Musings While Dusting Books

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THE time has come to dust my books, to brace myself once again for the impossible, never-to-be-achieved perfect classification of my library and to realize that compromise and makeshift are inseparable from the human lot. The beginning of the task is less terrifying than the end. Neither the duster disgorging a swirl of dust nor the thick film of dust behind the shelves are as exasperating as the problem of where to put the books once the dust has been dislodged from its favorite hiding places.

Last year when I was obliged, against my desire and instinct, to dust the books, I cried in despair:

``T.S. Eliot, I have you firmly fixed among the poets, despite `Selected Essays,' `After Strange Gods,' and `The Idea of a Christian Society.' If you persisted in writing drama, why didn't you stick only to verse drama so that I could keep you among the poets?''

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Bookdusting teaches us that few writers embrace one genre. D.H. Lawrence illustrates the difficulties. I am a private reader, not a public library, who wants all of Lawrence's books in a convenient place. This means that I must put together not only his novels, but also his poems, plays, essays, travel books, and criticism and the books by other people with prefaces by Lawrence and the books by others on Lawrence.

What disturbs me is the misplacement of books on the shelves. Why is Italo Svevo's ``The Confessions of Zeno'' standing between Lawrence's ``Aaron's Rod'' and ``Kangaroo,'' and why is Saul Bellow's ``Seize the Day'' dividing ``The Plumed Serpent'' and ``Mornings in Mexico''? And who put two perfect strangers, Luigi Barzini's ``The Italians'' and Hugh Honour's ``Venice,'' next to them?

When I recall the anxieties, humiliations, and defeats of previous dustings, I begin to wonder whether I can face the task again this year. I shall talk about it many times with my wife, telling her it is time to dust the books again. If she agrees - and how can she disagree because of her passion for tidiness - I shall probably say, as I often say, that the task must wait till the weekend. And I shall touch on the subject on Monday or Tuesday rather than on Friday, hoping that my wife will forget my promise.

In our home the dust covering the books is often a springboard of conversation. From such an innocuous beginning the conversation reaches the most exalted realms of history, literature, geography, and philosophical speculation.

From the particular we move to the general, discussing the Dust Bowl of the Midwest in the 1930s, the Dust Bowl backdrop of John Steinbeck's ``The Grapes of Wrath,'' the sand and dust of the Sahara Desert ravaging the arable land of North Africa. From this point it is easy to soar through the realm of the trite and sublime to the conclusion that everything must end in dust, that we came from dust and that we shall return to dust.

In such moments, when I am lost in a philosophical reverie, I try to persuade myself that it would be meaningless to dust the books again. But these moments do not last. Modern man is filled with anxiety. After one or two hours of repose we inflict on ourselves the need of expatiating our vast, unexplainable guilt in an incessant round of busyness.

I may not dust my books today, tomorrow, or even next week; but sooner or later I shall succumb to the task; sooner or later, choking with dust and laden with misery, I shall face the challenge of whether to put the Bible with the world's ancient literature or with Augustine, Martin Luther, and Thomas `a Kempis.

In classifying our books, as in most of our activities, we steer an uncertain course between our transitory convictions and our eternal preferences.

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