Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Where the Books Went

The books had become a burden.

That’s not a sentence I would ever have dreamed of writing when I was younger. “Younger” meaning eighteen months ago. Until recently, I went around saying things like “There’s no such thing as too many books, only too little time in which to read them.” I declared I would measure my coffin according to the number of volumes I could squeeze inside its piney confines. Part with my books? You might as well cut my arm off with a rusty saw.

And yet, the timbers of my Craftsman home in Butte, Montana groaned under the weight of paper and ink. The shelves lining the walls of my basement had long since been filled, and over-filled—like a corpulent guest at Thanksgiving dinner who, after the turkey and the stuffing and the sweet potatoes and the cranberry sauce and the gravy, greedily cuts just One More Slice of Pumpkin Pie. With whipped cream.

The books were every-frickin-where in the 4,000-square-foot house: there were piles in the bathroom, stacks in the breakfast nook, and a haphazard litter of titles to be shelved weighing down the polished-wood bar in the basement. My collection, which had been built and curated over the past thirty years of my life, was out of control. It was the literary version of The Trouble with Tribbles.

Books came into the house, but none went out. I was saturated and oversaturated. By my estimate, and according to my Library Thing catalog, my shelves were stuffed with more than 13,000 books. The real “trouble,” of course was the fact that I could not stop buying books. I am, I guess, part magpie: I cannot resist a new, shiny object. I was a bookaholic in much the same way that many people struggle with grape and grain; I had to start avoiding bookstores like twelve-steppers vow never to step foot inside a bar again. As an author who frequently goes on book tours, this was impossible. But I tried to control myself. I tried, I really tried.

And failed.

It was a slowly-dawning awareness, but eventually, I reached—and passed—my breaking point. Long ago, I had crossed the line when I had more books than I could possibly read in my lifetime (in truth, more books than the most secluded hermit could ever read). A speed-reading course wouldn’t even make a difference. The tipping point came when my wife and I made the decision to put the house on the market and move into smaller quarters. The original plan was to live in our new 25-foot RV. We would travel the country and Live Small. We’ve since tapped the brakes on that idea—not entirely ruling it out, but not committing to that miniaturized lifestyle, either. (Plus, the house in Butte still hasn’t sold, so we’re biding our time here in Montana for now.) We had an estate sale and sold more than 80 percent of our worldly goods; we’re now living in this oversized house with just a sofa, a bed, two nightstands, and just a few sticks of furniture. Our three cats spend their days chasing dust bunnies and listening to the echoes of their meows bounce off the bare hardwood floors. (And no, before you ask, we’re not marching to the beat of Marie Kondo and all those decluttering books which currently clutter the aisles of bookstores; this is a long-brewing, personal decision which has nothing to do with popular trends.)

Everything, from the camcorder bought in 2010 to the massive antique wardrobe in the upstairs bedroom, was sold. If my wife could part with her pewter salt-and-pepper shaker collection, I knew I, too, needed to make my own hard sacrifices. The books had to go. But where?

For the past year, I had been carting fat bookbags to Second Edition Books in Butte where the owner, Ann, bought somewhere around 1,000 books (and God bless her for her generosity and patience with my bi-weekly trips into her store where I continually ask, like a scratched record, “Can you take any more off my hands?”).

But off-loading at the used bookstore was just one slice of the Thanksgiving-feast pie. After separating out the ones I wanted to keep—

[Oh, excuse me, did you think I would get rid of all the books? If so, you obviously don’t know me. It was an emotionally-difficult culling process, but I picked and I chose, I sorted and set aside, I boxed and then unboxed and re-boxed indecisively. Eventually, I preserved about 1,000 of my most treasured volumes. I kept all of the Flannery O’Connor; ditto with Dickens, Hemingway, Richard Brautigan, Lewis Nordan (you can have my Nordan collection when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers) and Raymond Carver, along with a handful of my favorite living authors—though I won’t name names to avoid any hurt feelings from someone who didn’t make the cut. I saved my Dell mapbacks collection and my Big Littles. I held on to a small shelf of beloved children’s books. I kept my Penguin Classics and all my Library of America volumes.]

