.
Because I read, my cousin-in-law ask me to be a Friend of the Library. What Friends do is raise money for the library. We do all kinds of things but the best is sorting books. Discards, books on the terminal list, on the way to book heaven. They are us. We are them.
Each Tuesday we meet in an old warehouse left over from WWII. Waiting for us are dozens of brown cardboard boxes, stacked in neat rows. Each box filled with someones discards. Opening boxes and sorting these books into categories, hour after hour must seem, to you, dear reader, tedious and mind numbing. A box full of fantasy, romance paperback bodice rippers might be just that, but not all books are such.
Now, you can read The New York Review of Books, or follow BookBub and Powell’s recommendations but there is nothing better than opening boxes of random books for inspiration. You are going to see books you would normally never hear of, books from store sections you would just pass on by, delightful surprise in every grand opening. Cut the tape with a box cutter and something unexpected pops out.
ar·chae·ol·o·gy ˌärkēˈäləjē noun: archeology
The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. We could make a case for what we do as precisely that. When the tomb is opened you never know what to expect. Is it to be Tut, General Grant, Ozymandias; hardly, it’s more subtle than that. Not every box tells a story, many are just dumps, clean out the attic kind of things. But the stories, oh, oh, oh.
Take the beautiful slick coffee table book about ancient architecture, heavy, imposing, solid. Inside the fly, a beautiful inscription from mother and father to Allen their son on the occasion of his graduation from architecture school, something given in love by proud parents and discarded inside six months. You wonder.
The box opened, and found inside, someones collection of every copy imaginable of books about pirates. Old pirates, new pirates, pirates in cocked hats, pirates with burning punk in their beards. Pirates in business, more pirates than you can shake a stick at. You can only say, WHAT! and laughter all around.
Or the box with books that are among the greatest literary treasures ever written mixed with trashy book of absolutely no consequence. Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Bronte, Joseph Heller, Tolstoy, Kerouac and Maya Angelou living in the same box with Justin Beiber, Miley Cyrus or books by the “stars” of Jersey Shore. Who let those people write a book, and what category do they go in? A tree died for this? Honestly though, there are always more “Eat, Pray, Love” copies than Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Go figure.
There is always a box of dusty Book of the Month clubs from the forties and fifties. Most well-worn in the colors favored then, with the dust jackets missing and a little ragged around the edges, shelved for decades and seldom, if ever read more than once. Rejected, the poor old things are headed for the dustbin. They come for a reprieve and will find none.
Last week there was a box of strange variety. It could only have been a clean-out, the old clean out the house box. There was a death. You learn to recognize that. Now, some are hastily packed, a jumble of discards that were someones pride, gone now. Some, and you can tell, carefully dusted and put away in a gesture of goodbye to a loved one. If no one in the family wants to read them they go to the Friends instead of the garbage, wrapped in guilt and sadness. Guilt for destroying a book, sadness for those lost. Unable to simply just throw them away.
We keep a file of things left inside our books. Old book markers from stores long closed, sympathy and birthday cards, odd newspaper fragments, shopping receipts. I like to open and read the inscriptions. Most are pretty mundane, birthday or holiday wishes from an aunt Martha and uncle Dean or mom and dad. Occasionally a book from a teacher to a student. We have library discards from libraries all over the country. How does a book from a country library in upstate Maine get to San Luis Obispo? Did it fly, ride in a car or take the train.
In some old books, such as those written for boys in the early 20th century such as the Frank Merriwell series, Boy Scouts on Motorcycles or just a decade or so later, the Hardy Boys, the notations are written by little boys or girls, long dead and gone. Some little fragment of them lives in the inscription, “To Jack and George at Christmas from Webb and Edie Moore 1920.” “For Nita at Christmas from Mamie. 1903” Old out of favor names, old out of favor books.
I’ve sorted tomes written in German, French and Italian. Some books are printed in the exquisite script of Arabic or in the constructural, linear beauty of Chinese. Books I’d like to read but can’t. They may have been translated but if the writers name is unknown, the story is unknown.
One particular book has an inscription that took my breath away. It’s written in a beautiful copperplate hand and it says
“To my wonderful brother Bob, I give you this book in memory of dear parents, Eula and Conroy. I thank you for giving me so many years of complete understanding. Without you, dear brother, I could have never made it through medical school. Your love and support and especially, the twenty thousand you stole for me from our parents, which was wrong, but very helpful in achieving my goal, I thank you.” All my love, Barbara Ann 1961
I am not kidding you, you cannot make this stuff up. The inscription was so much better than the book. The rewards of volunteerism.
PS: The book was written in 1973.