Connections: Bookish

At a gathering this week, a longtime friend asked a question that pretty much everyone I know seems to be facing lately, as we all think about downsizing and decluttering: What in the world are we going to do with all of these books? 

My friend’s living room has one wall with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books that, let me hazard a guess, were not only hers but her late husband’s. That makes her decision about what to do somewhat emotional: Should honoring his memory be the priority?

It’s no secret that she, like me, is of what I like to call past-retirement age (although she hasn’t worked in years and I myself refuse to retire). You can’t take it with you — especially when “it” is a three-ton library of books.

There was a time when a book collection branded a person as cultured, regardless of whether or not he or she had a degree. When I was in college, I was so dedicated to books, hardcovers in particular, that I went halfsies on a complete set of Balzac novels. My classmate Nancy and I decided we would divide them up, read those we took, and then in a few years exchange them to read the rest. Good intentions. . . . But I do still have a long shelf of books by Honoré de Balzac (who is now rather overlooked, and unlikely to inspire college kids’ shopping sprees), bound in handsome green leather.

I don’t know what we were thinking. Perhaps we had been assigned and impressed by his “Père Goriot” — in English, of course; neither of us studied French. Perhaps we wanted those we met to know what worldly and sensitive people we were. Perhaps we imagined a day when we would have our own households with bookshelves to be filled.

In any event, the house I live in today has many bookcases of all sizes. The living room has two built-in ones, flanking the fireplace, and the books on these shelves have come down from three generations who have lived in the house. Some of them are quite old and interesting.

Then, too, there are various bookish things around the house, for example, I seem to have a package of bookplates in my desk. Bookplates, remember them? 

Bookplates have long since gone the way of inkwells. I have a dried-up inkwell around here someplace, too. I used to puzzle small children by reciting the following little verse (it is “Hiding,” by Dorothy Aldis) and having then try to explain it. Try it. It’s fun.

“I’m hiding, I’m hiding,

And no one knows where;

For all they can see is my

Toes and my hair.

And I just heard my father

Say to my mother —

‘But, darling, he must be

Somewhere or other;

Have you looked in the inkwell?’

And Mother said, ‘Where?’

‘In the inkwell,’ said Father. 

But I was not there.”