The survivors of the Great Book Culling of 2019
I carried The Keepers to an upstairs bedroom and though they lined an entire wall, removing them from the basement only made a minor dent in the overall collection. How, and where, could I possibly unload a lifetime’s worth of books? The answer came in the most unexpected of ways.

My friend Christine Martin, board director of the local non-profit organization The Root and Bloom Collective, was at my house in late summer to buy several of my bookcases (the ones which had been recently emptied of their contents) and, knowing of my book “burden,” she looked at the rows and rows of spines and said, “You know, we might be interested in buying some of these from you...”

“We?” I said.

“The Root and Bloom. We’re in the early stages of building our own library and some of these books would make a good start for what we want to do.”

“Some?” I said, teasingly (but also seriously). “What about all? Would you be willing to take all of them?”

“Oh.” She stared at the two hundred tons of paper, ink and glue. “Well....Let me talk to our board and directors and see what they say.”

*     *     *

They said yes.

And so, the next week Christine returned with empty boxes and a few volunteers from the Root and Bloom to help pack what she later estimated were 180 boxes. “No one had to go to the gym that week,” she told the local TV news station.

For several days, the basement of my house was noisy with the rumble of heavy books dropping into cardboard boxes and the shrieks of packing tape sealing the flaps. Christine and her small army, the Book Brigade, arrived early each day and spent hours pulling, sorting, and cramming. I popped in on my lunch hour to check on their progress and I always went away feeling a little bad: my burden had become their burden. The sheer number of books was overwhelming and I felt sorry for the Book Brigade and their sweat-damp faces and sore muscles.

But eventually, everything was boxed up and carted off. I felt only relief.

That soon turned to joy when Christine told me of her plans for the books: “These will be the start of a new library we’re establishing at the Jacobs House. We’re going to call it the Edwin C. Dobb Memorial Peace Library.”

I had to turn away for a minute. Suddenly, there was a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

*     *    *

Before his all-too-soon death this past July, Ed Dobb was one of the best word-slingers to ever come out of Butte, Montana. His articles about the troubled history of this copper-mining town, “Pennies From Hell” and “Dirty Old Town,” are revered as masterpieces of journalism; they’re the yardstick against which everything else written about Butte is measured. Ed was also the co-producer of the terrific documentary film Butte, America. The blood that flowed through Ed’s veins was the color of pennies.

Ed emailed me out of the blue one day in 2010, one year after I’d moved to the Mining City and shortly after my interview with Tom McGuane appeared in New West magazine. The subject line of the email was “Comparing Pens” and it opened like this:
Hey, David, I enjoyed your interview with McGuane in New West. Also noted with delight that you’re living in Butte. Clearly you’re mad....What sort of unspeakable crimes would condemn you to such a desolate place?....Doubtless you’ve now heard the old joke: One of the best things about living in Butte is that Montana is close by. I think how a person responds to the quirky, often forbidding island ruin of Butte says a lot about a person’s character and sensibility.
I leaned closer to my laptop screen. I’d found a kindred spirit, someone who removed his rose-colored glasses before sweeping his eyes across the scraped and scarred landscape of this town. Ed loved Butte, but he also understood its complexities: the ugly and the lovely.

