Traveling light: He had trimmed his belongings to a single suitcase, but what to do with his beloved books

In his great purge he had sold almost everything he owned except his books. Selling them was like saying goodbye to intimate friends.


It's done.

For months I had been working up the courage to proceed, and I assure you it was a difficult period. Doubts, fears – there were days when I didn't know if I had the strength to carry through. But now, at long last, it's done.

I have sold my books.

Twelve years ago I transferred ownership of almost everything I possessed to people I didn't know. Within just a few weeks, my house, my car, and most of my belongings were sold and I was heading out to see the world with only a passport, a single piece of luggage, and a laptop computer.

At the time I felt no compunction about unburdening myself of home and chattels – "de-accessioning," a curator friend called it – because I felt no genuine connection with most of my possessions. They were mere "things," and I had come to question whether it was I who owned them or they that owned me.

Brave talk, indeed, but – in one respect, at least – a lie. Because back then I just could not bring myself to sell my books.

My books!

In one of his early short stories, William Saroyan tells of living in poverty in Depression-era San Francisco. One day he decided to burn some of his books for heat in his frigid flat, so he set about dividing his small collection into volumes worth saving and those that could be consigned to the flames without qualm.

Yet in the end Saroyan could not do it – he could not sacrifice even the most poorly written book by the most tedious author. They were, after all, still books, and no one who revered words and the individuals who committed them to paper could find it in his heart to turn any bound volume to ashes.

My reluctance to part with my own books also had something to do with staying warm, although not in the physical sense. To me, selling them was like saying goodbye to the best friends I ever had – beloved intimates from across the ages, all of whom stood ready day or night to provide the most stimulating side of the ongoing conversation we call learning. The thought of giving them up loomed as a loss that I feared I could not endure.

Nevertheless, 12 years after my first de-accessioning I knew the time had come. Books don't do well stored in cardboard boxes in someone's basement, which is where mine had resided for more than a decade. And since books also cry out to be read, I thought I would be doing potential owners a favor by putting my little collection back into circulation.

Still, it was terrible to watch a young store clerk stack a lifetime's reading on a counter and price each volume not by the quality of its content but by the condition of its cover. Fiction, nonfiction, reference works, the unclassifiable – all were lumped together as mere commodities. Needless to say, I was more than a little depressed.

Until, that is, I noticed something wonderful.

Sticking up from random pages in most of the volumes were my bookmarks – the original cash register receipts from each book's date of purchase. So I rummaged through the stacks that rose on the shop's counter and took a journey back through time and space, over five decades and across three continents.

Here in a copy of "Ulysses," for example, was a receipt dating to my high school years, from the student bookstore of the small college nearest my hometown. Over there, from the same era, was a hard-to-find paperback I had discovered in an enormous used-book shop in the adjacent big city – a madhouse of hidden treasures that was irresistible to enterprising, budget-minded young readers like me.

There were volumes from university days and working years, as well as more recent acquisitions that reflected my travels. Here, for example, were a few books with receipts from a charity storefront in London, as well as a couple from Maruzen, one of Japan's largest chain booksellers. I even stumbled upon a register tape in a low-priced edition of "Moby Dick," purchased in a shop in Bamberg, Germany, and read during many a long and otherwise dull train ride through Europe.

A flood of memories accompanied each of those little receipts – memories of times and places and pleasures derived from hours of absorption in the written word. And just like that, the pall of regret that had enfolded me began to lift.

So au revoir Madame Bovary, auf wiedersehen Hans Castorp, do svidanya Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, tallyho Uncle Toby. I'm sure we'll meet again – in a library somewhere down the road.

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