Not the author, but close
A NY Times piece here returns me to the perennial matter of getting organized, staying organized, and why it matters.
“For most people, the more you have, the more the meaning of any one piece is degraded.”
Man, is that ever true.
In my office I have perhaps a dozen pieces of art and mementos that always give me a positive charge when I look at them–a great charcoal sketch of Mark Twain, a couple of award plaques, a beautiful photo of our then-six year old daughter as a flower girl, a framed ticket from last year’s World Series, a haunting black-and-white photo of Lower Manhattan with the Twin Towers looming up behind the Brooklyn Bridge.
Unfortunately, these delights fight for attention with dozens of other visual distractions–jars containing pens that may or may not write, stacks of CDs I rarely listen to, an unopened package of floppy disks, for God’s sake, a menu from a restaurant that closed ten years ago, the last five Father’s Day cards I received, a corner filled with electronic flotsam from my days as a tech writer–what was Slot Radio, anyway?–and of course hundreds and hundreds of books, mostly cheap paperbacks I collected 20 or 30 years ago, many of them unopened since.
Now I’d put my library up against any private collection, he boasted. I’ve got the foundational books from a dozen fields, most of the 20th Century’s great American fiction, and scores of books that carry great sentimental value for me. A couple of times a week I look up at a shelf containing the first “grownup” books I ever read: a brightly illustrated copy of Huckleberry Finn with one of those plasticky-laquered covers and a now-browning volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (my parents subscribed) containing Douglas Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.
I still remember reading both these books around the age of nine or ten, bewildered by Twain’s backwoods and “Negro” dialect (“So I crep’ to de doh pooty late one night. . .”). I was so young I simply couldn’t understand why Joe Hardy, after Applegate makes him the greatest baseball player in the world, wanted to waste time sitting around with this Lola girl instead of being with the team where he belonged. What was wrong with him?
Looking at those books keeps those memories green, I suppose. So do my tattered copies of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, which I read obsessively my eighth-grade year, concealing them behind my English grammar text while the rest of the class learned how to diagram sentences. I still don’t know where to put the participles and prepositions, but I think I got the best of the deal.
But the Mature Voice of Reason breaks in.
MVR: That’s all very nice, but these remnants of childhood are now choking your office. You need to leave the past in the past.
Me: But I like the past. Like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever, it sleeps well.
MVR: OK, where’d you get that line? Another old book?
Me: Yes. Bertrand Russell’s great essay, “A Free Man’s Worship.” It’s in that college lit anthology, third shelf, far right.
MVR: And when’s the last time you read the whole thing?
Me: Uh, probably 1990 or so.
MVR: And it’s been taking up space every day since then.
Me: Yes, but I just plucked it down, and check this gorgeous graph:
This is the reason why the Past has such magical power. The beauty of its motionless and silent pictures is like the enchanted purity of late autumn, when the leaves, though one breath would make them fall, still glow against the sky in golden glory. The Past does not change or strive; like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever it sleeps well; what was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away, the things that were beautiful and eternal shine out of it like stars in the night. Its beauty, to a soul not worthy of it, is unendurable; but to a soul which has conquered Fate it is the key of religion.
MVR: Pretty stuff, but this is 2010. You could have found that online in ten seconds. Why do you need to have the object?
Me: Much as I hate it, I’ve got to grant that point. And that brings me back to the NY Times piece that started this whole meander. One of the experts consulted says that if you are overwhelmed with stuff, even if it’s good stuff, it’s got to go. And she suggests taking photos of the sacred objects before letting them out of your life.
That’s one to ponder. I could take pictures of my bookshelves, close enough to read the titles, and put the photos on the wall. I could then truck about 500 books to Half Price Books, which would free up space for the couple hundred books sitting in the closet. And if I ever really needed a paper copy of one of the Departed, I’d be pretty shocked if Amazon couldn’t deliver it in three days.
Of course I’d keep the really meaningful books–but this could be a start.