To get ready for some renovations in the basement, I am shedding books. Shelves have to go, and so do most of their denizens.
Trimming the bookshelves has become a pastime in recent years, as I have moved to smaller digs and must make room for the books I continue to buy every week or so. This time, the trimming is radical. I have four messy piles: books and printed matter to recycle; books to trade in at the used bookstore; books to give to charity; books I’ll keep, at least until next time.
Trashing or recycling books seems reckless, but these ones have yellowed over the decades, or been read to tatters, and may have already been passed over by the bookstores. Along with them go dozens of the literary magazines I read and aspired to publish in back in the 70s, 80s and 90s (and later). I’ll keep the ones that do have my writing in them, for now. It’s interesting to look at the tables of contents and see not only friends but other writers I know now but didn’t know when our poems and stories and reviews were published together.
The signed and inscribed books, especially, are not for discarding. I don’t want my friends finding a copy of their own book on a discount shelf somewhere, their warm greetings to me on view to the curious. Even after my death, I’d prefer that they stay together, these three or four hundred personal invitations to art. I doubt, however, that there are enough libraries or poets’ centres or archives to make room for all these collection of preserved moments – for certainly hundreds of my fellow poets have similar book collections on their shelves.
Unfortunately, I know what will happen to a lot of these collections. After the death of the person who owned and cherished them, the books will be discarded by the harried inheritors – sold by the box at estate sales, broken up to disparate collectors, pulped, discarded, turned into cardboard boxes. This is the way of all things: they decay, they annoy, they take up space, they are taken care of to make space, they are gone, forgotten. There is a long history of lost books, and the digital age will not bring it to an end.
Against mortality, however, I’ve decided to look again through all these book signed to me personally, to remember the poet I shared a moment or an evening with, or many evenings over a lifetime, to appreciate that, yes, though I seemed most of the time to be waiting, striving, failing, I was also living the life of a writer, sharing that life with other writersThe bookstores are picky about what they will take in trade. For some, they already have enough copies; for others (especially the contemporary poetry books I’ve collected in the hundreds) there is no demand, and sometimes even disparaging remarks. The rejects can go to charity.
The keepers, of course, include books I’ve written myself and haven’t yet sold (if you want to have one, five dollars includes shipping); also books I still intend to read and ones I know I will reread – the books I love. Then there are the many books that have been inscribed to me by the author when I purchased them at a reading or festival. These will find a place on my shelves somehow. Still, in the midst of those messy piles, I take to time to look at them again, to read a few pages, and to enjoy the inscriptions written on the title page by the proud authors.
To linger over these shelves is to look back on what has been a long career in the ranks of aspiring writers. It’s a way of reconnecting with writers I’ve befriended over the years. And it’s a reminder that I’m one of them, regarded with respect by people I admire. Of course, there are many formulaic greetings among them: “best wishes,” “with respect” and so on. Some, often from first-time authors, are kind of humorous: “thanks for buying this book.”
Then there are the ones that remind me of strong bonds of friendship and the places those bonds were formed. Many years ago, I moved from Western to Eastern Canada, and the move is commemorated in some of the signed books on my shelf: “We miss you out west!” writes a Governor-General’s Award winner. Another, on a visit east, writes “in friendship, like poetry, that shows itself from time to time, and yet is always there.” Yet another prize-winner recalls, in his inscriptions, the first time we met: “with admiration and thanks for a fifteen year connection” he wrote in 2004, and in 2013, “thanks and admiration after 25 years.” Some writers will quote a line from the book they are signing, or will refer to the title of a book of mine. Others thank me, and I take a moment to recall what I might have done for them, and perhaps to regret that we have not kept in closer contact over the years.
Then there are the poets I will never be able to reconnect with because they have died. Only now do I wonder what became of the books I signed for them. (No, I’m afraid I already know.)
It’s a great privilege to have these books as a record of my life as a poet. Yet every shelf of books we choose to keep is a testament to a life as a reader. It isn’t easy to let go. It would be a tiny home indeed that had only one bookshelf in it. I am not at that extreme yet, and I don’t want to contemplate which books I would have to dispose of if I were. Time is eroding my mental space now, and in the end it will devour all. In the meantime, I’m taking a moment to look at each item as it leaves the shelves and is sorted into one of the piles. It’s a bit discouraging – so much effort gone to trash – but also very rewarding to have these reminders. I’m sure I will go down this well-worn path again someday.