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.


4 Responses to “Preparatory to the Big Cull”

  1. Susan Says:

    Mmmm, good one. You’re lucky to still have this problem down the road. I’ve seen both sets of grandparents’ libraries distributed. My mom’s parents were not really book people. They were big believers in the abilities of National Geographic and Guidepost to take you as far and wide as you needed to go in the realistic world, and if you needed a little escapism, there was the short story feature (complete in this issue!) in Good Housekeeping. I do remember a hardback Reader’s Digest Book of Wit, which to this day is my dear mom’s highest compliment when something funny is said, “You should send that in to RD.”

    Boy, my other grandparents house — way different story. My parents moved into the house, so it didn’t get completely emptied but it did have to be emptied enough that there was room for their own detritus. It’s comforting to me though, that in the room my kids stay in, there is a large bookcase full of books not only from when I stayed in the room during visits, but tons from my own childhood house, thanks to my parents being big keepers.

    I did take a small, sentimental collection of books for myself when the estate was being settled, all hardbacks. There is the previously mentioned “Catcher in the Rye,” “Short Stories from The New Yorker” (my small town, NC grandparents were longtime subscribers to TNY – always on their coffee table), a couple books from the 1800’s with various family members’ signatures and doodles in them, and “Death of a Salesman.” That’s what it came down to.

  2. junecspence Says:

    Thanks for these comments, which are blogs unto themselves! Books are great artifacts of a family. Magazines paint a picture, too. We also took Readers Digest, Guidepost, and National Geographic, which could not be thrown away. It would not have occurred to anyone to take the New Yorker, as we were not ourselves New Yorkers! My grandma took Progressive Farmer, though.

  3. Melissa Says:

    After a long and not-so-hot day, your blog has eased my stress and given me comfort. Memories of your grandmother and her books brought on beautiful memories of my grandmother (and her Saks catalogues!). What I’d give for to snuggle with my grandmother in her four-poster bed with pressed sheets looking at the fashion magazines and then settling down with her favorite book – the Bible – for a nightime devotion. Thanks for the memories June.

  4. […] 29, 2010 We finally had our big book purge–not the big book purge I contemplated some months back, but I’d say we reduced our inventory by at […]

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