Under the shadow of the coronavirus, two unwelcome thoughts increasingly nagged at me. First, how would my family cope with all this paper clutter if I weren’t around? Second, shouldn’t I use this period of isolation to do something about the sheer number of books? Three weeks ago a truck deposited a Zippy Shell storage container at the top of my driveway.
My plan was simplicity itself. I would transfer my subterranean hoard into the Zippy Shell, then thoroughly wash and clean the basement’s linoleum floor and concrete block walls. Years ago, I’d built a number of wooden bookcases and these would stay, but I’d also order some easy-to-put-together metal shelving from Home Depot. After rearranging the basement it would, ideally, resemble a miniature version of the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library. Anyway, that was the dream. Most importantly, all the books would fit on shelves or they’d be gone. I would address the attic and the greenhouse at some vaguely distant future date.
To empty the basement I hired a 16-year-old neighbor kid who — dutifully masked — spent three hours shifting 100 boxes up the steps and into the storage container. Two days later his arms and shoulders were still too sore for additional heavy lifting. Kids these days! My youngest son and I then carried more books up and out until Zippy was packed solid. The basement, however, was nowhere near empty.
It was clear to my lightning brain — I’m not a Sherlockian for nothing — that I needed to free up space in the storage pod before I could put more boxes into it. There was, I deduced, just one way to accomplish this: I would have to start selling or giving away some of my books right now rather than later. But which ones should go? Obviously, I would keep personal favorites such as James Salter’s “A Sport and a Pastime,” Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes” and John Crowley’s “Little, Big,” as well as books I still hoped to read (Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa,” Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” Cao Xueqin’s “The Story of the Stone”) or reread (Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall,” Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” Stendhal’s nonfiction, Macaulay’s essays, dozens of ghost-story collections, lots of P.G. Wodehouse, Edmund Crispin and Evelyn Waugh). I’d also retain material need for writing projects — mainly that popular fiction in the attic — and, not least, the first or special editions worth more than $100, including signed books by Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Hunter Thompson.
So, picture me two weeks ago, as I sat on a white plastic lawn chair inside a gigantic metal oven, picking up book after book and only occasionally feeling a Kondoesque spark of joy amid many spasms of regret. The whole process made me feel old. I was almost certainly taking a last look at novels and nonfiction I would never read or never return to. I no longer had world enough and time.
So what did I, to use the librarian’s term, end up deaccessioning?
First, almost all biographies and author criticism (but not works of intellectual history). Second, all ex-library hardcovers wrapped in ugly cellophane jackets and decorated with stamps and labels. Third, most paperbacks, saving only vintage titles from the 1940s and ’50s. These I love for the cover art — Dell mapbacks showing the location of the country-house murder, Gold Medal private eye novels featuring babes who were the stuff that dreams are made of, science fiction adorned with paintings by Leo and Diane Dillon or Richard Powers.
Still, there weren’t that many paperbacks, given my strong preference for first editions if they were affordable. I did unearth a fair number of duplicates, originally acquired as possible gifts for worthy friends. These included, most egregiously, seven extra copies of Cyril Connolly’s moody collection of pensées, “The Unquiet Grave.” The dupes went. I spared only my run of multiple printings of “Lolita” — one can study society’s evolving view of the novel through its changing cover designs.
Besides books, I discovered cartons of pamphlets, monographs, convention programs and other ephemera. As a break from sorting, I began to reread some of these — an old article by E.F. Bleiler on early robots in American dime novels; a printed lecture by G.M. Trevelyan called “History and the Reader”; classicist F.M. Cornford’s donnishly witty guide to university politics, “Microcosmographia Academica”; a long magazine profile of novelist Margaret Drabble and biographer Michael Holroyd; and, best of all, Richard Whateley’s satirical pamphlet, published in 1819, “Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte.” In it, this future archbishop proves that there’s no way to be absolutely sure that Napoleon, who was then still alive, wasn’t actually a myth. Whately’s intent was subtly religious: He wanted to mock those who questioned the evidence for Christ’s existence.
A few days ago, I began to wonder if it just might be simpler and easier to buy a bigger house or, alternately, to open a pop-up store called Zippy Shell Books. In the meantime, though, the work of culling and sorting continues. Will I ever manage to bring order out of this chaos? Stay tuned.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.