So begins The Inferno, the first of the three books that comprise Dante’s magnificent and complex work, The Divine Comedy.* It’s a rich, complex and challenging read. I have to admit I have not read it all – all three books that is – but I have made a mighty effort to complete Inferno in several editions.
My problem is not comprehension, but rather distraction. Were this a desert isle, it would make it much easier to finish. I read like a jackdaw.
But back to Dante. The first lines (Canto I, trans. by John Ciardi, Norton edn.), continue:
Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.
I was reading that opening again, this week, as I collected books from my shelves to donate to the local library. Powerful words. Don’t we all feel that doubt at some time in our lives, that nagging question whether we had made all the right choices, followed the right path? Don’t we all wonder what life would have been like if we made the other choice, took the other road, chose the other person?
And here I am with a book in my hand wondering what life would be like had I never opened it, never read it, never followed it down the path it led me to. What less would I have understood, what less would I have felt, what less would I have explored without it?
I can’t imagine a life without Dante. Without Shakespeare, Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Shunryu Suzuki, Frank Herbert, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dickens, Carl Sagan, Casanova, Dante, Machiavelli, Wallace Stevens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bill Bryson… so many authors whose works have helped build my world view. Wouldn’t life be poorer without them?
Can I bear to part from them?
Every book has to be examined, re-examined, pondered, its jacket copy read, the pages opened and the word let to slip out like a gentle perfume. For each, a decision must be made whether to keep or donate it. It’s a work in progress and uneasy work. Do I keep this translation? That one? All of them? Will I read them all? Is there a newer edition I should have instead? Is it too old for a home in the library? Do they already have a copy? What if they don’t want it?
It’s a difficult thing to do, to part with a book – almost any book. It’s like losing a limb. My immediate reaction is to keep them all. But space is limited, a finite jailer that prevents me from expanding my personal library any further. Susan, too, has had words with me about the piles and boxes of books on floors in almost every room. Eddies of cat and dog fur swirl around their edges.
Bookshelves line the walls in two rooms and the upstairs hall. The two bedside credenzas were bought especially to accommodate our books – they’re full and beside the bed is a pile with almost as many books as in my own credenza. There are book cases downstairs, too.
Clearly I have overstepped the boundaries of modern Martha-Stewart-inspired decluttered home management. Elegant living? No, but certainly intellectual living. I can’t help it. reading is a keen pleasure; learning is a passion; my tastes are eclectic and my thirst for knowledge unquenchable.
I pace the hallway, pulling books down from the shelves to add to a box, hesitate, put it back, move to another bookcase. Can I afford to be without one Shakespeare biography? Will life be somehow thinner with one fewer title by Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins? Will I find my days troubling with one less translation of Machiavelli or Rumi?
When I walk into a house – any house, anyone’s living space – my eyes hunt for the books. Are they sorted, ordered, or chaotic? Are they fiction? Nonfiction? Are they new or old? Are they entertainment or educational? Are any of the great works to be found? can I find a bent towards religion? Or science? Towards fantasy or realism? Are they well kept, or battered? Books say so much about a person.
Mark Twain, writing in Pudd’nhead Wilson, asked:
“A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?”
That could be rewritten for books: “A home without books – well-loved, well-read and respected – may be a perfect home, but how can it prove its title?” A house without books could no more be a home for me than a library without them could lay claim to the title. It would be a warehouse, a transient station, not a home.
I have several different translations of Dante on my shelf – Robert Pinsky, John Ciardi, Dorothy Sayers, Anthony Esolen, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A. S. Kline, and at least one with no translator named. Both prose and poetry translations. Excessive? Perhaps, but each translation adds a shade, a texture to my appreciation and understanding.
Will I reread all those collections of Gnostic scripture? Will I again refer to Haklyut or Juet or Puchas? Will I one day awake and crave the Diamond Sutra or the Dhammapada, both long gone with the rest to another home? Will I want to sit and compare versions of the Tao Teh Ching or stump through a tale by Chaucer in the original English? Will I ache to reread Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon? Or William Saffire’s columns?
Who knows? One of the reasons my bedside book pile seldom subsides is that, as I read on book, I find something that makes me want to find a reference in another and I get up and find it on my shelf and add it to the pile.
Reading about Rasputin takes me to the Russian Revolution, to a bio of Stalin, the Soviet Empire, to the Cold War, to Castro and Cuba, the Kennedy and the assassination, to the US in Viet Nam, to the 1960s, to the Beatles, to Timothy Leary, to Bob Dylan, to the history of the guitar, to tone woods and luthiery, to ecology and the Brazilian rain forest, to corporate politics, to modern politics, to free trade, to the Chinese economy, to North Korea and the Korean War… and so on.
Eventually it leads back to itself, the bookshelf Ouroboros; the dragon that eats its own tail. After a week or two following other paths, I return to Rasputin and finish the chapter. Unfortunately, along the way my journey has probably led to a visit to Abebooks or Amazon or Chapters and I’ve ordered more books to feed my passion. And maybe a BBC drama or two.
And thus every few years, I load up the car with boxes and take my books to the local library – twenty two boxes in the last two weeks, including four boxes of DVDs. Done this before – a few years back it was 24 boxes of books and seven boxes of DVDs.
I’m almost finished this round of downsizing – there is floor space showing, the hallways are navigable and the shelves are doubled up in only a half-dozen places. You can almost tell I have reduced the number of books (assuming you knew beforehand of the collection).
Susan is happier. That makes for a happier household. A glass of wine is called for, come congratulations, and a promise to do just a little more pruning in the following days.
But nothing, no matter how many boxes I give away, reduces my passion for reading, for learning, not makes me enjoy my reading of Dante even a smidgen less, even if I have fewer translators to turn to. In a couple more years, I’ll have to repeat the process over again. Assuming Susan hasn’t kicked me and my books out by then.
PS. Thinking of downsizing your books? Consider donating your collection to the local library where the whole community can benefit. What they cannot use in their collection, they can sell and use the money to buy other books.
* In Italian:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.