Publishers send me hundreds of books a year in the hope that I will mention the titles in print. A few make it to these pages, but most do not. The majority of the books are sound in their own way, but they don’t fit with what I may be working on. And there are so many books today about edible gardening — publishers see this as the hottest area of horticulture, tied in with the local food movement — that they all blend together.
Although I try to give away most of these volumes and take regular trips to the public library, I tend to gather books the way the clothes dryer collects lint.
I also buy a lot of books, either from the bricks-and-mortar bookstore or online. When the downtown Borders was a short walk from the office, I would browse and buy. I took the chain’s closing as a personal slight.
My little pod in the newsroom is home to about 300 books, and I do notice on occasion that others around me work in less, um, leafy environments, though I don’t understand why that is.
At home, I have another 1,500 books. The oldest in my possession is a biology textbook from high school, which includes a photo of a dissected rabbit, a diagram of the human ear and the basic structure of soil, but no reference at all to DNA or genes. The newest book, a gift from a friend, is of Donald Duck adventures, in German. I’m trying to polish my Deutsch.
The majority of the books are about gardening: horticulture, garden design, landscape history, botanical floras and illustration, and encyclopedias. People ask me for my favorite gardening book, a simple question that has no answer, though the one I would take to a desert island would be Russell Page’s “The Education of a Gardener.” For my work, I often reach for the four volumes of the New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening, for Michael Dirr’s “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” now terribly dog-eared, and a classic, dated but still useful Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia. Actually I have two versions of this; the older still lists insecticides banned years ago, including DDT, calcium cyanide and lead arsenate.
You will have gathered that I am an analog creature. I am not against the Internet; for one thing, it’s a great place to find old books. The difficulty now is that any discussion about books, physical books, has to be in contrast to texts as they exist in the digital world. This puts you in the posture of having to defend why you prefer a physical book. Or you have to hear digital pundits argue that the physical book is so old-hat, and, by extension, so is the physical book reader.
Neither am I averse to e-books, but it seems a lot simpler to go into a bookstore, handle a book, decide whether you want it and then buy it with, if you wish, pieces of cotton fiber paper imprinted with images of dead presidents.
Your privacy and the security of your credit or debit card are not compromised. You don’t have to set up an account, give anyone your e-mail address, fret about recharging your device or worry about leaving your new purchase in your unlocked car. Who would steal a book in this day and age?
Other genres dominate my bookshelves, notably art and art history, architecture, beekeeping and poetry. I have a lot of biographies and memoirs, which I read for fun. Donald Duck is more work.
Books are lumped loosely by subject — roses, herbs, rock garden plants, conifers — and I have a mental map of their place in each bookcase. This is an imperfect system, and sometimes I cannot retrace the memory of something I’ve read. Other times, the shelving pays unexpected dividends. Say I am sitting in a soft chair pondering a column on May chores and suddenly, while eating a jam sandwich, my eyes are drawn to “Henry Mitchell on Gardening.”
Henry has gone from these pages, and indeed from this earthly garden, but his wit lives on. I alight on this pearl: “As I watched Nightline on television, it suddenly struck me that the moonflower vines have not yet been planted. The seeds should have gone in the first of May. That program specializes in things to worry about and often reminds me of dreadful deficiencies in the garden.”
The chances of my finding that passage on the Internet are nil.
I do worry, though, that I may have crossed the line from bibliophile to pack rat, and sometimes I have a fit of book winnowing that has reduced my library by approximately 1,000 volumes in recent years. Some books are easy to toss — they are dated or not as good as I remembered them — others are absolute keepers. It’s the ones in the middle that are more pernicious. I have to peruse them in deciding their fate, and the next thing, I’ve spent 10 minutes reading whole sections, finding them more valuable than first thought but still unsure whether to keep them. You can waste a whole morning doing this.
A colleague who reviews books says he has become ruthless in letting go of accumulated titles; they sit on a holding table but cannot be shelved or stored. He told me that there are people who will come to your door to take them away.
The problem, though, is that his are novels. Mine function as reference books. Some are used weekly; others may sit for months or years before I reach for them. They may be strangers, but essential ones if they furnish the information I need.
This is the essence of books, and why people worship them. They represent, first, a conversation between the author and the reader and, second, the sharing of knowledge that may have taken a lifetime to amass. I suppose that a good deal of all the books ever written exist directly or indirectly behind your computer screen, and this in itself is a marvel of our age — it would be churlish to deny it. But when you live in a place where the very walls are of books, you feel wrapped in the wisdom of others. Who would forfeit that?
Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.
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