See “Shelf Life” by James Wood in the Nov 7 New Yorker for a glimpse of one thing that’s true in this day: it’s hard to find a new home for thousands of intelligent old books; and one thing that’s been true always, hard to take though some find it: a collection is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.

Wood tried to dispose of his deceased father-in-law’s good history books with the respect they were due.  He found a university uninterested, a library that only wanted newer books, a bookstore that had no money, a bookstore that had no space, and eventually a couple of buyers who chose to acquire only some of the volumes.

Many people with a collection to sell want it to stay together, and believe it is more valuable and attractive together.  But the pleasure is in the collecting.  A book collection’s owner is its glue.  Owner gone, collection over, books dispersed to other fates– am I the only one who doesn’t think that’s sad?  All ownership is temporary.


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One response to “Uncollected

  1. Bingham Hancock

    Subject: TO BE OR WHATEVER

    Response as if the original blogger’s intent was not deliberately provocative:

    Dear Sir,

    While it is understandable that being constantly exposed to a rejection of values one has invested heavily in can make one become callous to the very values themselves, in effect siding with the oppressor (let’s call this Nurse Ratched Syndrome), it is also understandable and “imminently defensible” (to borrow an old phrase from the lamentably astute George Will in the legal barring of gay couples from buying homes) that Sadness exert its non-commodity spirit in the dispersion of spirit-filled tomes that have done nothing except enlighten, enliven, and stabilize the homes they have resided in and indeed frequently have helped create.
    It is profoundly sad when a carefully constructed Unity is broken up because the inheritor cannot give it the Respect It Is Due by selling it for the $$$ he expected. If Mr. Wood was primarily interested in preserving that Unity and did not want to sponsor it himself (which apparently he did not) he had only to advertise on, say, Craig’s List to the myriad passionate history buffs we have in our country who would only be ecstatic taking these tomes into their homes; surely if Americans are genetically predisposed to anything it is the instinct to apply their “glue of ownership” (see any standard Native American or Slave history book). Perhaps though an esteemed non-screed as the New Yorker would not pay as much for the resulting story.
    Books have spirits. And though a real estate agent cannot afford to see it, so do homes. When a home’s treasured component is lost, it’s spirit is wounded. The natural and proper response to this is sadness.

    Response as if the original blogger’s intent was deliberately provocative:

    Nice try. Thank you for the book orphanage you so lovingly sponsor and the anticipatory tears at relinquishing particularly valued clients to hopefully good homes. It’s existence and mission is an Important Statement in our doleful times.

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