As a new year begins, a book lover, like any creature touched by the passage of time, is moved to reflect on gains and losses. I live in a house crowded with books, and in 2017, as in any other year, more volumes entered the door than went out.
But on the minus side of the ledger, I note the absence of the Modern Library College Edition of editor Donald McQuade’s “Selected Writings of Emerson,” published in 1981 in an eggplant-purple paperback as big as a brick. It was too striking a thing to ignore as I made a final pass through the campus bookstore after graduating college in 1986. I bought a copy to remind myself how grown-up I was. Newly liberated from the classroom, I could now read classics because I wanted to, not because I had to.
Thanks to that book, Ralph Waldo Emerson stayed with me through an extended bachelorhood, his remarks on self-sufficiency and solitude guiding me as I lived in a household of one. Then came marriage and fatherhood, the Emerson volume continuing to watch over my life from a high shelf, like a wise owl perched above my days.
A few months ago, my 17-year-old son asked to take the book to school, enjoyed it for a few days, and then accidentally left it on a bus. A typically responsible young man, he grieved for its loss, which did not upset me as much as it unsettled him.
I bought a new copy of Emerson’s essays for my son, contented myself with the beautiful Library of America editions of Emerson’s work still on my shelf, and took consolation in a big plus. In an age when the decline of reading is often lamented, I have a teenager who wants to read Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’d rather have my books embraced and used, regardless of the risk, than simply entombed like the heirloom china that family members revere but don’t enjoy.
Which is also why I’m not grieving about the stains I haplessly inflicted on what was once an inviolate 1930 copy of “The Pocket R.L.S.,” a portable gleaning of prose from Robert Louis Stevenson.
I bought it from a used bookstore while visiting Vancouver, Canada a few months ago, deciding to use the book as intended by actually carrying it around in my pocket. That’s how I smudged the cover, which some bibliophiles might find a desecration, but which I consider a compliment.
My pocket Stevenson has a few scars now because it’s being read again. Is there any higher honor for a book?
In 2018, I resolve to fret less about the mishaps on my bookshelf. They usefully remind me that a library should be a living thing – vitally open to the world, which means, as well, being open to loss.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”