Lifetime libraries

I really love shopping for books at estate sales. Even writing that, there feels something vulture-esque about it, swooping in and collecting gems from the debris at the end of a life, from the economic necessity of liquidating the material assets of the departed so that their home can be sold or apartment reletted. But I'd like to think that there's something respectful, maybe even almost holy, in attending to the shelves that tell a story of a stranger.

For while dead men may tell no tales, their libraries most certainly do. Or if not tales fully formed, suggestive hints of the shape of a life. I can't help wondering about the person or persons who amassed this particular assortment of books, and feel some kind of human connection as I continue the life of some of the books that they loved.

While I can't know that my unknown hosts held any particular affection for the particular volumes I select to buy, the preponderance of books throughout a whole house can give the unmistakable impression that this was a home where books in general were loved. On that level alone, I feel a sort of kinship with the householders and imagine I am somehow more like a guest than an intruder.

There's a sense of connection to a person that you can get from estate books that is missing at your average garage sale, where the books on offer are those that the householder has decided they no longer want, or at least no longer have room for, or need the money more than the books. At an estate sale, you encounter the books that were kept to the end of a life. Even if long-forgotten, these books have not been selected out as expendable. Perhaps surviving children have gone through and selected personally significant tomes to keep, but there are always enough left for the sale to sketch out some of the interests, or passions, or life experiences of the person who owned them.

I came away from an estate sale this weekend with an armload of books on post traumatic stress disorder and adult survivors of child abuse. It's almost impossible to see those books scattered through a library and not breathe a silent prayer for the person who owned them -- what pain lay behind those pages?

Dinosaur books, children's books (did grandchildren visit this home?) science, travel books on various destinations (did the owners actually make it to these places?). Christian books of various stripes, from conventional to fringey, both left- and right-wing.

At another sale some months ago, I came away with all the books I could carry for $4. Included in the armload was a journal written by a young woman in the summer of 1927, which seemed lonely and forgotten in the bottom of a box of old desk calendars. Here I find a bit more of a story than the imaginings one can reconstruct from the titles alone -- but it's still just a snapshot, one summer early in a life, before she had collected most of these books, before she had met the family she shared most of her life with. If it even is the same woman who kept the journal who lived in the house.

I knew a young couple who debated in the first year of their marriage about the philosophy of displaying books in their living/dining room -- she was self-conscious about having certain books on display, lest their guests think they actually agree with the perspectives represented by some of the stranger authors in their library. Her husband felt that was part of the very point of a library -- it was visual shorthand for a vibrant intellectual debate to shelve the physical manifestations of different viewpoints right next to each other before God and everybody.

I have sympathy with both of these friends. There are books in my personal library that live in my bedroom -- indeed, in the second row of double-shelved books in my bedroom -- because I don't want to announce to the world that I own these embarassing titles. But I concur that displaying a book does not amount to expressing agreement with it, and that there is an interesting sketch of intellectual biography on display in any livingroom bookshelf.

But when a person dies, and a company comes in to clear out their affects, all the books end up on display -- the ones proudly displayed behind glass doors in the livingroom, and the dusty paperbacks hidden under the bed in the attic. You can't tell the whole story of a life from the books they owned, or know just by looking what the relationship was with any given book. (Did they even ever read it? Did they hate it? Did they only hold on to it because someone gave it too them?) But a library tells a story, or better, paints a picture, of a life lived, and the kind of things they cared about. It honors the dignity of the human person, I think, to look with reverence on the books they left behind.


Alicia said...

I have never tried an estate sale. I should. Ben and I lived in a furnished apartment while we were in Germany. "Furnished" included a temporarily abandoned or not-yet-worthy-of-being-shipped book and video collection. I went through thoughts similar to yours, piecing this woman's life back together on the basis of her library. In that case, I did feel like an intruder, albeit one paying rent.

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