Ed sent me more essays to read, including this one about cold-water swimming which began:
Although I had been swimming on and off since moving from southwest Montana back to San Francisco in mid-January, my new season officially started on April 17th, the day I turned 60. It was a bright afternoon, the sun partially obscured by high thin clouds, gusts churning the surface of Aquatic Park, a manmade cove bounded by curved piers on the waterfront. That’s where I swim, along with others whose notion of a swell time is plying chilly San Francisco Bay while wearing nothing but a cap and a Speedo. And chilly it was that day—water about 55 degrees, or 30 degrees cooler than the average municipal pool. Whatever pleasures await the cold-water sea swimmer—and they are incomparable, even, at times, transcendent—reaching them entails a certain amount of discomfort. Every swim begins with a double leap—the physical act of plunging into the water, the mental act of deliberately submitting to pain.
Going back over that article now, half a year after Ed died at 69 of complications from a heart condition, I read it as metaphor. Ed was writing about swimming, yes; but—and I hope he’ll forgive me for stretching his words—he could easily have been writing about the process of shedding my beloved books: the icy shock of the decision to rid myself of what I’d once held so dear, deliberately subjecting myself to the pain of loss.

But now, as Christine told me of Root and Bloom’s plan for the books, I realized it wasn’t loss and grief I should be feeling, but happiness and comfort. My 30-year library would have a new life and find new readers and, best of all, it would carry my friend’s name and legacy with it into the future. I couldn’t have planned a better fate for the books.

*     *    *

Two months after the last box was packed and carried out the front door, I paid my books—my former books—a visit at the Jacobs House. Many of them were still in their cartons, stacked like a small mountain range in the middle of the floor; but enough had made their way onto the shelves—my old bookcases—for me to browse. I tilted my head and ran my eyes across the familiar spines. “Hello, old friends,” I whispered. “It’s good to see you again.”

I restrained myself: I did not shake the shelves and sweep the books into my arms and carry them out the door. Instead I felt a pang of guilt for holding them in a miser’s grip for all those years, knowing I could never read even a fraction of the collection—no, not even a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg’s worth—before I died. Now, other visitors to the Edwin C. Dobb Memorial Peace Library would have the chance to read what I built and saved over the decades.

I went back to Ed Dobb’s article on swimming in the icy waters near Alcatraz and his words took on fresh meaning:
How long it takes for the body’s internal heat to counteract the penetrating cold varies widely, depending on several factors—metabolism, conditioning, overall acclimation, how hard one swims. But whether the interim is measured in seconds or minutes, a kind of alchemy is at work, converting the forbidding into the ecstatic. What makes the shift possible is conviction, the belief that eventually the sting will recede, the shock replaced by something that cannot be experienced anywhere else.
What I once feared most—losing my books—had been converted to joy. A new refrain ran through my head: It is better to share than to hoard.

I was at peace with my loss.

Ed Dobb swimming toward Alcatraz


  1. What a tender read! I could relate on several levels. I have that same problem - buying more books than I can ever read but there is something comforting about always being surrounded by new and old book friends. From time to time, I do cull the collection but never will I give away books that still call to me.
    I have fantasies of doing that thing of selling the house and taking to the road too but I doubt it will ever happen. I am not brave enough . You also make me want to visit Butte but I imagine visiting Butte is nothing like living in Butte.

  2. There comes a time in every reader's life.....I am giving my son a little bit at a time the books that still call to me and now I have two grandchildren who are enjoying the books that I could not pass up. I still more books to read but after I finishing them, I decide what to do with it. I avoid bookstores too but sadly there are only two left in this big town. I do not go to the library because that would be too tempting. I still buy books on Amazon but have limited myself to audio books. I trade them in for more audio books, somehow the attachment is not a great as regular wonderful books.

  3. I love that books purchased, perhaps, with your Army paycheck went to establishing a peace library. And I've been fretting that your talk of downsizing was a code for divorce, which does not seem to be the case after all. Best to you and Jean!

  4. P.s. Blog software seems to have identified me as "Unknown," above. Liz Kearney, formerly of the Livingston Enterprise here.

  5. Thank you. I've been doing the same thing with my books and some of my art supplies. I stay away from bookstores and library book sales right now, but the urge to buy new (or new used) books is subsiding. I'm cutting back on my collection and, like you, have authors that will never leave here and some topics. My library is well organized, and I'm pleased to say that I can always find the book I'm searching for. Your story is inspirational. Thanks and Happy December 1st.

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