Preparatory to the Big Cull
October 24, 2009
My grandmother has promised me all of her books when she dies. You might think the collection of a former librarian and English teacher–and occasional World Book encyclopedia saleslady–is something to covet, and it’s true there will be some gold amid the heaps of dross. I will happily annex her hardcovers of Little Women and Tom Sawyer, and the set of Childcraft books whose spines when properly aligned form a complex illustration featuring a smiling sun.
But then there will be the insipid Kathleen Norrises, pale romances without a single bodice ripped, and the Gladys Tabers, whose rural ruminations left me cold: Stillmeadow Farm indeed! And there will be many a red-stamped library discard to consider: jacketless, threadbare covers, spines loose and wobbly, torn and crayoned pages. My grandmother used to bring them home for me and my sister. For a brief time she tried to entice us to play in the basement by storing the outcast books down there among the jars of preserves and low-hanging ductwork. My sister cared little for books, and these wretched orphans only abetted her indifference. To my grandmother’s credit, she soon got the message, and the basement “playroom” idea was abandoned.
The other tricky part about this impending legacy is that we already have about a thousand books too many. The narrow hallway of our little house is lined with low shelves, and any room without a bursting shelf nonetheless has at least one toppling book pile. There has never been any overt organizing principle, yet I used to somehow be able to put my hands on anything I needed; there was a subconscious awareness of where things were. Then came the children, and clutter became disorder bordering on chaos (I’m talking to you, A&E’s reality show Hoarders! Please bring your trucks and specialists. I will pretend reluctance for the camera, but in the end you will be permitted to take it all.)
This summer, my copy of Lydia Davis’s landmark collection Break It Down eluded me completely. It was the day before I had to travel out of state to helm a weeklong writing workshop, and I had it in my head that only Davis’s brilliant short-short story “The Sock” would do as the springboard for my first writing exercise, which would explore the secret life of objects. My rage upon not finding it might have fueled a mighty purge of every book I owned not authored by Lydia Davis, only I had to divert that energy into packing for the trip.
I can chuck my grandmother’s Rush Limbaughs (gifted by my stepfather) with ease and maybe even her Lewis Grizzards, but I know it will be hard to do the heartless culling necessary to keep this inheritance from overwhelming us. For she loves books. Give her one, and watch her librarian’s reverence as she gently primes the spine by easing open the book at the halfway mark, then splitting it into fourths, then eighths. She cannot drive and can barely hear, and she will forget a pot put to boil on the stove, nearly setting the house alight, but her eyes without the cataracts are still pretty good for the close work of reading. It’s what she has left, and when she is gone, the books more than anything will stand in for the life. You don’t toss that out, not even piecemeal.