“The Stack,” by Kathryn Schulz. The New Yorker, 3/25/2019.
Schulz, one of my favorite New Yorker authors who I’ve quoted here before, describes how her parents stored books when she was growing up, and I immediately recognized similarities (and differences) with my own parents.
She tells us they had downstairs books, selected and shelved by her mother, and upstairs books simply stacked against the bedroom wall by her father. His collection was based on the conviction that it is very nice to have everything you’ve recently read near at hand, in case you get the urge to consult any of it again. His upstairs collection was the much larger of the two.
Now for the similarities and differences: We had a 4-ft wide, waist-high bookcase made by my grandfather in our living room and my mother selected the books displayed there. The main criteria was that they looked good, so our bound set of second-hand encyclopedia was the prominent feature there. There was also shelved there a smaller, bound set of classics that no one read, but the titles were impressive—a lot of Dickens, as I recall. In- between were miscellaneous individual books she was reading, such as All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten and How To Win Friends and Influence People. She was big on self-improvement, but never reread any. When she was finished, she was finished for good.
My father was not like Schulz’s father. He only read the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper in the evening, or occasional strategy books on bridge or chess. He loved TV. He would even watch the flag flying to a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at the end of the day. But I have her father’s philosophy: I keep books I have recently read, thinking I may want to check something again (I never do). I generally end up stacking them against my computer room wall, and like her father’s collection, some of the spines are turned in, which looses the book’s identity.
I do not even like books, but my collection keeps growing despite my efforts. They must reproduce at night when I am not looking. I used to be a sucker for used books on any sort of identification, and would pick up any at a periodic used book sale at our local mall, but now I can look anything up on my computer, so I threw out all of those, except for one on spider identification that I probably missed. (Looks like you got a Brown Kaka crawling up your wall, there.) But at one time I could identify plants, ships, bugs, car models, home styles, anything. I was insufferable.
Her father’s stack of books grew around his bed, but I tend to leave books in my computer room and only later do they end up against the wall. I start by trying to place them properly in a bookshelf, but there never is enough room, so I leave them on the floor and later push them against the wall to create a path.
My downfall is a recycle book case at the senior center. People leave their unwanted books there, and anyone is free to take what they want. This accounts for books lining my walls like Born To Kvetch and The Joys Of Yiddish. Of course I had to take them—I may never see them again. And, Oi, what a bargain!
Then, Schulz’s father suddenly died. As usual, she leaves us with a pithy observation: No matter when my father died, he would have been—as, one way or another, we all are when we die—in the middle of something. (I’ll try to remember that when my turn comes, so I’ll not fret about leaving something undone. If it is not that left undone, it would be something else. Millions and millions of people have died leaving important tasks undone, but none of it mattered after all.
Most of my reading is of The New Yorker that comes out every week. I can barely throw out an issue, so I keep an Excel spreadsheet of the memorable articles. I get access to their on-line digital archives with my subscription, so I could always go back and retrieve the original article. I just never have.
Many of Shulz’s father’s books are her books, now. Many of my mother’s books are my books, now. (They are lying somewhere around here, I’m sure. Give me a moment.)
Schulz, as usual, extends her observations to a universality. She points out that books will always spill out beyond your bookshelves where they will remain unresolved, like the remainder in a long division problem.
This is a difficulty that goes well beyond libraries. No matter how beautifully your life is arranged, no matter how lovingly you tend to it, it will not stay that way forever.
I need to keep that in mind.