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Black Lamb


Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.


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A regrettable decision

April 1st, 2010


This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

A couple of years ago a close friend of mine, who was moving from one state to another, did a very strange thing. For reasons that I’ve never understood, he decided to get rid of most of stineshelfofbooksorderly.pnghis books, a library of around 1,700 volumes, almost entirely “literary” and carefully collected over a forty-year period. He said it would make the moving easier. In about a month, he parted with more than 1,200 books. He has regretted it ever since.

In the course of doing so, he learned a little about the used book business. Although he lived in Portland, Oregon, where used books are a big deal, he found that hardbacks, which made up more than ninety percent of his library, were virtually unsellable, at least to bookstores. Even at Powell’s, where he had bought many of his books, he was told that used hardbacks just didn’t sell well (except to him, apparently). It wasn’t that Powell’s would give him only a pittance; they wouldn’t take his books at all. True, he could have sold them online, but that would have taken a very long time and involved a lot of effort in shipping. He found himself with a very nice collection of books that would have cost about $50,000 to replace, which were worth virtually nothing.

He decided that rather than sell the books, he would give them away to his friends. I found out later that he had been advised to do this by this magazine’s advice columnist, Millicent Marshall. Then, she said, at least they would be appreciated. Thinking about this gesture of generosity and altruism gave him a lot of pleasure as he set aside books he wanted to keep, personal favorites. As a Beckett lover, he kept the Grove collected works editions he owned, and a few others, ten volumes in all; he gave away the other forty-seven. He kept his collection of Donald Barthelme signed first editions, but all six of his Frederick Buechners went away (he has since replaced, and reread, the four books of the Bebb tetralogy). Six Nicholson Bakers went away, three Balzacs, five John Banvilles, five Pat Barkers, five Roland Barthes (which he doesn’t regret), eight H.E. Bates (which he does), eight Saul Bellows, two E.F. Bensons, eight John Bergers, three Lord Berners, four Dirk Bogardes, three Elizabeth Bowens, five John Braines, four Rebecca Browns, and ten Anthony Burgesses, to name only the B’s — and only some of them.

He misses some of his books far more than others. It took him several years to put together a little shelf of the twelve volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, all of them either early English printings or first American editions, but he parted with them cheerfully, having found them, he said, of no interest to anyone who didn’t personally know the various people lampooned or otherwise portrayed. But he does miss the eleven Joyce Cary books he gave away, and the ten Ivy Compton-Burnetts, all of them deliciously wicked.

All of these he misses for literary reasons — they’re wonderful reads — but many others bore an additional dimension, the association of the book with the time in his life it was first read, or of the circumstances surrounding that first reading. He remembers vowing to catch up on the work of Rick DeMarinis, for example, but Cinder, The Year of the Zinc Penny, and The Voice of America are no longer around to remind him of that pleasure. He also recalls having heard of a new (to him) English writer, William Cooper, and being delighted by four of his novels, now all departed. Ditto with the first publications of Art Spiegelman’s two amazing Maus books, both of them now resting elsewhere than on his shelves.

And those shelves! He lived in a large apartment in Portland, an apartment that had once been the main parlor and dining room of a Victorian-era house, and the chief furnishings of his capacious living room had been bookshelves. To anyone who enjoyed reading, this was a great room to be in, and although it’s gone, he knows that it will always remain the best room he has ever lived in.

Gone with it are the faded Lawrence Durrell paperbacks of The Alexandria Quartet, the ones he had read while backpacking in Europe forty years earlier, along with the dogeared copy of Ulysses he finally finished in a tent during a Paris rainstorm. Also gone is Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, a book he had reread several times, not to mention twenty-four John Updike first editions, read as they came out, in a period covering two marriages, several career changes, and more than thirty years. Gone also are sixteen Gore Vidals, including all of the books in the Narratives of Empire series, from Burr on.

He first read Leonard Woolf’s five volumes of autobiography after reading Virginia’s diaries, and found them fascinating, but he’ll have to locate them again if he wants to reread them. The same applies to twenty-three books by the brothers Alec and Evelyn Waugh.

Well, let him go to his public library, you say. Fine. Except that public libraries no longer function as book repositories, at least for “literary” books. If you don’t believe this, try working your way through some favorite author’s oeuvre by relying on your local library. Even if it’s a large municipal one, you’ll be lucky if you can find all of Jane Austen there, let alone, say, Conrad or even Dostoevsky.

Our Portland man worked on Graham Greene for a long time, and also on his contemporary Henry Green, and at last he put together a pretty complete collection of both; he would never have found all of them, not to mention his Jeanette Wintersons or John Edgar Widemans or Mordecai Richlers or Charlie Smiths, in even a decent university library.

The fact is, there is simply no way to read most books except to buy them, and once you’ve bought them, do you just throw them away? He did, and now he realizes that his collection of a mere three Freya Starks, nine Eric Newbys, five Norman Lewises, and nine Colin Thubrons, to name just travel writers, could probably not be duplicated in more than a handful of libraries, personal or public, in the world, to say nothing of the eighteen John McPhee first editions, the seven David Markson novels, or the five hilarious old S.J. Perelmans.

Once a person gathers books he wants to read, he finds himself with a roomful of his interests, his passions, his own curiosity, the immeasurable variety of human expression, and perhaps a unique collection of objects, each of value in itself. This is not something to lightly discard or to relinquish until there is no choice.

He could have kept those 1,200 books, and he wishes he had. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Ross | Link to this Entry


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