Two Tales About Books

There is a wide range of attitudes about books. Many people read no books at all. Some read books but only by borrowing from libraries; some people buy and read books but treat them as disposable objects (these are the ones who bend the spines of paperbacks so that they’ll hold open more easily) and then dispose of them, either literally in the trash or taking them to Good Will, i.e. they don’t *keep* books.

At the opposite extreme are those like me who treat books immaculately (you can’t tell by visiting my library which books I’ve read or not, and of course I would never in a thousand years break the spine of a book for any reason) and save them forever, lovingly shelved and ordered and even, in my case, databased. At least, given practical considerations. There’s only so much room in anyone’s apartment or condo or house. And so several times over the past decades — I remember selling boxes of books to A Change of Hobbit bookstore, before it closed in 1991 — I have pruned my collection. Most significantly in the months before our move to the Bay Area, in 2015, taking several dozen boxes of books to The Iliad Bookshop in Burbank, virtually all books I’d bought over the years, out of loyalty to an author, or in response to some encouraging review, but which I came to realize I would likely never get around to reading.

And if I did decide I needed to read one of those books, I could always buy another copy, in this internet age when all the bookstores in the country are linked through Abebooks and other sites. And this has happened. It’s almost as if… the entire nation (or at least the English-speaking world) is a vast exchangeable library, where individual books move between private owners and exchange shops and back to private owners. One would like to think no books are actually destroyed; they just move around. And can always be found.
But I’ve found that the iron lesson of pruning one’s collection, giving books away or selling them, is: you will always regret having gotten rid of something. Sure, maybe you can find another copy out there, but probably not a mint unread copy like the one you sold to Iliad Books….


Count that as the first tale. The second is this WaPo essay.

Washington Post, Karen Heller, 19 Dec 2022: We’re drowning in old books. But getting rid of them is heartbreaking., subtitled “‘They’re more like friends than objects,’ one passionate bookseller says. What are we to do with our flooded shelves?”

I don’t know why this should be more of a problem lately than ever before; people, a few people at least, have always amassed large collections of books, and then are faced at some point with what to do with them. Leave thousands of books for one’s heirs to dispose of? Or gradually let them go in some fashion before one’s death? And if so, how? Give them away; sell them individually on eBay?

The essay begins anecdotally, then switches to the example of the famous Fran Lebowitz.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Bruce Albright arrives in the Wonder Book parking lot, pops the trunk of his Camry and unloads two boxes of well-worn books. “It’s sad. Some of these I’ve read numerous times,” he says.

Albright, 70, has been at this for six months, shedding 750 books at his local library and at this Frederick, Md., store. The rub: More than 1,700 volumes remain shelved in the retired government lawyer’s nearby home, his collection lovingly amassed over a half-century.

But Albright is on a mission. “I cleaned out my parents’ home,” he says. “I don’t want to do to my kids what my parents did to me.”

He’s far from alone. Books are precious to their owners. Their worth, emotional and monetary, is comparably less to anyone else.

Humorist and social critic Fran Lebowitz owns 12,000 books, mostly fiction, kept in 19th-century wooden cases with glass doors in her New York apartment. “Constitutionally, I am unable to throw a book away. To me, it’s like seeing a baby thrown in a trash can,” she says. “I am a glutton for print. I love books in every way. I love them more than most human beings.” If there’s a book she doesn’t want, Lebowitz, 72, will spend months deciding whom to give it to.

Albright is like me: I feel an obligation to at least set up a plan for the dispensation (I rather not say disposal) of my library, before I die. I did in fact, 7 or 8 years ago when my partner and I set up wills and so on, include an advisement to my heirs to consult Locus, the Locus Foundation, for advice about what to do with my library, to avoid well-meaning but clueless relatives who would…. well, I don’t want to think about what they might do.

And yet, how long will Locus and its Foundation last? (Also, I’ve gathered that there are professionals who deal with disposals of estates, who presumably would know how to get the most money about whatever the deceased left behind.)

Then on Facebook I’ve seen this question come up. What do I do with my library? The most brutal response, from some months ago so I’m paraphrasing, was from the British scholar Farah Mendlesohn, who told someone their books were worth nothing, just give up. As if, the market is saturated, or something?

Yet I recall that while Farah wrote an outstanding book about Robert A. Heinlein, at one point she posted a photo of the Heinlein books she’d reread, and they were all very worn paperbacks.

I would agree that those aren’t worth much.

At the far extreme is what happened to Charles Brown‘s library, after he died in 2009. He had the wisdom to set up a Foundation that owned the magazine, his house, his library, so the legal transfer of his estate to head of the Foundation went very smoothly. And eventually the Foundation sold his collection for something like $1 million to a university back east.

My collection isn’t nearly as large as CNB’s was, but it does consist of some 10,000 books, mostly science fiction but with a smattering of literary fiction and a large dollop of general nonfiction on mostly scientific topics. With a great many of them, from over the past 45 years, first edition hardcovers. Not worn paperbacks. A significant number of the sf novels signed. I can’t imagine, as Farah suggested, that they are worth nothing.

Still, my point isn’t the worth of my books. I don’t intend to sell before I die just to make money. My concern is that fine books, collectible first editions, should somehow end up with appreciative second-hand owners. And I’m still not sure how to do that.

From the article:

What to do with old books is a quandary that collectors, no matter what age, eventually face — or leave to their heirs who, truly, do not want the bulk of them. Old volumes are a problem for older Americans downsizing or facing mortality, with their reading life coming to a close. They’re a challenge that Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda writes about extensively. They’re a backache every time a collector moves. They’re a headache when collectors want to sell their homes: old stuff, the bane of any listing.

The article goes on with examples of books that are valuable or not. Book owners who want to sell usually have no clue. I had this experience myself when trying to sell some later Stephen King novels; the Iliad staff explained that the print runs on those books were so large there was no value in them. (On the other hand I’ve never tried to sell my Doubleday 1st edition of The Stand.) What’s in demand:

At the Wonder Book warehouse, a list is posted to let a dozen sorters know what’s in demand: Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Dr. Seuss.

I’ll alert my heirs about my PKD first editions.

The article circles back to Fran Lebowitz, to conclude.

Lebowitz, who lives alone, has run out of space in her bookcases. Two hundred books are piled on tables, never the floor, the thought leaving her aghast. She worries about fire: “When I look around my apartment, I realize, ‘Fran, you live in a forest.’”

Lebowitz has made provisions for her collection, “only because I had to make a will,” she says, designating them to three friends in their 30s, all book lovers. And if they don’t want all of them? “I’m not the sort of person who worries that much about what’s going to happen when I die.”

Lebowitz makes no excuses. She says: “There are millions of books in the world. Twelve thousand is nothing. It’s like having a pound of salt from the ocean.” So she will hold on to each and every one of them.

Every book is a world, almost in the sense of a world in the multiverse. They are worlds that operate in different ways from the reader’s world; each one is another person’s take on the world, that we all think we share, but which we perceive differently. That’s what makes them attractive, and valuable.

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