A community of readers
Anne will be my neighbour for a few more days. That's a good thing, because she collects used books for a favourite charity and I have hundreds of books that will be orphaned when we move.
Although I won't have room for these books in our new place, there's a history behind every one. Maybe it captivated me under a tree beside a lake, one long-ago summer vacation. Maybe I picked it up on impulse and then lost interest (and the thread). Maybe I needed it for some reason (a course I was taking, a trip I was planning). However it entered my life, I expect each book to be valued by someone, and sent on its way to that reader by a stalwart volunteer with a van.
Do I expect too much? The last time we moved, I had to beg the organizer of a university book sale to cart our bounty away. Mindful of his middle-aged back, he cringed at the sight of the haul: 40 boxes straining at the seams. "You guys run a book store?" he asked.
What we actually do is indulge our book store habit. Which means we depend on philanthropic book-lovers like Anne. Better not overwhelm her. Better check out her commitment. How many cast-off books could she really use? I liked her answer: "As many as you've got. I'll take your boxes as you pack them, a few at a time."
I'd never heard of Sanctuary, where Anne would be taking my books. Housed in a downtown Toronto church, it offers friendship to the scorned and the forgotten—many of them homeless.
I've been sending cast-offs to the homeless for years, especially in winter, when charities round up warm clothes for people who have none. Every time I filled a garbage bag with sweaters and mitts, I basked in the warmth of my own generosity toward "the needy," as if need were a purely physical condition that defined an entire subclass of the marginalized. I'd never seen a book drive for the homeless until Anne posted her notice in the lobby of our condo. What a splendid idea! Still, I had a question for Anne. Were my books the right sort for Sanctuary? Could they handle several carloads of literary fiction, biography and social history, with a smattering of poetry thrown in? Is this the sort of thing their community wants to read?
I'm not proud to have asked such a condescending question, but Anne set me straight in the most gracious possible way. "It's fascinating, the diversity of books that people choose. Sometimes they feel a need to reconnect with something they studied back at university. Just the other day, a man walked off with a philosophy book. He couldn't have been more delighted."
This morning Anne picked up her second load of books. The first has already found takers. I like to think that at this very moment, someone with no money to spend on books is enjoying my anthology of short stories by Canadian women, or my biography of Sigmund Freud. And there's more pleasure to pass on, because I've barely made a dent in this book-culling project.
Scanning my shelves for more books to give away, I start a pile of the ones I'll never read again. Here's a likely prospect: A Hundred White Daffodils, a posthumous collection of odds and sods by the transcendently wise American poet Jane Kenyon. Although I've often found comfort in Kenyon's poetry (and written about it on this site), I remember nothing about Daffodils. And yet, as I turn the pages, I find a chapter dense with my own underlinings, like a trail of crumbs through the forest of my bibliographic history. It's not a chapter in the usual sense, but the transcript of an interview in which Kenyon, then in 40s, reflects on her art and life (little knowing she would die of leukemia in less than two years). What Kenyon says about her purpose as a poet applies to all imaginative writing:
The poet's job is to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in such a beautiful way that people cannot live without it, to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name. The poet's job is to find a name for everything: to be a fearless finder of the names of things; to be an advocate for the beauty of language, the subtleties of language. ...The other job the poet has is to console in the face of the inevitable disintegration of loss and death, all of the tough things we have to face as humans. We have the consolation of beauty, of one soul extending to another soul and saying, "I've been there too."
Something tells me the people at Sanctuary would understand this as well as anyone. But they'll have to wait: I'm not ready to give up A Hundred White Daffodils. I need it to remind me of my place in the vast community of readers.
For another take on the rewards of culling your books, check out this lively blog post by Kerry Clare (who, like me, has been busy moving).