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Books.  I have a troubled relationship with books.  Over the years I have downsized more than once and have discarded at least half of my books.  The only difficulty this caused was a complaint from a cousin that I had thrown out all of my Nevil Shute books and they were now out of print.  She was quite upset by this.  (I’m happy to report that they are now back in print.)

When my mother died she had, perhaps, 5,000 books.  Many were first editions from the first half of the 20th century.  She once had a dealer come to value them but the only ones that he was interested in were tales of American Indians written by a relative.  He said that books about Indians sold.  Thanks to my brother’s Herculean efforts we managed to find new homes for all of my mother’s possessions with the exception of the books.  My family values books, we all read and have large collections, and yet we didn’t have room for the books we grew up with.  No wonder John Harvard left his library to the College.

Now I am planning on moving to a much smaller space in a retirement community.  Once again I must dispose of books.  I find this a traumatic process.  Perhaps if I simply discarded entire bookcases it wouldn’t be so hard.  Instead I agonize over each individual volume.  How about the AFIPS Conference Proceedings Volume 28 from 1966?  I haven’t looked at it for 53 years but somebody might be interested…  It contains such gems as “Markovian Models and Numerical Analysis of Computing System Behavior”.  Perhaps I should put it aside and read it?  The reality is that neither I nor anybody else is going to touch this book.  Nor are we going to find anyone to accept and preserve it.  Out it goes.

I am beginning to understand why there are consultants who assist with decluttering.  Clutter creeps up on you without warning.  One day you wake up and there are piles of books on tables, on the tops of bookcases, on chairs, on the floor, on dressing tables, in closets.  Help!  This is a real problem.  Perhaps the rich merchants who paid to found early libraries like the Boston Athaeneum were onto something:  They could enjoy any books they chose and yet they avoided cluttering their homes.  Not a bad idea.

Somehow books become inextricably entwined with one’s perception of who one is.  La pipe de MAIGRET with type on the spine that runs up in the European fashion, rather than down in the way that we are used to.  I probably read that when we were living in France in 1984.  Will I ever read it again?  Will any of my descendants ever be interested in it? No and no again.  And yet, it is a part of me: With some difficulty I can read in French;  I like Maigret;  I like mystery stories;  I’m fond of easy paperback books; and yet I will never miss it and it must go out.

Not everybody suffers from this disease.  I suspect that a love of books is often (but not always) developed in families.  My mother was a great reader.  There is a genetic strain in our family that allows a few people to read very quickly: An uncle, my mother, a cousin, my son.  But, alas, not me.  From my very earliest memories books took a leading role.  During WW II my mother and I lived with her parents in Wellesley, while my father was with the OSS in London.  My grandmother worked at the Hathaway House, which was the Wellesley College bookstore.  We always had the latest and best children’s books and she read to me a great deal.  Many of the books were too advanced for me – I struggled to understand Thornton Burgess but kept with it because I knew that it pleased her.  And yes, I do still have some of those Thornton Burgess volumes: Old Mother West Wind, The Adventures of Reddy Fox, How Unc’ Billy Possum Met Buster Bear.  How am I ever going to dispose of those?

As a young teen in London I had a membership in Harrod’s Lending Library.  They had a special children’s room and the deal was that you could take out any book and keep it as long as you wanted.  I used to stop there on my way home from school every day and get a new book.  The ones I particularly remember were the Biggles series.  These were adventure stories aimed at young readers.  The hero was James Bigglesworth, known as Biggles.  He was a pilot in both WW I and WW II.

The Harvard library system has a room at the top of Lamont Library called the Farnsworth room.  It contains nothing but books that somebody has decided are interesting.  There doesn’t seem to be any particular order to the collection; you can simply pull a book off the shelves and be sure that it will be worth reading.  I spent far more time there than was good for my academic transcript.  (Maybe they would like some of my books…)



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