Cleaning out the apartment where my parents lived for the last sixty years after my mother died in February, and where I grew up – the task was completed last week -- presented various challenges. Logistical, sentimental, financial, political.
But one of the most disturbing and seemingly insoluble was what to do with all the books they’d accumulated over the years. Hundreds if not thousands of them.
These books fell into several categories -- at least a couple of those categories, I suspect, peculiar to my family.
There were rare books – first editions by authors such as Mark Twain. That was actually the low hanging fruit. My brothers and I simply divided them up.
Then there were autographed books by authors my father had interviewed on a radio show, Ralph Gardner’s Bookshelf, that he had on WVNJ during the 1970s. Some of those titles were more desirable than others, at least to us: “The Art of Maurice Sendak” inscribed with an illustration by the author. A half dozen Kurt Vonneguts, all of them boldly signed. “To Ralph Gardner on my 54th birthday,” read the inscription on a first edition of Vonnegut’s 1976 science fiction novel “Slapstick.”
Perhaps the one I coveted most was a collection of Allan Ginsburg’s work inscribed “Overlooking Central Park in Mist” with the date and signed “Empty Head.”
But as I said, that was the low hanging fruit. More troublesome were boxes of a biography my father wrote about Horatio Alger. It was first published in 1964 and reprinted in 1979, and still in the boxes the publisher sent him his author copies.
There were also stacks of Alger books that had been reprinted – such as “Silas Snobden’s Office Boy” -- by Doubleday in 1973 and to which my father wrote the introduction.
I contacted the Horatio Alger Society to see whether I could donate them ahead of their annual meeting in June – I recalled that my father was something of a celebrity at their annual meetings – but after a small nibble haven’t heard back from them again.
And then there was “Writers Talk to Ralph Gardner,” a compilation of my father’s interviews with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Susan Sontag and Gay Talese. Lots of copies of those.
What was I supposed to do with them? They felt like body parts.
And utterly apart from any personal connection, we were raised by my parents, my father in particular, to regard books as semi-sacred objects. I vividly recall the way he taught me how to open an ancient book – carefully, probably no more than half way so as not to crack the brittle spine.
Fortunately, some of the books were no-brainers – both literarily and in terms of whether to save or send straight to the recycling bin. For example, hundreds of paperback Harlequin Romance novels. My mother went through an extended bodice ripper phase.
What triggered and fed her passion I’m not sure, but I didn’t have time to psychoanalyze her before that corner of the library headed to the trash.
Another conundrum was posed by the dozens of reference books my father accumulated over the years. He left them to me, specifically. Why I’m not sure. I’m not big on research.
But the unsentimental fact is that in the Internet age reference books have largely gone the way of carriage horses. Whether a thesaurus or a compendium of 19th century composers you can look it up online with a couple of keystrokes.
And what about our Compton’s encyclopedia? I hardly consulted it when I was in grammar school, let alone today. Or Compton’s annual yearbooks, updating the wealth of human history, that my mother subscribed to religiously.
She did so both because she was achingly habitual. And also because I discovered recently, while going through her correspondence, that the encyclopedia salesman who sold her the set just happened to be my school’s assistant headmaster.
While I have no doubt she believed the volumes would prove useful study aids, perhaps even more helpful in terms of our academic careers would be the good will that would accrue to our family by abetting the assistant headmaster’s bottom line.
We hired a broom sweep – a crew that comes in, removes every last object that remains unclaimed, and literally sweeps the place clean – who told me what I already knew: that the vast majority of the books were essentially worthless. I was somewhat comforted when he confided that he donates them to a couple of booksellers who set up tables on the Upper West Side along Broadway.
Yet who’s to say what’s worthless and what’s not? As a writer myself, seeing all those volumes, and knowing all the emotional toil that went into them and the hopes of their authors that they’d find a place in the hearts of readers and perhaps even make a small mark on history, throwing them away felt almost sacrilegious.
Because people still read. Not only that: they may pick up a book that went out of print decades earlier and find something to amuse and enlighten them.
That’s the thing about books, their peculiar magic. Old and musty though they might be, the spark of life is never fully extinguished. It remains there, simmering, awaiting only the eyes and mind of an expectant reader.
Which is why local library book sales remain so important, perhaps more so than ever. They’re often all that stands between relevance and obscurity, between the rediscovery of a work of excellence and the dustbin.
Our library sale, at the Kinderhook Memorial Library, occurs on Saturday, June 8th from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. I plan to be there, as will a bunch of books from my father’s library, signed by the authors.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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