BOOKS, THE DEPRESSION, AND ME

 

A few weeks ago, I found myself boxing up a few hundred books to donate to the Saranac Lake Free Library.  That was like Imelda Marcos giving away shoes.

I had been accumulating books since adolescence, trying never to give away, sell, or otherwise dispose of a single one.  Not that I’ve ever been a great reader; I mostly just wanted to own books.  Their mere presence on my bookshelves was evidence of my essential worth, and the more books I owned, the more worthy I was.  The Great Depression made me this way.

My father grew up in middle-class prosperity.  My mother was as cultivated as anyone could get to be in Muskogee.  She left there with a college scholarship in hand, a future in which she would play violin at a fairly high level, and an inflated sense of her sophistication.  But the night before she was to leave for college, she and my dad hunted up a clergyman and got married.  At that time, the Depression was the controlling force in American life.  There would be no college for either of them; rather, a lifetime of scrambling to make ends meet.

For various reasons, when the war economy and the boom that followed the war brought prosperity and hope to many in their generation, they remained stuck in near-1930s penury.

They were loving parents, good citizens, and decent people,  but to avoid being done in by a sense of failure and social inferiority, they unknowingly made a pact with the devil.  It included my brother and me as signatories.  Shamefully and stupidly, in our hierarchy of values, nothing – not compassion, not courage, not generosity – nothing ranked higher than being smart.  [Wordpress,the software I used to produce Geezerblockhead, does not permit the proper use of quotation marks.  Or if it does, neither I nor my technical advisor can figure out how.  So I’m using italics in lieu of quotation marks.] Smart people were good, honorable, and respectable.  We were smart.  Ergo…  Without question, smart was the ultimate term of respect; dumb, of sneering disapprobation.

My brother responded to this straightforwardly.  He was a good student, went to Rice Institute, earned a Ph.D. at Yale, and enjoyed an academic career that included numerous honors.

I wanted to climb into the exalted class of smart as much as he did, but I wasn’t much for studying.  In high school, I focused on student elections and girls and sports and earning enough money to keep gas in the 1932 Studebaker I’d bought on my fourteenth birthday.  I shamed the family and myself by being a generally mediocre student.

I was engaged by English classes, though.  Even did my homework most of the time.  As a sort of adjunct to that, I began to place high value on owning books — not collectable editions or anything like that — just books.  I guess that was an oblique way to hang on to enough self-respect to be able to get out of bed in the morning.  The Great Depression affected people — me, at least — in unexpected ways.

My youthful urge to own lots of books came with a setting.  Someday I would have a spacious, well-furnished study with a fireplace and a dog.  I’d wear tweed jackets with leather elbow patches.  Clouds of Balkan Sobranie smoke would rise from my pipe.  Tall bookshelves would require that most telling of all accoutrements of a refined gentleman, a library ladder that rolled smoothly on wheels attached to a rail that was way up near the high ceiling.

This vision was pretty much wholly formed by the time I started college, and though I am fundamentally restless and given to changes of direction, it has always been with me — sometimes as background music, sometimes as an aria that could be heard on the back row of the largest hall in the world, but always a presence.  It was something I must have one day.

Recently, I realized that this scene no longer waited out in the someday future, but had become a present reality.  No pipe and no leather elbow patches, a very fine cat instead of a dog, and a red stool that could use a paint job in lieu of a library ladder, but I have all the rest.

Then, the next thing I knew, I started giving away my books.  It gave me pause.

* * * *

When I was a student at The University of Texas, it was still possible to be self-supporting and to graduate without debt, and that’s what I did.  I pieced together a living by waiting tables in sorority houses for meals and working one or two part-time jobs for expenses.  I got by, though in the process, I became expert at timing the float on checks.  Payday loans were a regular part of my life, too.  I think they’re all paid off now.

To save money, I bought used textbooks when they were available.  I didn’t like doing that.  Then and now, I take great pleasure in the feel and smell of new books.  In grade school, I’d show up in August to help open boxes of new texts and stamp them with the name of the school district and distribute them to classrooms.

Though it was against my nature, I frequently sold college texts back at the end of term.  I didn’t mind turning loose of the science books, and I got good prices for them; they were in excellent condition, since I’d hardly opened them.  But some books were not to be sold back, no matter how much I needed the money.

Despite being an indifferent student, I was admitted to an elite liberal arts program.  For me the high point of that experience was the first-year world literature course.  My section of twenty-five was taught by a gifted teacher who seemed to have read with care every book deserving of the least attention and could make ancient Chinese literature and Ezra Pound and much in between understandable and engaging.

I was especially broke at the end of that year, so I sold the four world lit texts back to the bookstore.  But in pawnshop fashion, the next time I had a little extra money, I redeemed them.  Not my personal copies, but the same titles.  I don’t recall for sure, but I think I may have done that several times.  Now almost six decades later, a set is within arms’ reach as I write this.  The endsheet of Volume 1 is inscribed Melody Ann Brooks, 300 Littlefield Dorm.  Volume Four is stamped Mary Frances Jensen.  I didn’t know Melody Ann or Mary Frances.  I wonder if they were shaped by that year of reading as strongly as I was?  Probably not; they did sell back their books.

* * * *

For the past few weeks, I’ve been living with books stacked on stair landings, in an open suitcase in the Squire and Lady Ann’s bedroom, in the foyer, in a third-floor room where the TV is, and in a sitting room on the ground floor that from the beginning of our time in the monastery has been called the library.  I like the sound of that, but I’ve never been comfortable with it — pipefitters’ sons don’t have libraries.  In order to facilitate phone conversations with contractors, rooms had to have names.  Most had (still do) little plaques with a saint’s name on the door, but not that one.  From early days it did have a wall of fully loaded bookshelves, so it sort of named itself.

Until recently I was still a borderline hoarder with a specialty in books.  Even as we listed the apartment for sale, I was pilfering some from the lending library of castoffs that was in the building’s laundry room.  (Only a few, though, and it didn’t seem like serious crime; the collection was resupplied regularly.)  A short time ago, I was still carrying home books from discard piles on city sidewalks.  Often as not, they were of only passing interest.  But they were free.

As we brought books and other items from Manhattan while waiting to close on the sale of the apartment, it became apparent that we’d need a few more shelves.

Inexplicably, adding more shelves — even adding more books — didn’t appeal to me.  I’ve changed direction so many times, I should have taken this development in stride, but it came upon me unawares.  Where had it come from?

At one level, Ann and I both realized that eventually someone would buy the monastery and we’d have to get rid of some books (and chairs and dishes and linens and other stuff); no normal house would hold such a mountain of consumer goods.  Might as well start with books.  Maybe that would make it easier to find what I was looking for.

Then, too, there was the influence of that pesky cemetery  in back.  Every time I cast my septuagenarian eyes out the study windows, it suggested impudently that it was about time to start getting my affairs (all of them, not just books) in order.

Anyway, I’d done what I’d wanted to do — accumulated a whole bunch of books and set them up in a lovely, comfortable space.  I could retire from the pursuit, knowing I’d succeeded.  I could “go out on top,” as professional athletes say.

Most important, I think I’ve finally outgrown the controlling need to think I’m smart.  I may get a library card.

Free at last.

 

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