Magazine article The Christian Century

Before the Book Sale

Magazine article The Christian Century

Before the Book Sale

Article excerpt

MY TOWN PUTS ON a book sale every fall. Proceeds go to a worthy cause, and I am told that the event is well attended. I never go because I already have too many books on my crowded shelves. But I do participate in the sale as a supplier. It is for this reason that each summer as the time to turn books in approaches I am seized by an intense feeling of anxiety. I know I have to prune my shelves and I also I know that there is no reason to hold on to all the books I have. As I choose what goes and what stays, I confront my mortality--Who will want all these books when I am gone?--and my past. Each title evokes a memory of a earlier time of intense interest in a particular topic. What has happened to that passion? What was behind the decision to keep one title and reject others? And when I reject a book I once thought had to remain with me forever, I wonder in what ways I've changed. Weeding out books is a painful process that demands personal clarity.

I found some reassurance recently when I came across a quote from Henry Adams, who once described himself as "aching to absorb knowledge, and helpless to find it." This hunger to know more, and the sense of frustration when more turns out not to be enough, is no doubt a factor in our acquisition of books. Loyalties are developed over time as writers are invited into one's life. I'm not entirely sure why some books are favored and others never make the cut, but I do know that the writers who elicit my deepest loyalty are those who connect layers of meaning, who link insight and information in surprising ways.

I found the quote from Adams in a New Yorker review of Panama, a new novel by Eric Zencey, which puts the American writer Henry Adams in a fictional situation--"sniffling around Paris in 1892," searching for a young American painter with an interest in architecture. Adams is one author who remains a permanent resident on my shelf, never to be sent into book-sale oblivion. He had an intense curiosity about so many things that I wish I knew more about. Zencey knows this side of Adams, which is what must have led him to imagine Adams as a detective, trying to find a woman whose disappearance is related to the financial scandals surrounding the building of the Panama Canal.

Adams would indeed have wanted to know more about the financial scandals that tainted the canal project. He would also have been fascinated by a venture that transformed world commerce. He would view the canal as part of the new technology, the great leap forward which he described with both dread and excitement in the chapter titled "Dynamo and the Virgin" in The Education of Henry Adams. …

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