Letter From Antiquaristan

[Update: this was written before I learned that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators were evicted from Zucotti Park, from this unfortunate report: Protesters were told to take their belongings and leave. Any belongings not immediately carried out by protesters were then tossed unceremoniously into a massive pile on the street and loaded into dumpsters. This included the tents, the entire 5,000 book OWS library, and the bike generators. This is unfortunate news, and my thoughts go out to the protesters and all those who have been helping with donations.]

A recent article by James Wood in the New Yorker (“Shelf Life”, November 7th, 2011) tells of the book collection his late father-in-law left behind, and what our books, taken together, say about us (or don’t say about us). The most interesting part for me was the author’s discovery that almost no one wanted the collection.

I spent the first few days… cataloguing the Middle Eastern books, in the hope that we might be able to keep the books on Islam and Muslim societies intact, and perhaps give them to an institution — a college, a school, a local library, even a mosque…But it soon became clear that no one really wants hundreds or thousands of old books. E-mails sent to the local university were unanswered. Someone told us that about a public library…that had burned to the ground. They were going to rebuild, and needed donations. I was ready to ship hundreds. But the Web site requested only books published in the last two years, which excluded almost everything in my father-in-law’s library. …
We had a couple of breaks. An online bookseller, who deals in rare books and first editions, came and picked through what interested him, and filled his old Volvo with boxes. A few days later, an English bibliophile, who teaches philosophy…did the same. I enjoyed their obvious excitement, my enjoyment tempered by the sensation that the library was suffering death by a thousand cuts.

This subject interests me so much because the Beau is one of those online booksellers, and one part of his job is that he gets calls from people like Mr. Woods, widows or sons or daughters who are getting ready to sell the house and have to get rid of a deceased husband’s or father’s library. We have found that the role of book buyer (or sometimes simply book “recipient”) shares similarities with the role of funeral director or adoption agent — our job is to assure that these books, every one a gem, are going to go to good homes, and until then they will be lovingly stored, not to worry. Some people are still grieving, some moved on long ago, but are just now getting around to the nuts and bolts of downsizing.

Just as the funeral director is not going to tell you the details of embalming, so the decent bookseller will not tell you outright that most of your books are, from a market standpoint, basically worthless. Many people have a strong aversion to throwing any book away, although no such aversion exists for newspapers or magazines, except I suppose for extremely afflicted hoarders. I feel this aversion too, although I cannot really pinpoint why and defend it. What is the difference between a book and a newspaper, other than the materials? Why fret over one and chuck the other?I can’t tell you how many books we look over and think, “This is an interesting subject, and even well made, and someone would want this, wouldn’t they?”, and yet, there are dozens of its siblings going for one cent apiece on Amazon. One cent. At first you reserve those books for your own reading pleasure, until that stack gets a little too high, and then you try to donate. Certain municipalities in Bavaria and Tirol will accept books at the recycling centers; ours instructs us to put them in the paper-recycling bins, where they will be processed like any other paper. We can’t simply keep them, we don’t have the space*. (You don’t want to see the living room. In fact, that would be impossible anyway, you can’t see the living room for the books!)

One thing we will tell you — the most important books on your shelf are rarely the ones you (and sometimes even we) think they are. No one, I am sorry to say, wants your beautiful set of encyclopedias, even if they are almost 100 years old. They are impossible to sell. I suggest you donate them to your local theater for props. I have heard stories of people buying old books by the yard, before the real estate crash, to make their houses look more sophisticated, but those days are gone. On the other hand, an odd-looking history of hand surgery, part of a collection and almost abandoned, was snapped up by a medical library in the States for a nice sum.

Woods gives no further details about the rest of the books, the ones left behind, and what became of them. Perhaps he is still sorting through them. Perhaps they were, in the end, taken to the dumpster.

*Space. Yeah. A shop may be in our future. Real estate is damned expensive. We looked a wreck of a house recently, a shop with the large apartment above it, with a small back yard, in the center of a village. Romantic ideas of life running the village bookstore and sharing coffee with neighbors runs up against the suspicion that the place needs massive renovation, maybe even structurally, which would break us. So for now, we live amongst the books. It’s not so bad. There’s always something on hand to read.

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3 Responses to Letter From Antiquaristan

  1. Carlisle says:

    Prisons and prisoners might be interested. http://booksbehindbars.net/

  2. Carlisle says:

    Sorry, this is the site I meant: http://www.booksthroughbars.org/

  3. Marcellina says:

    Interesting. I know two people who work at the Stadelheim prison in Munich, maybe they could tell me whether the prison takes large book donations.

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