Do We “Need” Our Old Books?

Do we really need to keep that paper – both paperback and hardcover – library?

I bump into that question now and then, and did again recently and thought it worth finally addressing here. The rise of ebooks – which take up nearly no space at all – in particular has prompted it possibly even more than previously. Physical books naturally take up lots of space in a house as we know and are bulky.

[A few of my books. Potton, England. Photo by me, 2022.]

Yet I still love to buy paper books and do. If I consider my library, to me my books are not just paper books on esoteric subjects. Nor are they are just dusty old volumes.

We don’t actually in life “need” much of anything but a roof and some food, water, and clothing, of course. We certainly do not “need” old books in that sense. However, when we are alone, when we open an old book, it may well remind us of something, someone, somewhere and is fulfilling a need of our soul.

Mine are to me in many ways a timeline of my own life. I have spent decades (accidentally, really) creating “my library.” I see in those sometimes now yellowing pages the mostly irreplaceable of artifacts – to me. I see first editions, now long out of prints, gifts from family now gone, gifts from once colleagues now gone, those signed by authors now gone. Opening this one or that, I am often transported back…

[Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, by Merrill Peterson, 1970. Photo by me, 2016.]

That above, you see, is not just some biography of Thomas Jefferson. It was a Christmas gift to me from my (now deceased since 2002) graduate advisor in political science. It always reminds me of a late afternoon we spent in his office in the 1990s chatting for a couple of hours about Jefferson, slavery, and Sally Hemings.

That is just one example. In their ways, they all conjure up memories like old photographs.

That other one over there – I pretend to point out for you – was signed by its author, a now long-dead British colonial official in what is today Zimbabwe, which I bought in a second-hand bookstore in South Africa years ago. That one down there was gifted to me from a long ago girlfriend in France who thought I needed a volume on Jacques Chirac’s life… in French.

[President Jacques Chirac. Bastille Day, Paris, July 14, 1995. Photo by me.]

And that anthology there you see is long out of print and contains a biographical sketch my [now late] uncle wrote of my [by then nearly 20 years’ dead] grandfather, who had been a baseball player briefly in the 1930s until he hurt his pitching arm, afterward worked in another industry, rose to prominence in a 1950s labor union, and it infuriated my [now late] mother: “I could kill him for that. I was much closer to our father. He was a New Deal Democrat. Your moron uncle has romanticized him into a communist.”

I could go on and on. Sure, my small library of a thousand or so volumes – between here and what is in America – means little to nothing to anyone else and chances are after I’m gone some few books might go to this person or that whom I actually knew because they might want them. (Maybe.) But most will probably end up scattered to the winds – much like my own ashes may well be – to old bookshops or eBay or to wherever or to whomever. Others might just end up in the rubbish or, if lucky, at least recycled.

While I’m still here, my books I have acquired since my teens are in many ways an extension of me as a person. I suppose discarding old books is to be expected as life ends. But I’m not quite at that “bequeathing” or “donating” latter point, I hope, just yet anyway.

Hope you are having a good day, wherever you are.

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