Book Collecting 

Lofty reading goal ends up shelved

I once spent four hours in a crowded, pre-retirement seminar where a guy with a blue sport coat and a laser pointer talked his way through a slew of PowerPoint slides. After covering the nuances of Social Security, trusts, estates and annuities, he came around to insurance, a subject as numbing as Novocain. His spiel focused on life insurance, but near the end, he wiggled the fiery laser dot on “collectibles floater,” a special policy covering high-value collections of coins, Grateful Dead ticket stubs, Hummel figurines, baseball cards, Cabbage Patch dolls and such. I was daydreaming until he asked the audience, “How many here have a collection?” Every hand shot up. Every hand but mine. I was stunned, then immediately self-conscious. A friend, an uncultivated ex-Marine, was sitting next to me, busily scribbling notes.

“What do you collect?” I whispered.

“Guns,” he grunted.

The seminar soon ended, leaving me to ponder my oddball status in private. How had I come to be the outlier? What did others, collectors all, have that I lacked? There were no ready answers, only the memory of a short-lived stamp collection, which fell by the wayside after it was parlayed into a merit badge in Boy Scout Troop 475. I briefly considered my investment in trout flies, record albums and Lands’ End neckties, but none was worthy of a collectibles floater. So, finally, there it was: not a single collection to insure and not a flicker of interest in starting one.

I did own a lot of books, however—perhaps 200. I regarded them as more an accumulation than a collection: no first editions, only one bound in leather. Most were paperbacks with yellowing pages. I considered them teaching tools in the same way a carpenter regards his hammer, plane, chisel and saw as construction tools. Underlined and annotated, the books waited to be dusted off and pressed into classroom service.

I aspired to be an English teacher in my 20s. To prepare myself, I felt the obligation to read my way from Chaucer to Cheever. I saved every novel and anthology from my college classes. If a title was singled out in a lecture, I took note so that the next time I was in a bookstore, I could ask for it. In an American Literature class at the University of Utah, the late Bill Mulder talked admiringly about The Power of Blackness, a study of Hawthorne, Poe and Melville. I ordered it from Sam Weller and paid $1.25. It’s still on a shelf within reach, as it has been for almost 50 years. I have not yet found the time to read it.

Early on, I made shelves with concrete blocks and pine boards. They wobbled a bit, so I shimmed them with cardboard. Then, I set out to fill them with literary must-reads. I gravitated to bookstores. I bought books from Sam Weller and Betsy Burton in Salt Lake City, at City Lights in San Francisco, and in the cluttered bookshops of Harvard Square. The now-defunct Brentano’s, Waldenbooks and Borders also got some of my money. I joined the Book of the Month Club. The popular club offered an armful of free books if you agreed to buy four more within a year’s time. I was introduced to John Updike, William Styron and Truman Capote that way. I actually joined the club more than once, ultimately scoring Will and Ariel Durant’s hefty, 11-volume History of Civilization as a sign-up bonus. The big books gave stability to any bookshelf, wobbly or otherwise, so long as they were on the bottom, waiting to be read.

The makeshift shelves were a bar-graph indicator of books owned, although I tended to see an indication of books read and knowledge extracted. The colorful rows of books were not simply pleasing to the eye; they yielded satisfaction as well as status. I recall a visit to a richly appointed house in Washington, D.C., in the company of a literary-minded friend. Afterward, I commented on the considerable appeal of the décor. “I didn’t see any books,” he replied disapprovingly.

When the Vietnam-era draft yanked me up by the roots, I dismantled the shelves, boxed up the books and delivered them to a loading dock at Redman Moving & Storage in Sugar House. They stayed in storage for almost a year. There, they became “household goods,” which the Army shipped to Africa along with me and my wife. The books were subsequently boxed, moved and unboxed six more times—five at my expense—before I made the painful decision to donate most of them to a high school and public libraries in Massachusetts. A few of them were put to use in a classroom over the years, but not many. Some were unread.

It is embarrassing to admit that you have had books like The Power of Blackness for 50 years without opening them. No advantage has accrued from ownership. All they have done is collect dust. A Swiss Army knife would have been a more useful tool; a Hummel figurine, a better investment. I could list a half-dozen reasons for ignoring this book or that one, and each reason would have a grain of truth.

A larger truth—the reason for buying the books in the first place—occupies me here. My ego prefers to believe it was intellectual curiosity, but I have to face up to the possibility that it was nothing more than the collector’s impulse to acquire and display. Had I not given the books away—hoping that others would read them—I fear curios would trump curious.

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