Back in the early 70s, before Amazon, before Borders, department stores still sold books. I had fallen in love with the movies, and had started spending my meager teen-age income on books about them. A friend of mine and I were walking through Macy’s book section one December afternoon, and he casually asked my opinion of a coffee table book called The Imagemakers. Then as now I was very forthright. I was unimpressed by the collection of canned studio portraits of actors and actresses, captioned with names but without context of time, place, or career arc.
Imagine my embarrassment when I discovered a few weeks later his Christmas gift to me was The Imagemakers. So embarrassed in fact, that 40 years later, it’s still on my bookshelf. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. I sure hope everybody has books like this: volumes that may have meant something at one time but no longer do. What is it that compels me to keep books like this long after the expiration date of their value, or even the friendship that they represent?
I am musing about this because we are in the middle of an effort involving boxing up all the books so that the bookshelves could be moved and the carpeting replaced. I am baffled by some of the things found on those shelves in addition to The Imagemakers:
French Aircraft of the First World War. This is an extensive volume of highly arcane material, a subject in which I have absolutely no interest. One of the authors is a former co-worker of my wife’s, and we didn’t even like the guy when she worked with him.
Teach Yourself Macintosh in 24 Hours (1997; Korean version). This is a book I co-authored when I worked at Macworld. It is about Mac OS 8, a version of the operating system that few Macs use anymore. It is indeed in Korean, so I have no way of knowing whether it was translated correctly or not. I can read my name – they printed it correctly. What’s interesting is that the posting for the English edition on Amazon says, “One more left at this price (more on the way).” Who would want more?
Pacific Islands Year Book 1942. One of the drawbacks of being a writer is the tendency to collect books that you think you will use as reference to write something someday. One of my unpublished novels tells the story of an heiress to a hotel chain spanning the South Pacific (think of the Pritzker or Marriott families). I bought this handbook, containing maps and contemporary descriptions, to provide historic verisimilitude. Believe me, there are many more books than these relating to the hospitality industry, the South Pacific, and the peccadilloes of wealthy families.
Stanford University: An Architectural Tour and Stanford University: An Architectural Tour. My father has been far better than I am about culling books from his shelves. But because we both went to Stanford, we both have the same books. And sometimes I accept books from him without checking whether I already have them.
Part of the problem is being enamored of books in the first place, because this can only lead to more books. And some of them you just can’t get donate to the library. Books from family. Books from friends. Books by friends. Books by colleagues. Books by people who used to be colleagues. The list goes on.
I have long ago stopped being a packrat regarding so many things. I know that most information I need is probably somewhere on the Internet. And yet … the books remain on the shelves, redolent of times and places and ambitions long passed. I always say that I am going to spend the first years of my retirement with my books, reading the ones I always intended to read, and re-reading the ones that time has erased from my memory.
Rationally I know that someday we’ll leave this house and there will be no rhyme, reason, or room to take the books with me. But irrationally, I hope that someone else – someone with an emotional attachment to me but not my books – will do it for me when I’m gone. I suggest they start with The Imagemakers.