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t h e   s a l o n

essayist Valentine Michael Smith


On Books

I own a lot of books. They are a significant element of my life. Perhaps only writing and my children have more importance than my book collection and reading, and often it is a dead heat race as to what I cherish and enjoy most. Today, I spent eight hours prowling through the boxes of books, seeing old favorites, and titles anew that had been forgotten, wandering from subject stack to subject stack creating piles of different books all over my dimly lit attic.

I work alone. Marcia abandoned me today for other pleasures in other places, and Sara and Lee played well outdoors or in their bedroom, so I could hear their activity through the sole open window in my stuffy aerie, or wafting up the steep stairs leading to where my biblio-trove lives. It is a long room, maybe 20-25 yards across, 15 feet wide, with a brick pillar in the middle of it. There are five light fixtures, but only two lights work, one in the little side room all my papers live in (and the calender collection), and one currently holding down a yellow light bulb (we blow tons of light bulbs here - we both say it's our "active bio-electricity!") which barely lights the whole side of the attack where books live.

The book-sorting project got started just before the end of spring semester, when a Poli Sci prof casually asked me how many Soviet related volumes did I have? I didn't know. (Now I do, 190). So, I spent a week rounding up all the Soviet related books I could find, and while I was at it, I began rounding up all the books on China and Germany I had. Though I had done this with my downstairs organizing, I had only barely grazed the surface of the attic's contents to categorize. (Still have not found my copy of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margerita though ... And I know I have a copy somewhere!)

My books-that-are-shelved system already has some of this topical organizing to it. All the oversized photo books live on the downstairs shelves. One whole self-enclosed shelf is devoted to trade paper non-fiction, and one to standard paperback non-fiction. Of the built in shelves, reference gets 6 shelves, sets like Outline of History, a 6 volume religion set, a two volume set on great crises in world history, a complete Shakespeare (the downstairs copy, another lives in the attic) and the complete 11 volumes of the Durant's Story of Civilization has its own shelf, one shelf is devoted to mythology and folklore, one shelf has art and photography books, two more have just photo books, and one is "current" hardcover non-fiction. The piano is covered with reference books, 20 art books (a set maybe missing one book on great artists), and 7 books from the Great Trials series. All 50 of the videotapes we own live there too. Our big split couch even gets books! All my Foreign Affairs for three years have their own stack, nestled next to the old upright grand Kurzmann, and the downstairs pending SF reading - some twrenty volumes - lives on the back of the couch, bookended on the other side from the Foreign Affairs by a huge stack of personal correspondence.

The upstairs stacking had really begun a month ago, on cool nights in early September. I had a Japan stack, and a dust-jacketed hardcover fiction stack, and a box for humor, and a stack for languages (only guy I know with an Urdu-English dictionary). I had a Middle East box, where Jew and Arab DO live in quiet peace! Two days ago, two guys from the SF club offered to come on Tuesdays (my free morning) and help me whip this monster collection into working shape. So, I really felt I had to buckle down and get it vaguely shipshape to be reboxed and organized.

I weent crazy. Now, I have three huge stacks of what would go in no stack easily. I created some very odd stacks. A Paul Wellman stack. An HG Wells stack - that guy wrote some VERY strange things! A France stack, a Latin American stack, a stack for HL Mencken. Reorganized the art stack. Expanded theatre, drama and TV plays to four piles. Created a Vietnam and England stack. Found 2/3 of the Modern library books I have, now have 4 piles of "under-sized" books (mostly classics). Four piles of "classics" in paperback mounded their way onto a box filled with music resting on top of a box holding a ceiling fan we cannot put up here. Five stacks of sets came into being. 8 huge 5 foot piles of books that had no category (or place to be put) grew over the day, one group at slightly mid-room, one at one end, one at the other. A narrow aisleway on either side of stacks and stacks of boxes from the stairhead all the way to the back of the room. Knocked four stacks down brushing by them, one fell down from poor stacking (and as long as I've been doing this!). A stack arose for writing books, then a second, and then a third.

I mulled this stacking and acquiring business over as Art got restacked into three piles and I was creating a pile in the "personal papers" room for what I wanted to keep out as a "core library." Then I began thinking about how long I've been collecting books. I started reading at 4, began buying my own books at 8, lost my first collection at 18 (a guy had all my books in his basement, and gave them away), lost another at 20, a third huge haul of 15,000 sold to a paper mill while I was away for a weekend, but when I married the first time in 1969, just prior to being 22, this collection began being formed. Now about 19,000 strong (minus 100 duplicates culled out today), it was only 3000 strong when that marriage ended in 1973.

I put the books in storage. I moved to Nebraska, and the books lived in a garage for two years. I recovered 90% of the stored books (storage always produces losses). I came back to Kansas City, in the spring of '78. I moved in with a friend. 6 months later, he threw me out (for not paying the rent, he lasted two months more than me, a house out of both our unemployed reaches). Some of the books went into a back room in a crackerbox house, and grew slowly, creeping up the walls towards the ceilings in stacks all over my room.

The rest of the books slowly came to rest in the back room of my friend Frank's apartment, after his roomate moved out. It was called the Third Alexandrian Libray, the Peter Pierron Memorial Collection Room (that had been his roomate). I went there once or twice a week to tend it, move books in, take stuff home to read (lived only a couple of blocks away). The collection grew, 25 boxes became 45 boxes when I moved again in '79. I had a storage locker, right next to my basement apartment, and only 600 books of the roughly 5000 I then owned actually lived with me!

