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Friday, January 14, 2011

Having Books and Being Rich

When I was a child, my sister asked my mother, “Are we rich?” At least that’s the way I remember it; my recollections are sometimes faulty, but as I recall, my sister was the one for asking impertinent questions, as I stood by innocently observing.

“Are we rich?” is one of those questions the wise parent knows to evade, and in the wisdom game, Mur, which is what we called my mother, was pretty hard to beat. “It depends on what you mean by rich,” I remember her saying, “Dr. So-and-so is a lot richer in books than we are.” Dr. So-and-so was not his real name, I don’t remember the name, but I do remember her waving a hand at our living room bookcase to demonstrate the books we did have, inviting us to imagine the far greater wealth of Dr. So-and-so’s collection.

My mother’s answer had the desired result; it silenced my sister without in the least satisfying her curiosity, because what Chris really wanted to know was did we have more money than other people. Instead, Mur, while pretending to give a helpful answer, effectively communicated that any queries along the material-wellbeing lines would be met with platitudes about the value of knowledge versus cash and semantic analysis of the word “rich.”

I knew even at the time Mur’s answer was a dodge, but nevertheless, it left a deep imprint on my psyche. You see, we had a lot of books. Not only in that bookcase, which to a five year-old was a veritable ziggurat, but in a smaller bookcase in my parents’ room, and seemingly stacked on every available horizontal surface from coffee table to toilet tank. One in particular I remember was a book of reproductions called Pictures to Live With. There was a picture by Henri Rousseau of a sleeping gypsy with a lion sniffing at him. The lion didn’t seem inclined to do any harm, just curious, I suppose, and the gypsy had a mandolin lying beside him in the sand. I imagined that if I went to sleep outside, curious animals would come and sniff me, too. For some reason, this seemed like a pleasant thing to happen.

Another book was Thurber’s Lanterns and Lances. Mur had several books by Thurber. One time, Chris pointed it out to me and told me it was a dirty book. This did little to pique my interest. I wasn’t a very good reader yet, and from the cover art, what dirtiness it possessed offered little to interest a six-year-old. I’ve read it since, of course, and it’s not the least bit dirty. I don’t know where Chris got the notion it was. Maybe Mur had told her it was “for grownups.”

Pursuant to a New Year’s Resolution to divest myself of unwanted junk, I have been culling my own collection of books. For example, I had two copies of Aubrey’s The Yellow Admiral, and multiple copies of Huck Finn. It’s a funny thing with Huck Finn, no matter how many copies I get rid of, I always end up with more. I think they’re having litters. Also, college textbooks on Algebra and Introduction to Finance. Out they go. Out also go certain books on writing craft – I will not name these here – that I find either jejune or downright bad. When I die, having reached the pinnacle of immortal fame that is my destiny, I don’t want my biographers to find these among my bookshelves and say, “Huh! So this was one of his influences.”

Let it be understood, I still have a hell of a lot of books. Mur’s words made me subconsciously equate how many books I have with how well off I am. I may not have as many books as Dr. So-and-so, but I have a lot.

One book I will not get rid of is 101 to Ways to Checkmate, a book of chess problems Mur gave me when she was teaching me to play. It was already old when I got it, and the cover is long since missing. In similar sad shape is Build Your Own Monstrosities with Tooth and Nail, a weird little novelty item of goofy anarchic household advice such as instructions for constructing a home guillotine. And The Book of the Hand, a massive, gorgeously illustrated palmistry book, also given to me by my mother, when she was teaching me palmistry. (Ah, the things my mother taught me!) These books have no particular value, but they’ve seen a few years. The copyright on Build Your Own Monstrosities is 1959, the year I was born. These books I will never part with. They once belonged to my mother.

I am rich.

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