The job was a lot more than about books, it was about going through the remains of someone else’s life, but I’m going to keep it to the books as much as possible.
The guy in charge wanted Danusia to do it, of course he wanted some muscle too, that’s how I got involved, but he specifically wanted a woman’s touch. Danusia was unavailable so I found a friend willing to get dirty for some fast money. And dirty we got.
By K’s count, I’ll call him K; the guy who was hired to clean the place out and in turn hired us; but by his count there were over 2,500 books in the apartment. And he wanted to box them all up and donate them to housing works. It was a formidable job.
Housing works will only take the books if they were in good condition and are not dusty. I guess they have experience with dust on books, and they are right.
The first time I saw the books they were on row upon row of shelves screwed to every inch of available wall space in the one bedroom 19th Century Riverside Drive apartment building. The shelves were supported by those old fashioned metal tracks you secure to the wall with thin metal brackets that have a little tightening screw at the base. The shelves themselves were an assortment of store-bought finished shelves and pieces of board cut to size, and it looked like different shelves had been put up at different times, there was clearly an evolution of bracket technology displayed on those walls.
The books were an example of the evolution of someone’s literary taste, from lurid noir dime-store detective novels to a complete set of Thomas Hardy in one of those book-club bound collections, some of the books still had shrink-wrap on.
I’m pretty familiar with hoarding and obsession, being a borderline hoarder and obsessed myself, but I’d never seen this many books outside of a library or bookstore before. It was truly impressive.
The first order of business was to get the books down off the shelves and dust them off. The man who owned them had died, and he’d been ill for quite sometime, so there was a tremendous amount of dust everywhere, but most particularly on the books located on the highest shelves. By my reckoning a lot of those books hadn’t been touched since the day they’d been placed there many years before, an object lesson on how to deal with my own library. If I’m never going to look at it again, it should go.
A lot of it I guess is to remind ourselves of where we’ve been. What we read is almost like a map of our lives, and our taste changes with age.
When I was young, in my 20’s I read James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, and I recall thinking this guy was the greatest writer of the 20th century, he knows human nature and people and life. I tried re-reading it again a couple of years ago and couldn’t do it, his obsession with liquor, anger and sex bordered on the sophomoric, but then again he’d written that book in his 20’s. Maybe I’m ready for Thomas Hardy now.
But all that is in my head, or on line now. I don’t need to prove how smart I am to anyone who comes into my home by displaying all the books I’ve read, more importantly I don’t need to remind myself of what I’ve read.
The job came at a good time for Danusia and I, because we were in the process of putting up bookshelves in out new apartment and the experience led me to cull even more books that I’d already read or will never read from my collection.
When I worked at the building it was a gold mine of discarded books and gifts from tenants. I hated to throw books away, and if anything looked even halfway interesting I would bring it home. One of the tenants, the writer Mark Kurlansky was always giving me review copies of books that weren’t even in print yet; editors would send him books looking for a blurb or comment and he just gave them to me. I think I might have read one of them.
I did read his books, though. He gave me a copy of The Story Of Salt, and then The Story Of Cod. I got 1968 on my own, and I remembered him telling me about hanging out with James Jones in Paris in 1968, and describing Jones as “Just an old drunk.”
I still have a copy of The Thin Red Line, and that I will never throw away. To me that is Jones’ real masterpiece. It was published 11 years after Eternity and the maturity shows.
The gentleman whose collection we were dusting off never threw anything away, and a lot of the books he’d had for many years. Some of the paperbacks fell apart as we took them down off the shelves, and I surreptitiously threw a few good ones into the garbage that I knew Housing Works wouldn’t want.
It took a couple of days to get them all down and cleaned up, then came the morning where Housing works would pick them up. The day prior I’d gone to their bookstore to pick up 120 folded boxes, and we started early the next day packing the books at 7:30AM.
It was a blur of assembling the boxes and taping them together, and my packing-tape dispenser was a godsend. I started by assembling 10 or so boxes, and began filling them.
The truck was due at 9:30, and at first I worked hard to fit the books neatly into each box, I didn’t think 2,500 books were going to fit into 120 boxes. I don’t know how many boxes we’d filled before the truck arrived, but after those guys showed up and started taking boxes down on their dollies we just started throwing the books in haphazardly. By the time all the books were packed we’d filled 78 boxes. It was a Herculean task, but we’d gotten it done. It also made me think about buying a kindle, but on second thought, I do like looking at the books on my shelves, it gives me a sense of wholeness.