I met Marcia, then married to another guy, and at the time, I was actually quite content living in my cellar, working an odd shift for a college library, and reading 350 books a year because that's all that really meant anything to me at the time. However, seventeen months later, we moved in together. I estimated the collection at about 6500 when we moved to that stage in October, 11 years ago this very day. Marcia said recently that if she had known what was going to happen on the book front, she might not have decided to live with me. I know she has many regrets, being around this book collection one of her most pronounced ones, as she feels its omni-presence always, and dislikes it intensely.

We moved a year later, now up to 7500 books and 4000 magazines, to a second floor apartment! Fortunately, it was across the street from where we had been living, my sons visited that summer and carried a lot of boxes, and my friend Frank and I moved most of the rest, as Marcia was pregnant and made it bluntly clear she wasn't carrying any book boxes!

My attic musings were brought up short as Sara and Lee battled in the backyard and I had to go all the way downstairs to adjudicate the squabble. In two more moves, and three years of 1000 (one of 2000+) or more volumes acquired (this year, reached my annual goal of 100 books a month acquired on the day before my birthday in early June, and in 1989, had scored 2500 in three days!). After mollifying the youngsters with hotdogs, I went back to the attic and created more stacks and boxes.

A mental health box. A classic editions of the classics (usually illustrated by someone - I discovered I have two Rockwell Kents, 1 Thomas Hart Benton and two Gustav Dore illustrated books, plus a slew of other ilustrators!) stack, an anthrpology/paleotology/origins stack. A general sciences stack. A stack on space, a stack on media and reporting and editorial writing (including some from the Kansas journalism sage William Allen White - three of his in first edition!), a stack of non-dustjackedted hardcover fiction. A Richard Brautigan stack! (I actually own most of this guy's work! Sad that he killed himself). A Joan Didion stack. Four stacks of non-fiction paperback, three more of "self-help" books, four more of paperback bios (5 huge hardcover stacks of bios/autobios, as I say to myself), two of children's books (plus a full box). Five stacks three feet high constitute the American history section, and the American politics books have yet to be culled out, or dug out either, for that matter.

Periodically, I would find an old favorite, or something I wanted to read. In one box, I found only two, one of each - Andre Maurois' Disraeli (which I first read in 1972) and a book called The Alexander Complex, by Michael Meyers, about Steven Jobs, Ted Turner, H. Ross Perot and three other businessmen. (I have pending stacks all over the house, both these books found their way to such stacks today). Most boxes, I would find three or four who needed to go in my compact "this is the core library" stacks upstairs, two volumes made it to "Valuable Books" (two glass-doored cases in our bedroom), a dozen made it to one pending stack or another. Everything else found a stack. Two music stacks. A Larry Niven stack (didn't know I had so many of his books. An Elmore Leonard stack (a Detroit area writer, he often uses Michigan as setting for his books, so I see glimpses of once-home when I read his work), a CIA/espionage stack, an ancient history stack (didn't know I had so many of these!). Nixon and the 60's and the Kennedys already had stacks, as did the Penguin Classics (which got Josephus' The Jewish War added to it today). Energy has a pile, movies and TV have a pile, and murder/crime is 200 volumes strong. More stacks hurry into existance - home-fixing, children, John D. MacDonald (a favorite, I miss a new Travis McGee novel these years), Philip K. Dick (too talented!), World War II and computers all get stacks of their own.

I go on jags of acquisition, and wierd jumps of direction on the subjects that I'm drawn to acquire. Soviet and SF related objects are always part of the "to acquire" mindframe, followed by art, politics, photography and history books. I think about the fact that this year the acquistion count is at 1444, and I'm missing a great sale this weekend because I elected to go to the area Renaissance Fair for its last day tomorrow, thereby going for the 12th year in 15. Film got priority over books, this time.

The stacking, and pile-creating, went on all day, into the evening hours, as Marcia was away 10 and 1/2 hours on her doings today. As Leland was doing an overnight so he could be a troupe at the Fair tomorrow, and Sara was with Mom, the last stretch of 2.5 hours the house was empty. Just me and the books. They give pleasure to handle, they recall pleasure in what they contain, and they can only talk back via the printed word. I enjoyed being back in touch with the individual volumes of this vast collection, and will be hard at it again when the helpers come Tuesday next.

For in the end, if one could say anything about a huge collection of books like I have, such a thing is hard work, it is hard to see in its totality, and the only person who'll do the work to keep it up for sure is me. I do not regret owning this monster, it will always be there, but I offer you this one day vagary to show you that one can put in a full eight hour day on a collection of this size, and barely put a dent in it.

The books help me cope with loss, the books help make me cope with my illness even as the dust can cause me to have a "bad day." The collection is too much already, but grows every week, the books are my solace when Marcia threatens to leave because she hates the books and wants no part of fooling with them, moving them, battling with the collection in any way ("we should have one house for me and the kids, and one for you and those damned books!"). She reads 6-12 books a year, I've never read under 100 in a year since attaining my majority in 1968.

She and I see the "monster/mobster" differently. I see it as the kernel of a huge collection of 50,000 volumes in hopefully just 15 years more, hopefully in its own building. She would burn the whole thing tomorrow if she could, selling the ones that might make money. We are still together despite my albatross, and I will always be the ... Memorial Library's keeper. I only hope to provide it a permanent home before I cannot cope with it physically any more. But, even bibliomaniacs have to fight flawed situations. I have learned that being a book nut par excellant earns you little more than groans from most who know you, and a constant "can I borrow ...?" But, there are few greater joys than a good book.


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