The book lover’s dilemma: When to unpack my library?

| December 29, 2022 | 0 Comments

My foot on that brake was more urgent than I intended. I jumped out of my Volvo and rushed to the boîte of the local Little Free Library. I popped open its tiny-hinged double doors — but my book was gone. My beautiful book by Maggie Keswick, “The Chinese Garden: History, Art and Architecture.”

I wanted it back.

I am eyeing my library. Yes, I am. At my age, it seems against the law of nature to pretend I can keep them all. They are on my shelves only barely touched by what Walter Benjamin, the pre-war German-Jewish critic, in his well-known 1931 essay, “Unpacking My Library,” called “the mild boredom of order.”

Can I imagine a life without “In the Land of Blue Poppies,” the collected plant hunting writings of Frank Kingdon Ward (1885-1958), first published in 1913, reissued in 2003? I gave it away. I want it back, too. His prose is crystalline.

These books are part of my history! I read the Keswick book for the first piece I wrote for the Los Angeles Times — in 2008 — about the then new Chinese Garden, Liu Fang Yuan, at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. (The first new Chinese garden in the U.S. in a century!)

AMONG THE BOOKS the author read for research into 1932 Hollywood. Also visible: “The Oxford Companion to Food,” one of her personal bibles.

I read Frank Kingdon Ward when my interest in the prose of gardens was rising, rising, rising. That mountainside carpet of blue!

And therein lies the problem that most of us book-loving boomers and those who came right after us have: How to divest. How to lighten up. How to disperse decades of collected books and other materials. I set a goal of giving away six books a day. It was easy, at first. But now I have cut too close to the bone. Divesting is one thing, but erasing the cultural capital of a still-breathing writer is quite another.

I had more luck in dispersing the contents of 10 or 12 boxes that belonged to my long-departed parents-in-law, whose life archives began in 1930s Los Angeles. (I tried to engage the interest of the three daughters, to no avail.) So, I dug in. Photographs, birth certificates, my father-in-law’s medical degree, University of Nebraska, 1933. His Purple Heart, earned in 1945 when a kamikaze plane crashed into his hospital ship, the USS Comfort, on which he was medical commander. An engraved dinner invitation from Admiral and Mrs. Chester Nimitz.

I reorganized the material into six boxes and shipped them to my nephew in Colorado, the family historian. This was easy! Time-consuming, but not intellectually or emotionally too fraught.

But back to the books.

“You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids…” wrote Walter Benjamin in 1931. Well, no, but I daresay it is possible.

Among the categories in my library I cannot touch:

The books I read to write my unpublished novel set in 1932 Los Angeles.

The books I read when we lived in London.

Books on landscape and garden history.

The culinary archive, including everything M.F.K. Fisher published.

“[O]wnership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects,” wrote Benjamin. “Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”

And I stutter with shame to confess I just ordered replacement copies of Maggie Keswick’s book and “In the Land of Blue Poppies.” It is I who lives in them.

I suppose my copy of “The Oxford Companion to Food” will have to be pried from my cold hands in the end. Along with “The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary.” Both volumes.

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