I got rid of the record albums. Several thousand of them. You can add your name to the list of those who counseled me: Hold a garage sale! Put them on eBay! They’re worth a fortune!
“Yep,” I told these well-meaning types, “if I had the time and energy to devote, I might earn a little folding money.” Sadly, I’m as old as some presidents but without the staff. My wife and I are focused on moving. Somewhere. To a small apartment, an assisted living space, to a location that can accommodate folks in old age. The specifics have not yet been determined, but none of the options advertise extra square footage for vinyl disks. Instead of a financial windfall for my records, I ended up paying someone to cart them to the Goodwill.
They can take my albums, but they ain’t getting my books.
I’m still reading and writing. Still collecting. (Don’t tell my wife. There is supposedly a moratorium on new book purchases.) On occasion, I have let go of certain tomes, disappointers that turned out to be less than their reputation would have it. I’ve shed some excess — I once felt it was necessary to collect an author’s entire bibliography. J.D. Salinger had only four published books; that was easy. John Updike wrote 60 — that is a lot of shelf space.
I defend my decision to hang on to the 200 feet of shelving across 12 floor-to-almost-ceiling book cases, plus a few modest hutches for the overflow. Again and again, these books have sent me into the world fortified with insights and bursting with questions.
Certain novels, “Sophie’s Choice,” for example, were so difficult to read, so sad, so real, so unsettling, that they took me ages to finish. I could only digest a page, a paragraph, a scene, at a time. Other fiction was impossible to put down. How could you read “Slaughterhouse Five” with anything other than a dedication bordering on obsession?
There are horribly written books in my library, but they are the best I’ve been able to find on particular subjects. I’m prone to zooming in on enthusiasms. My interest in exploited rock and jazz artists during the 1950s and ’60s got me looking for books about an assortment of unscrupulous record companies. I found stories about singers like Jackie Wilson and Jimmie Rodgers and musicians like Count Basie, each allegedly swindled by organized crime. I no longer own their records, but I hold on to the written accounts of the stories behind them.
Hold up any of my books, and I can tell you what it’s about and how it found its way to my library. My set of Masterplots, purchased in the ’60s, came from the Strand Book Store, when it was a mere corner shop at East 12th Street and Broadway in New York City. The store sold books stamped “reviewer edition, not for sale,” and when I was a teen, buying one felt akin to a clandestine transaction.
Long before you could locate copies of almost any book online, I spent years putting together the complete works of the better-known New Yorker humorists — Robert Benchley, James Thurber, et al. Coming across “Crazy Like a Fox,” which completed my S.J. Perelman oeuvre, I took a deep breath, patted myself on the back, and went to work on E.B. White acquisitions.
While living in the West, I made regular runs to Acres of Books in Long Beach, Calif. Comprising three dusty, poorly lit warehouses containing endless rows of makeshift bookcases, Acres is where I once asked an elderly clerk if he thought there might be any Maxwell Bodenheim books. Sure, he said, providing detailed instructions to the third warehouse, second row about halfway down, right side, top shelf, to the left. That’s how I got “Duke Herring,” Bodenheim’s 1931 novel.
One last bookshop reminiscence, though I could go on. I was in Seattle on a rainy fall afternoon browsing my way through a secondhand book store. What a wonderful music system, I was thinking. Amazing fidelity. I looked up and saw that the proprietor was at his upright, accompanying my perusal.
My books conjure up sounds and friends and memories, not just stories and ideas. When I think of Dickens, I recall attending high school in Massachusetts, our class sitting by a lively country fireplace, snow falling on the Berkshire mountains, my old English teacher Mr. Allen reading from “A Christmas Carol.”
Aunt Lily gave me “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain” for my high school graduation. Her present was so much more than 400-plus pages of biography. It was an introduction to the author’s world, his life, his views. Boy did my aunt start something. I’m one of Mr. Twain’s best customers. Often, when I’m reading him, I hear my father. Dad read many books to me, including “Tom Sawyer.” I also hear the voice of Hal Holbrook, whose “Mark Twain Tonight” I attended during four decades of the actor’s stage transmogrifications into Samuel Langhorne Clemens’s alter ego. And Holbrook’s memoirs about becoming Twain — I have those as well as the letter I received from the actor in response to my note. Book collecting is expansive.
Certain works are masterpieces. The sentences, the ingenuity, the juxtaposition of words and thoughts so brilliantly executed that I’m calling people to quote what I’m reading, emailing copies, returning to specific pages and paragraphs — underlined, of course — because an author rouses my spirit, comforts me, or simply makes me smile and smile and smile as the years go by.
Walking into our living room, with eight bookcases lining a far wall, I know the place is alive with ideas that took thousands, perhaps millions of hours to conceive and communicate. Many of the authors have died, but their thoughts, intentions, explanations, explorations, confessions, passions, conjectures, and questions still influence conversations I have when friends drop by, just as they instill circumspection as I sit alone, book in hand, communing with a small portion of transmitted experience.
Sadly, the prospect that I’ll be able to retain my entire collection may be delusional. There are backup plans, strategies for preserving the essence of what I’ve built during 65 years of book collecting. Keep absolute favorite authors and discard the rest? Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag — do they go? Hang on to William Manchester, toss Stephen Ambrose? Perhaps keep only Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners? For a while I considered liberating a few categories. How about the oddball humor books? Richard Armour, Irvin S. Cobb, Max Shulman, and H. Allen Smith. Probably, I couldn’t give their books away. Should I try? What if they ended up in the trash bin behind Half Price Books? How many copies of “Don’t Get Perconel with a Chicken” are left in this world? And, yes, that is the actual title. Could it be that I end up discarding the very last one?
My best backup plan seems to be: Hire a skilled photographer to snap pictures of each bookcase. Clear, sharp images of my collection, full color, with those little mementos — theater tickets, book marks — filling incidental shelf space. I hold on to a hundred books and donate the rest to the community by holding a series of come-and-get-it open houses designed to place my books in the hands of other collectors. I find a craftsperson who can turn the pictures into life-size wall paper. Then, no matter where we end up, I can walk into our next residence and feel at home.
Charles E. Kraus is the author of “You’ll Never Work Again in Teaneck, N.J.,” a memoir.