I'm going through boxes of books. Books that had been dampened by a fire in my building and then neglected in storage for six years. I finally emptied the storage unit and the boxes ominously filled one and a half rooms in my apartment (who really needs a dining room?), I ignored them for another six months.
My high school age daughter told me that she'd really appreciate me going through them now so she won't have to inherit and toss them herself. I concede, it is time.
When I first got a job in publishing the pay was low and the free books a balm to ease the endless macaroni and cheese dinners and bring your own p b and j lunches. I worked at some great houses and took home some great books. I can hold The Old Gringo and think that I designed the interior of a Carlos Fuentes book--and I'm in my late-twenties again, working at FSG, feeling so proud of it, learning everything I can from the great designer Cynthia Krupat. And it is all good. But am I really seeing the mildewed, warped, and faded thing that is staining my palms?
Cynthia designed with a passion for ornament met with an equal passion for simplicity. In opposites colliding, great book are designed. In those days before desktops and Quark and InDesign... she'd photocopy ornaments and use those photocopies as the actual image on the mechanical. I remember asking her why she didn't use a better quality image, why not get a professional photo made of the 19th century sorts and dingbats? She told me she wanted the distressed look the photocopy gave it. That's when I realized designers play with their tools and invent their rules.
I designed or created endpaper maps for a lot of books. Didn't read all of them. I just loved the idea of owning them. A book, like a brick, put into a wall of my efforts. My apartment used to hold over 2,000 books. The books made me feel smarter just looking at their spines. Book lust is insidious, you feel as if you own a piece of someone's mind. But how many plots, histories, verses, and anthologies does one need shouting from the shelves?
I have come to see that a bit of clear wall, a place to hang a photo or painting, would be better than owning the monographs, how to succeed in..., or the unforgettable Encyclopedia of Mucosal Immunology. And the better books? Even there, isn't it enough to know I was busy for years without having to lug the physical remains of small creative endeavors? If poetry evokes the world with concision, my library too can pare itself down to what really counts. Besides, the books are still in the library or available on the internet. If I ever want to reread The Old Gringo, I'd rather have a copy that doesn't make me sneeze. I don't even remember the plot.
My household will soon be making contributions to Housing Works for the books that didn't get water damaged. You can buy them there.
I can always tell who is fairly new to working in publishing, they're gleefully taking the freebies home. Beware freebies, beware.