A book-lover departs
As if life wasn’t feeling precarious enough at present, one day all your prized possessions will become future charity shop finds. The latest reminder that life is impermanent comes from The Boston Globe in an article which details the difficult aftermath of the death of one New England book-lover.
…three months after his death, Kaledin and their children are left with a conundrum that families of bibliophiles are increasingly facing: what to do with the hundreds of books that help tell their life story.
In this region of intellectuals, used bookstores find themselves inundated with calls as more baby boomers die and others downsize. At the same time, many libraries have faced budget cuts that make them unable to accept the extra stock, and the Internet has rendered many reference books useless.
So families face a difficult and exhausting time finding new homes for beloved book collections.
‘It’s tremendously upsetting to me,’ said Jonathan Kaledin of the prospect that his father’s book collection would be divided up — or worse.
Perhaps there is an added poignancy in that these are not mere airport-purchased paperbacks, the Dan Browns or Agatha Christies, ubiquitous in all charity shops, but the lovingly – if often haphazardly – compiled collection of a true bibliophile. Unfortunately, he compounded the difficulty for his heirs by dying in the North East of the USA, where bookshops are being overwhelmed with similar collections, even as libraries are reducing their own catalogues.
Look at your own shelves. Gaze upon your most prized possessions and wonder, who will want them when you’re gone?
I should add a pre-emptive apology to my own heir(s) for the boxes and boxes and boxes of books they are going to have to contend with, hopefully on a day far off from today. Many of which are themselves second- or third- or many more-hand purchases. There are few things more lovely than picking up a vintage volume – at a charity shop or a library’s excess stock sale – and discovering a fading inscription written in that beautiful copperplate that few people born after the second half of the 20th Century can master. But, as the article notes, with the baby boomers beginning to shuffle off this mortal coil, will later generations know the joy of future charity shop finds and will they possess the shelf space – as well as the inclination – to store these hefty collections?
One answer could be to buy fewer new hard-copy books. While much has been written about e-readers, they certainly look to be an accompaniment to, not a replacement for, ‘real books.’ For things that are likely to be read once or for holiday reads, the machines present advantages to the wannabe minimalist. On the other side of the coin, the solution is to buy more, but choose more wisely. There are books that should be bought and cherished: favourites we return to again and again, old Penguins, editions with particularly beautiful covers, signed copies, coffee table tomes. That list should be enough to fill a few bookcases. Then everything else can be read and passed on, either to friends and acquaintances or via a ‘little library’ or similar social sharing scheme. Keeping books flowing and moving, not gathering dust and thus avoiding burdening family members with too much additional work when the end comes:
The task of finding a home for the collection became complicated by family dynamics — Kaledin’s three children are involved and not everyone agrees on what to do with the books. All the while, the family is grieving and dealing with the other duties that come when someone dies.
Their son, Jonathan, preferred that the entire collection remain together.
“I know he would have loved to have seen it kept intact,” [he] said.
At the end of the day, we do not own our books, we merely look after them for future readers, regardless of how they discover our once new and uncracked-of-spine volumes. Hopefully our descendants can take some comfort in passing on that enjoyment to another bookworm.
Should we die?
Of course, one answer to the conundrum of what happens to your beloved collection of books after you die is simply to avoid the whole thing altogether and not die. That is the dream of a disparate group of scientists, dreamers and, some might say Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, although I prefer to think of them as ‘people with more money than sense.’ ‘Radical longevity’, as this recent Atlantic article calls it, has seen time, effort and cash invested in cryogenic freezing, gene-hacking and other anti-aging research, all with the belief that we can push the human lifespan to 200, to 500 or to infinity. Humanity would finally have enough time to get to the end of its ‘to read’ list, finish everything in the British Library or complete multiple re-reads of Ulysses or A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Despite my love of books and slowly dawning realisation that I may never read everything I want to, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than to live forever. Sure, it is a little sad to think of the world without you in it, family and friends carrying on their lives without you sharing those experiences with them and once-cherished possessions being cast aside to become disused and unloved. That could lead to misery and perhaps it is that that drives the desire to escape the (for now) inevitable human destiny. Yet another way to see it is as living the ultimate story:
Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, explains that people make sense of their lives through narrative arcs. Without an ending, there can’t be a story. How would we process life events differently, given infinite do-overs?
Look at David Bowie’s final work, devised and produced in the knowledge that it would be his last. Collaborator Tony Visconti described it as a ‘parting gift,’ the full stop at the end of a creative life well-lived.
It is a sentiment that poet and playwright James Shirley endorsed:
The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
Some men with swords may reap the field,
And plant fresh laurels where they kill:
But their strong nerves at last must yield;
They tame but one another still:
Early or late
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath
When they, pale captives, creep to death.
The garlands wither on your brow,
Then boast no more your mighty deeds!
Upon Death’s purple altar now
See where the victor-victim bleeds.
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb:
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.
There is something to cherish in an second-hand book, a vintage coat or an antique piece of furniture. Sometimes shops refer to these items as ‘pre-loved’ and I think there is a something to celebrate in that too, an item having been appreciated and used to its fullest before being handed on to be used again. You can imagine the hands that turned the pages before you and feel a momentary connection to that long-gone reader. Advertising has an interest in persuading us to always chase the new, but we have to become better at managing our resources – lest we end up in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland, using old books as currency.
There is a beauty and a poetry to our impermanence, in the handing on of the baton to those who come after and in leaving the stage to those with youth and greater vitality. Saying goodbye is never easy, whether it is signposted or sudden. We hope that there will be time to craft the perfect goodbye, as Bowie was able to, but not all of us will have the chance. So enjoy your days in the sunshine. Tackle that ‘to read’ pile while you can. All of your prized possessions are future charity shop finds – to be pored over and enjoyed by persons unknown to you – and that’s OK.
Image by Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash