I was arrested by Kenny Goldsmith's post early this week on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's blog. He was browsing a flea market near his New York apartment and came upon a stall which was selling what seemed like the bulk of poet Jackson Mac Low's library: "the entire history of New York's underground" in chapbooks, records, and ephemera seemed to be there, Goldsmith notes. The books weren't cheap – the dealer had arrived at his prices by checking the internet. It reminded Kenny G. of the moment, a few years back, when word went out that novelist David Markson's books had been sold to The Strand.*
I know that feeling of happening upon a book that's been owned by someone you know or respect, though in my case it's usually books by obscure academics or poets that have been owned by other obscure academics or poets. I have a few books on Ruskin that were owned by John D. Rosenberg, author of the ground-breaking The Darkening Glass; I have a copy of a colleague's TS Eliot study that was sent by the publisher to Denis Donohue, then promptly disposed of at The Strand (DD left the letter from the Press's editor folded in its pages); I have a number of poetry collections presented by one poet to another.
But what Goldsmith's post really made me think about was the fate of my own books. I've been accumulating books pretty seriously for almost three decades now, to the point where the shelves are full and groaning, and the stacks on the floor just won't go away. Back at my mother's house in Tennessee, there are several hundred of my dad's books – many of which I want to keep, some for sentimental value, some for research – and probably a couple hundred of my own paperbacks from my adolescence, many of which I can't bear parting with. While there are a few feet of shelf space still available in my university office, there are at least a thousand or 1200 books there.
I'm not for the moment concerned about the borderline hoarding behavior this manifests (I've probably worried about that in this space at other times...), but rather, what will become of those books when I'm no longer around to cherish them? I'm no James Joyce or Northrop Frye, that a library would want to take my books as a collection. I'm not even a Jackson Mac Low, whose books a dealer would be anxious to sift thru for whatever treasures might be there. I'm just a lowly minor poet & academic, who's accumulated several thousand volumes – most of them, frankly, worthless – over the past decades. Do I want to stick my daughters with the task of liquidating this stack? The local used bookstore has some 75-odd cartons of books from a deceased academic; they've been gradually working thru them for some 5 years now.
I think the solution is a gradual letting-go, as I've seen others do. One cousin-in-law retired from her film studies job and simply gave away all of her research library; she'd rather paint and study herbalism. A colleague in French moved to Paris; I now have the bulk of her Beckett library. LZ trimmed his library down to a few hundred volumes (mostly Loebs, I sometimes think) in his last years.
I think that's the solution. I'm not ready for it yet. I'm still in the accumulative mode. Come around in a couple decades, if you're still interested in that defunct technology, the book, & I'll be able to set you up with a few hundred.
*Goldsmith was pretty upset, & takes the opportunity to lament research libraries' having passed over Mac Low's personal library; but on a happier note, word has it from the UK Poetry Listserv that Mac Low's actual archive went to UCSD, & that a dealer expert in such matters culled the books of lasting scholarly interest. But still.