10 March 2013

Uninheritable Books

"Margaret and Helen Abbott."  So reads the inscription on the flyleaves of a handful of books on my shelves, books shared by my Great-Aunt Helen and her twin sister Margaret, who died before I was born, when they were first-year college students.

My family is rich in books, and in people who cherish books.  A copy of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis is inscribed "J. W. Robinson. 1900."  My father has added a post-it note: "I assume that this J. W. Robinson is Dr. John Robinson, who was my first dentist.  He was married to Aunt Margaret Robinson, a sister of my Grandfather Abbott." A leatherbound and undated copy of Pope's collected works, including his translations of Iliad and Odyssey is unfortunately uninscribed, as is a disintegrating 1904 edition of Edward Lear's Nonsense Books.

A copy of Dickens' A Child's History of England has "Dec. 4th, 1878. Lena Farrington. Winter Term." A copy of Webster's Ancient History might have been a school copy, as it has several names inside the front cover, including that of Ethel M. Woodbury, who might be the great-great-great-aunt Ethel who lives in family lore as the painter of numerous Maine landscapes, but I'll have to check with my father.

But these books aren't really books, if books exist to be used: they're too fragile. I could probably read the copy of Venus and Adonis without destroying it, but Nonsense Books is printed on paper that is falling to pieces, and even opening it to look for an inscription risks further damage.

My own book purchases, these days, are drifting more and more toward the electronic, on account of portability as well as a desire to be divested of stuff: a desire in conflict with the desire to hold on to those whispers of long-gone family members, some of whom I never knew but who live on in the memories of those I love and have loved.

But really, I'm not buying the books: I'm acquiring a license presumably valid until I die, but subject to termination before then by various market forces.  And books, of whatever physical or spectral form, are simply a record of some sort of cultural moment.  Some few survive for generations and even centuries, but most rightfully fall into oblivion.

A significant percentage of my books are intellectual productions whose value is already fading slowly as their scholarship or editorial practices are superseded.  Then there's a bunch of of contemporary fiction, poetry, prose.  I own no first editions, no rare books, just a profusion of volumes I use as I attempt my own analyses of old texts already much commented upon.  If I don't get rid of them before I die, someone will be stuck disposing of them.

The Offspring may one day sigh or chuckle over a jumble in which Ecofeminist Philosophy, Living Letters of the Law, and Klaeber's Beowulf rub up against tattered covers of The Official Scrabble Players' Dictionary, guides to hiking in the White Mountains and in the Alps, and The Joy of Cooking.

If anyone wants one of my books, it will be as keepsake, memento, not as usable text.  The electronic files will not be available as memorial objects carrying emotional freight forward into another generation; those who remember me will have to recall mind and body: a moving target.

And for today, that's okay with me.