For the past hour I have been staring at my bookcases. Because of a last minute decision to move to Seattle, my wife and I suddenly face the near impossible task of deciding which of our library will stay behind, packed up in Utah, and which will continue on with us to Washington State.
And as I stand, scanning intently from title to title, each one bears a terrible choice, as if asked to decide between children on your favorite. I must be a terrible parent, since several of my “kids” hit the chopping block early – an extra copy of Crime and Punishment, a textbook on Introduction to International Relations, Albert Camus’ existentialist (and horribly depressing) The Plague. But then the decisions become even more gut wrenching than the usual – A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms isn’t exactly a page turner, nor do I consult it on a daily basis, but what if I need to know one day what aposiopesis means? I haven’t opened Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince in years, but there may come a time when I want to read once more about cynical realpolitik. And I’ve clearly read Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road several times so realistically I don’t need it when I move – but the prose! Have you ever read any prose more simultaneously poetically ironic and sublime?
The “to bring” pile shrinks as more books fall by the the wayside. each time I put one away makes me feel as if I’m burning them. I tell myself I will come back for these, my least favorite children. But should a bibliophile even be forced to abandon his library – even a portion – in the first place?
The Holy Bible – New International, King James, even the Recovery Version – will stay with us. Why Nations Go to War and The Craft of Research doesn’t make the cut. The Literature of American Jews (picked up for cheap at Sam Weller’s in Salt Lake City) will also come with me; Soviet Women Writing (bought along with The Literature of American Jews) unfortunately won’t. My 1955 RLDS edition of The Book of Mormon is one of my most prized possessions (purchased for $2.00 at a Blackwell, Oklahoma antique store), but I have to think twice about bringing both the current Hymnal and the red 1978 Hymnal that once belonged to my father (and before him, the Ricks College Twelfth Ward). In the end, sentimentality wins out, along with William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and a hardcover collection of writings by Plato, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. All three have been passed down from my previous generation to me – these artifacts are practically grandchildren at this point – you couldn’t leave them behind even if you tried.
Four versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In the end, the still shrink wrapped boxed set wins, both because it has art most closely reminiscing J.R.R. Tolkien’s own sketches, but also because my wife and I bought it together on our honeymoon in a Half Price Books. From Seattle thou didst come, and to Seattle thou shalt return. The other ones aren’t without story, however. My combined edition with a movie still of Gandalf on the cover is one I bought for myself, only to receive an identical version from my friend for Christmas one week later. The friend’s stayed behind in Seattle; mine will stay in Utah for a season. My wife’s old copy is falling apart and will also stay in the home she grew up in and read said trilogy over and over since she was able to begin reading. We vow to come back for them someday, but sadly, we don’t know exactly when.
Pretty soon, I am bargaining. I could sell neglected video games to make room for my equally neglected copy of Death of a Salesman or The Scarlet Letter. I didn’t even like The Scarlet Letter, but it’s certainly more of a classic than Front Mission 4. If I left behind some clothes I never wear, could I bring more tomes? I’m preparing to give away possessions to make room for more books, willing to sell the plasma running through my veins in hopes of purchasing shipping for those children stuck in moving limbo. I consider adoption. Maybe Ben Crowder will accept an old, battered copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, even if it’s missing a spine? He’s not the prettiest book, but you can’t judge him by his cover, right? He’s full of good things, I promise. Maybe David and Tiffany could give The Prentice Hall Reader a warm home? She doesn’t need much – just a nice shelf to sit on and declare to your visitors how literate you are.
In the end, I can’t finish this gruesome task – at least, not today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll reconsider again the “usefulness” of the books in my remaining library. But then again, I didn’t buy books for their usefulness, but for their character. If I wanted utility, I would have bought a Kindle.