Book of Ecclesiastes is one of the more philosophical
books of the Old Testament, with wise sayings
and accurate judgments of the human condition.
One of its last pronouncements is the famous
dictum Of the making of books there is
no end. As a bibliophile, a lover of books,
this prospect is heartening. When I am contacted
by a client looking to sell merchandise, my
first question is always, are there any
books? An affirmative answer begins a
journey unlike any other.
Only the individual who appreciates what a book
provides truly understands. One book will call
out for an acquaintance, a dozen books will
gather companions, and a thousand books will
fill the winds with many voices all calling
out for further reinforcements. A brigade of
books, an army of silent soldiers, bound in
covers proclaiming and protecting their contents.
There comes a time, as the 16th century English
diarist Samuel Pepys relates, that his library
is so full, to add a title means to discard
another one. I can fully sympathize, as the
books crowd upon the shelves, new ones added
require culling or weeding of others.
So many books, so little time.
Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure
to look through hundreds and hundreds of books.
On Easter Sunday I spent the entire day with
a New York gentleman who was consolidating his
multiple storage units into one. He called Saturday
night in semi-desperation, offered me whatever
books he was not keeping, if I would take them
away. Otherwise, they would be consigned to
a dumpster. This was an absolute electric assignment,
and I met the man at ten in the morning. By
six that evening I had transported eighty boxes
of books to the shop, the price was right-my
labor. And then came the moment of truth, each
book evaluated and either kept or donated. On
Monday morning, seventy of the eighty boxes
were taken for donation; the gentleman received
a nice charity deduction, and I had ten boxes
of books that I now owned. There were some real
treasures, but the true excitement was in the
discovery, the exploration of what was there.
The following week hard on the heels of this
haul, I was invited to view and purchase portions
of a library that was being sold. Floor to ceiling
shelves across a wide wall, inviting sets of
leather bound titles, folios with splendid bindings,
curious titles not commonly seen. Much of the
collection was not in good condition, but the
books themselves were not the common fare. I
was delighted, and started filling the boxes
removing the books from the shelves and ferrying
them to my shop. This is back breaking work.
In the 70s I enjoyed a ten-year career breaking
and training young thoroughbreds in Middleburg,
Virginia. The stables I worked for were the
classy nurseries where the high-ticket
Keeneland and Saratoga yearlings were schooled.
Everything was done just right, down to the
raking of the shed row in intricate designs
after the horses had been stalled. You learned
how to do tasks with precision and efficiency,
that mucking out a stall was also an art-each
pitch of the fork should count. My credo then
was if you are going to shovel manure,
shovel the best manure. I still have the
same credo. Books are heavy, and good books
weigh as much as lesser books. If I am going
to lug books, I am going to lug the best books.
Purchasing books in volume necessitates the
decision of what books to remove so that I have
adequate space for the new recruits. Though
the focus of the library has remained scholars
books, the ingathering has been towards rarer
and less common titles. Once I purchase a library,
each book is examined, cleaned, repaired when
necessary and when possible, researched, priced,
and placed on the shelf.
It is in this process that I come to know the
book, and the book comes to know me. While I
am not a book conservator or book binder, I
can, and do accomplish small repairs, deftly
and lovingly. Spines can be reglued, covers
cleaned, pages mended, gutters strengthened,
leather treated. Every book that comes into
my shop is acknowledged. This ritual of examination
and discovery is the intimacy that you can share
only with book that you own. You cannot have
a relationship with a borrowed book; it is almost
like an illicit affair, impossible in good conscience.
And there are many times when I reluctantly
sell a book I wish I had kept.
One difficulty of my enterprise is that I am
seized with anxiety when I see people rifling
through the bookshelves. Books demand an etiquette
of responsibility when you handle them. You
must take the time and more important have the
innate respect that requires you to handle them
carefully. Books break from careless handling
and there is nothing that more incenses me when
I straighten shelves than to find a book damaged
by a browser, who has broken off a cover, torn
a spine head, or jammed a book onto a shelf
tearing the dustjacket, or creasing the pages.
Books are companions unlike any others. They
are a perfect package, like an egg, they cannot
be improved upon. Portable, magical, tactile,
the lives of books are as individual as those
who authored them, and those who owned them.
Traces of their stories, their provenance is
oftentimes found on the first few blank pages.
An inscription, dedication, comment, given by
so and so to whom, and when and why, and where,
add to the voice of a book. Not infrequently
there are odd pieces slipped into the pages,
pressed flowers, photographs, tickets, calendars,
etc. Mostly, my policy is to leave them with
the book, with certain exceptions, separating
the ephemera giving it its own life. And before
you ask, no, contrary to legends, I have not
yet ever found money inside a book.
Of what value is intellectual curiosity? A pursuit
of discovery that constantly delights in the
interweaving of a web of life, its threads and
patterns over millennium of history and culture
embracing our fragile globe. Until our recent
memory, such records were held between the covers
of books. There are among us a population who
even in this instantaneous connective information
world, cannot live without books. We are a fortunate
few, finding satisfaction, even elation, in
a fellowship with books, where one book will
call out for another.
Pepys Dilemma of full bookshelves is with us
still. We need good homes for our books. Lastly,
a reminder that the 2010 Connecticut Antiquarian
Booksellers Directory is now available on-line,
booksellers statewide, and their specialties.
Visit www.bookdirectory.org or stop by Miriam
Green for a hard-copy.