Giving Books to the World

piles of books

They all go.

I was thinking this week about a book I remember owning, an art book I bought in 1981 in Leningrad (a city that has since gone back to its real name, St. Petersburg). I was in Leningrad that year at Christmas, and the group of students I was part of had a dinner with extremely schmaltzy entertainment, the sort of thing tourists might like, but I didn’t like it. The event was no doubt to distract us from the fact that on Christmas Day we were foolishly stuck in the Soviet Union (also now gone back to its real name, Russia).

In the afternoon before the dinner, I bought a large folio book with pictures from a contemporary artist who had struck my fancy. That evening at the dinner, along with bad entertainment, we had jolly great quantities of wine (and probably vodka), and when the meal ended, there were open wine bottles on the table, still full. I was myself jolly great full of wine, so I decided I’d just take a bottle, which I stuck in the plastic bag I was carrying, along with the new book. Then I laid the bag on its side for just a moment.

I know I had that wine-stained book for years, but it seems to be gone, which doesn’t surprise me. I’m not sure how often I’ve moved in my life, but a couple of years ago I calculated it to be around thirty times, and I’ve discarded a lot of belongings in that time. I can tell you from experience, the more times you pick stuff up, the less you love it. I’m now thinking, as much as I like my current apartment, that I want to move closer to work, cut down on my commute, and have more time in the week.

Over the decades, I’ve collected a wonderful lot of coffee table books, the sort that are large and colorful and beautifully printed. I’ve moved these tons of books over and over, most recently from here to New Jersey, to Pennsylvania, to Maryland, and back to here. I think it’s time to give them away before I move again.

Many of these books are about Russia, which has been such an enormous interest for me for so long. I have books on history and art, books on palaces, and book with historical photos and particular kinds of art. I’ve been through every one of those books, and when I look at one with photographs of palaces in St. Petersburg, I go back to so many memories, strolling beside canals, sitting in cafes eating pastry, walking lost down unknown streets in late-day sunlight, standing in snow at a train station, possibly after a few sips of vodka, playing a rendition of Tchaikovsky on my comb while other students danced like swans (although that was in Moscow).

I also have a number of fine books on ancient Egyptian art, another area that has been a very strong interest for years (I even published an academic article once on ancient Egyptian rhetoric). I’ve never been to Egypt, however, going there only through books and museums. For years I taught classes that included Egyptian culture and history, in part because I just wanted to. You may not realize that we have literature from ancient Egypt. We don’t have much, but we do have some, and I used to teach it.

Part of my interest in Egypt was linguistic (of course it would be), so that I spent some time trying to learn to read hieroglyphics. Those books I’m keeping, because I still can’t part with language books. And anyway, I might want to learn more about reading hieroglyphics. Just thinking about it as I write this makes me want to get up and go look at them.

Among the books I’m discarding, I also find a couple of things from the history of Christianity. One of those books came from my father, who collected books like the floors of forests collect leaves in autumn. I could take a hundred books out of his house and you’d never even notice. From who-knows-where I also acquired a book on St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai, and I still consider that place one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen, even if I only encountered it on paper.

I’m not concerned about a lack of books. Just last Saturday when I came home from a Passover Seder at a friend’s house, I was carrying three fat novels by an Italian writer. There will always be books in my house, even in this digital age, and even as I give them away.

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