On the sweet sorrow of parting with my books

I’ve always liked a good book, whether for information, a good story, or shared wisdom. Years ago, I met a fellow who felt similarly about them, calling books “friends. Because I was only 16, I may have heard what he said, but I didn’t comprehend its nuance. Now I can say the same thing too.

It was hard for me when I retired from teaching college classes seven years ago to part with many of my “friends,” companions over several decades and often linked to special memories of impassioned purchases or a special eloquence that my underlining makes clear. But I couldn’t possibly house all of them, and so the culling began.

Those that made the cut continue to entice me whenever I fetch them off the shelf. And yet some survivors I’ll still have to cull, since I haven’t looked at them in several years. Perhaps calling it a pruning makes the task a bit easier than a culling with its resonance of the trash man’s visit every Thursday. Is this something you do to friends, many of them orphans in a world remarkably sensate in its pursuits and capacity to commit loveless acts?

Dismiss me as a sentimentalist, but I think I understand the psychology behind my reluctance to let go of books, or anything else, given the many losses I’ve known across the years of friends, and animals, and places. Collecting is my mortal, ineffectual, finger-in-the-dike attempt to hold off time’s wash.

I’ve some books I’ll neither cull nor prune. Like my pets over the years, I know their names and cherish their memory. These are books I’d take into that proverbial island exile, tomes like Dickens’ David Copperfield; Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge; Thoreau’s Walden; the poetry of Keats, Dickinson and Larkin; Browne’s How to be Free in an Unfree World; Fromm’s To Be or to Have? Lighthouses in the cosmic night, they’ve made me think hard and live more wisely and, hence, made life better, centered in verities like love, trust, hope, and gratitude.

Ours is a time when hardbound books may vanish into an electronic sinkhole, replaced by shades of their former semblance. While I enjoy megasecond possession, I miss the excitement of purusing bookstore shelves; the feel of that new book in my hands; the ease of skimming its pages, back and forth; and, often, that serendipity discovery or new find, like a romantic love, unexpectedly and wonderfully!

This morning, while eating breakfast, I was backtracking through the late Merle Shain’s Hearts that We Broke Long Ago, a slender work teeming with observation and counsel housed in eloquence, when I came upon her borrowing from playwright Eugene O’Neill, which exemplifies why you can add Shain’s work to my island list:

“Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter?  Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid to love, I who love love? Why am I afraid, I who am not afraid? Why must I be so ashamed of my strength, so proud of my weakness? Why must I live in a cage like a criminal, defying and hating, I who love peace and friendship? Why was I born without a skin? O God, that I must wear armor in order to touch or be touched” (from The Great God Brown, quoted in Shain, pp. 34-35).

Good books with passages like these have a way of giving life back to us, or second chance to seize the day and with quick step, live it boldly, slipping the manacles of fear. It’s not easy to part from such friends!


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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