Monday, March 8, 2010

Comings and Goings and Returnings and Disposings

From the preface to The Master of Ballantrae, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Although an old, consistent exile, the editor of the following pages revisits now and again the city of which he exults to be a native; and there are few things more strange, more painful, or more salutary, than such revisitations. Outside, in foreign spots, he comes by surprise and awakens more attention than he had expected; in his own city, the relation is reversed, and he stands amazed to be so little recollected. Elsewhere he is refreshed to see attractive faces, to remark possible friends; there he scouts the long streets, with a pang at heart, for the faces and friends that are no more. Elsewhere he is delighted with the presence of what is new, there tormented by the absence of what is old. Elsewhere he is content to be his present self; there he is smitten with an equal regret for what he once was and for what he once hoped to be.
I like Stevenson's description of returning to old places.

I probably won't finish reading this particular volume. We picked it up used, only later noticing that it is very mildewed (smelling, not visually marred). It is strange that we would purchase this copy. Generally, being quite savvy at the art of buying used books, we smell everything we buy. It's part of our routine. Is the binding firm? Is the glue cracked? Are the pages crumbling? How does it smell?

Imagine with me. You find a long sought book at a garage sale or used book store or your local ARC thrift store. You nab it up and take it home where its sits on your shelf, in a lonely fashion, until the time is ripe for you to read it. You think about this book. Depending upon the title, you may think about it only periodically or you may carry around a dim thought of this book nearly constantly. It calls to you. Until finally. You have a corner of time designated as your own with which to spend tucked up in an afghan with a cup of your favorite warm beverage. You pick up the longed for book. Open the pages. And are hit with an olfactory assault. Stale smoke. Mildew. Strong perfume. Or even the lingering body odor of some former reader. It might be one of many displeasing aromas or a combination of several. Spending one-on-one time with this book will not be a pleasure. The disappointment. The sadness.

And then must come the decision.

Do you spray each page with diluted bleach? Do you pull out the Lysol? Do you set the volume in the summer sun and let the breezes randomly turn pages while the sun and fresh air do their thing? Or do you simply chuck it? I hate to throw away books. I really hate it. I feel the privilege of owning books. I think of Abe Lincoln walking miles to borrow a book from John Pritcher. What a travesty to have to throw one away.

But alas, we live in an opulent society. One in which it is more convenient to dispose of things quickly than to recondition them. In the name of responsible time management, I am afraid for this volume. I suspect it will go the way of the dumpster.

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