The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When book storage is limited, people get desperate. Don’t make the mistakes I did.


Last spring, when I began to prune my Smaug-like book hoard, I didn’t think I’d still be at it four months later. However, after selling or donating enough fiction and criticism to get my name on the library of a small liberal arts college, I still had more books than could possibly fit on my basement’s new metal shelves. Yet my heart sank at the prospect of further culling. Each time I picked up another book — say, Janet Flanner’s “Paris Journal” — I felt like Gollum caressing the One Ring. In fact, I could distinctly hear myself murmuring “My precious” as I gazed lovingly at the six volumes of Arthur Waley’s translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji.” Pathetically weak, I felt I had no choice but to carry dozens of boxes back to the subterranean depths whence they came, then stack them in dark corners near the washer and furnace.

All the books in my 300 boxes sparked joy. The lockdown made me rethink why I was keeping them.

By necessity, I then settled on a new plan: After a few months of R&R, I’d undertake a more serious round of “Swedish death-cleaning.” I love this phrase — to me, it sounds as if it should be the caption to a Frank Frazetta illustration of a Conanesque warrior swinging a bloodstained battle ax. I began to imagine myself in a Viking-style helmet, grimly throwing out all my Georgette Heyer Regency romances. I’d be merciless, only sparing my favorite, “The Grand Sophy.” Still, the books wouldn’t have to face that Dies Irae for a while yet.

And then — to adopt a popular clickbait formula — I heard from my neighbor with the greenhouse.

As some readers may recall, in my first report on reducing my biblio-clutter I mentioned having stored some books in a disused greenhouse. By “some books” you should be picturing two or three thousand. Now keeping any part of a library in a glass building designed to be tropically warm and moist is unquestionably a terrible idea. But I was tired of paying for an expensive storage unit in Kensington and this particular greenhouse allowed air to circulate freely and, really, it would all be okay, wouldn’t it?

Sigh. What would we poor deluded humans do without magical thinking?

By day, I’ve been trying to cull my book collection. But at night, eBay beckons.

Hoping for the best, last May I had carefully stacked perhaps 100 banker’s boxes on a heavy-duty plastic tarp and then covered the resulting mound with a similar protective sheet. But when my neighbor emailed me in mid-September, it was to say that two or three boxes had fallen over and spilled out their contents. Perhaps I might want to take a look? Also, she was thinking of actually using the greenhouse this winter. Could I move my stuff out by Thanksgiving?

I soon discovered that a dozen books had tumbled away from the plastic ground covering and come to rest on a patch of potting soil. When I lifted up a now mud-encrusted copy of Brillat-Savarin’s “The Physiology of Taste,” as translated by M.F.K. Fisher, the formerly handsome Limited Editions Club volume was swarming with tiny gourmets fond of high-quality paper and tasteful illustrations. It quickly went into a trash bag, along with a collectible advanced proof of Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass,” Brantome’s racy “Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies,” several collections of author interviews, and a 19th-century survey of Ohio cities and counties, acquired mainly for the section on my hometown of Lorain.

The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia had also suffered moisture damage to its leather bindings. While examining the 10 volumes, I flashed back to when I first learned about this American analogue to Britain’s more famous Oxford English Dictionary. While discussing some classic reference works, the polymath Guy Davenport extolled the detail and clarity of the Century’s engraved, thumbnail-sized illustrations. Despite the set’s now slightly yucky covers, I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

In turbulent times, culling my book collection gave me the illusion of control. Then the dilemmas began multiplying.

By this point, though, I began to feel uneasy about the overall condition of everything stored in the greenhouse.

As I opened a few boxes, I found crickets everywhere — at least they weren’t locusts — and noticed that several older volumes without dust jackets were starting to feel sticky — a bad sign. Mold would eventually develop. I wiped and dried the covers but clearly something had to be done soon. Some of these cardboard treasure chests held the complete works of Philip K. Dick and Russell Hoban, individual Oxford and Arden editions of Shakespeare’s plays, all of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin nautical adventures in hardcovers, the original Watchmen comics, sumptuous oversized volumes of William Blake’s poetic books, and hundreds of vintage paperbacks from the 1940s and ’50s. But where could I transfer all this material? My basement was again full and the attic was stuffed with late-19th and early 20th-century popular fiction needed for a project I’ve been working on, the reason I took off the month of September in the first place.

As it was, I’d already used up far too much of that precious vacation time in sorting books and even — say it isn’t so — actually reading some of them. Just filling in a few gaps, I’d rationalize, when settling down with George MacDonald’s mind-boggling, death-obsessed fantasy “Lilith” or Robert Hichens’s sendup of Oscar Wilde, “The Green Carnation,” or James Elroy Flecker’s apocalyptic 1908 novella, “The Last Generation.”

So there I was, behind on my work and wondering how things had come to this pretty pass, when I received an email from another neighbor.

Did I know anyone who would like some back issues of the New Yorker, “some” meaning, in this case, 30 years’ worth? After checking to be sure my wife wasn’t anywhere nearby, I replied, “Well, there’s me.” I ended up secreting the five heavy boxes in a little powder room that no one ever uses. Just a temporary measure, I tell myself. As for the books in the greenhouse: I sold some, but at least two-thirds are still there. Thanksgiving, after all, is weeks away.

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.

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