My bookshelves look like a fighter’s mouth, full of painful and surprising gaps. Even books I thought I could not do without, books that shaped my taste and who I am, are gone.
Let me explain. When we decided to move abroad I knew, of course, that most1 of the books would have to be sold. Part of the excitement of travel is its weightlessness – It is difficult to move quickly with two thousand pounds of books. Three boxes in storage, two smaller boxes to ship, and a small handful for transit is not much better, but it is (ahem) a step in the right direction.
We’re not leaving for another year, but it’s as well to start now. We list them on the usual on-line outlet or we schlep them to Powell’s where we are offered ridiculously low prices for the growth of our personality and the development of our intellect.2 Sometimes, indeed, nothing is offered, and our hopes and dreams – foxed and tattered and broken-spined – limp to the library to circulate, disintigrate, or be sold for a pittance & the public good.
It would be easier, and perhaps even more cost effective, to just ask the buyers from Powells to come and give us an offer on the lot. We would save on shipping, save on time; but I would lose out on something else: the chance to redefine my relationship to books.
They are my castle, my fortress, my comfort, my joy; they are my past, my present, my future; they are my mask. Because I would like to be the sort of person who takes down Hegel for a little light reading in the evening, or who needs to refer to two different editions of Homer in Greek on a daily basis. I am not that person; one edition will do.3 It’s an idea that takes getting used to.
Of course I do try to look on the bright side: it’s a chance to start a whole new collection. Or it’s a chance not to, which might be better.
- The flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak. [↩]
- Even allowing for fond exaggeration, that’s partially a pleasant fiction. Assuming that books could stand for their contents, it would only have the slightest kernel of truth if the editions we had were the copies we originally read, which in many, perhaps most, cases they are not. I first read Shirley, for instance, as a small hardcover blue Oxford Classic, checked out from a college library; the edition I currently own is a Penguin. And really, who would lament a penguin? [↩]
- Down to the sentence level, down to a word-by-word basis it’s difficult to let go; because really, sadly, truly I don’t need or refer even to one. [↩]
Daily experience shows that it is energetic individualism which produces the most powerful effects upon the life and action of others, and really constitutes the best practical education. Schools, academies, and colleges, give but the merest beginnings of culture in comparison with it. Far more influential is the life-education daily given in our homes, in the streets, behind counters, in workshops, at the loom and the plough, in counting- houses and manufactories, and in the busy haunts of men. This is that finishing instruction as members of society, which Schiller designated ‘the education of the human race,’ consisting in action, conduct, self-culture, self-control, – all that tends to discipline a man truly, and fit him for the proper performance of the duties and business of life, – a kind of education not to be learnt from books, or acquired by any amount of mere literary training. With his usual weight of words Bacon observes, that ‘Studies teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation;’ a remark that holds true of actual life, as well as of the cultivation of the intellect itself. For all experience serves to illustrate and enforce the lesson, that a man perfects himself by work more than by reading, – that it is life rather than literature, action rather than study, and character rather than biography, which tend perpetually to renovate mankind.
– Samuel Smiles. Self Help.