Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Book Sale and Sadness

I recently attended a book sale at the Humboldt University Library, and not for the first time. They sell books that have been donated, and books the library is discarding. I have complex feelings about both categories, and the sale itself.

I don't mind buying books that have been donated, though when I donate books to the library, I mean for them to wind up on the library shelves, not in a jumble sale. On the other hand, I sometimes find myself buying discarded library books just so they won't be thrown away.

The whole idea of discarding books chills me. I mean discarding books that aren't going to be replaced with new copies. I suppose it makes sense to get rid of technical and scientific texts that are no longer useful except for historical documentation and interest. But other choices bother me. I noticed at this sale they had evidently cleared several shelves of books on the work of Henry James, as well as books on and by William Dean Howells. James does not happen to be an author I'm much interested in, although it's possible that I'll live long enough to develop an interest. One of several comments made by Norman Mailer (may he rest in peace) that stays with me is that a book and a reader have to be ready for each other, and that can change over time.

I am also reminded of a line in Wallace Shawn's play, The Designated Mourner, to the effect that a certain person who'd just died was the last expert on the poetry of John Donne. These days that's entirely possible.

So now where will I go for books on Henry James? I use this library a lot, and once I did encounter on the shelves, among the books I was examining for one of my personal quixotical research projects, several volumes with little pieces of paper sticking out of them, indicating that they were scheduled to be discarded. Scheduled for demolition! It's gotten so that I continue to renew several books I have just so they can't discard them.

Of course they need the money from the sales--especially because of budget cutbacks. This library bought no new books for several years, and buys few this year. I'm not sure if I were a prospective student, I would even consider coming to a school with a library that has stopped buying books.

And I'm no saint about the sale either. I usually go in the afternoon, make my selections, and wait for the closing bell when you get a grocery bag full of books for a buck. At which time I rescue as many books as I can. It's partly book greed, of course. It's been my major addiction for years. I have many more books than I will ever read.

Including one I got at this sale--a 1912 copy of Modern Instances, a novel by William Dean Howells. I got it as a helpless gesture of respect for the author. It's not the first time I've done that, although this is probably the one I am least likely to read. I have found books at this sale that I've read and enjoyed, books that I just enjoy owning, and books that have been helpful. Though I once actually found an obscure book I was looking for, I more often found helpful books I hadn't known existed. Serendipity has always been a good research method for me. This sale has helped build the house of books that shelters me, so I can't complain. But I do wonder just what it is I'm witnessing.

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