A Blog About Books and Their Semiotic Functions in the World
Saturday, August 8, 2009
A Retirement of Books: The Neighbor and the Professor
A Tale of Two Collections: Orphaned and Donated
This is a tale of gnostic simplicity, told in the narrative ebullience of life's complexity. And it is about the collections of two octogenarians, who for the last 25 years, lived not more than a block and a half away from each other. Though, I am not certain as to whether or not they knew the other or had even met. But here are their stories of book twilight...
My neighbor's collection...came to my attention not too long ago. Partly, because I had seen new people moving into this neighbor's home, and partly because I had seen other people taking book and reading matter out of this home not long after the first sighting.
To see the movement of valuables, especially books and papers belonging to someone, often makes me weary. My neighbor, whom I'd known for about two years, suddenly and almost inexplicably disappeared some months ago. Yet, it wasn't unknown what was happening: she was going into a nursing home. But her lucidity and cogency and mobility seemed to defy any expectation of being moved into a nursing home, even if she were in her 80s. But as family matters go, the intervention of one personality over another seemed to sway the balance of her life and lifestyle. A sibling, who lives in the sunny, pleasant, and often perplexingly trade-winded colony of Florida (let's be serious about this, it's a "state" being "used" by non-native Floridians for its surf, sun, and sand, ergo...), well the sibling said "we're taking power of attorney, and you're going to a nursing home, so we can live in your house." I don't mean to sound trite or harsh, but that seems to be the local consensus on the subject. Nonetheless, it all came to pass, and now the home is occupied by a new owner, the sibling and his spousal attachment. And each passing day brings a trash removal service or garbage truck. Each moment moves closer to the house becoming an empty vessel of a 40+ year history of an intriguing woman. Floor-by-floor her worldly possessions vanish like trails of fugal vapor. "They cleared out all her books and papers on the top floor," said the man one day.
In Carlos Luis Zafon's novel La Sombra del Viento ("Shadow of the Wind"), the main character is part of a family which are care-takers of the "last copies" of works, the last remaining editions, styles, types, objects of books. They are charged with the task as not just preservationists, but guardians of biblio-souls, like spiritual and mystical pneumatologists. I don't know what my old neighbor's "last things" were. Or even the unique or non-unique items. And now, perhaps, it does not matter, because it is too late.
Her books, her clays, her writings, her cards,...her possessions seem to have little value now. Shadows of a past that are fading ever-quicker, ever-quickly. One day I found myself speaking with the brother, the new owner. We were standing before a trash bin and he opened it up to show me all of his sister's personal papers: checks, receipts, and Christmas cards. I picked one up: "Merry Christmas D___! December 1959." I looked down and saw a folder labeled "Papers: 1956." I didn't know what they were, or what sort of "value" they might hold, if any. But I felt a twinge, then a stab of anguished sentimentality about these artifacts, even though I didn't know this neighbor that well at all. It was simply the witnessing of immediate loss; loss of some textual evidence of someone's life, presence, and existence on this planet. Understandably, old checkbooks and receipts from the early 1970s or 1980s have very little value, but then again, this prompts the question of "what is value?" Do we care what someone's spending habits were 30 or 40 years ago? Does this give us any clarification into said person's artistic endeavors? Well, that may be another question. My neighbor, I just learned, had been one of our area's most prominent clay crafters and artisans. Her home was still packed with quarry-quantities of unused clay in plastic bags, sculpting tools, and spinning wheels. All of them gone, shipped out, tossed in industrial refuse containers. Now the question to the more nostalgic observer and historiographers among you may be: "Is it important to know the textual artifacts of one's life, in order to know more about the artist?" Perhaps the pecuniary trails and remnants of Van Gogh's pockets could elucidate something for historians, just as researchers a hundred years from now may wish to glean some narrative from the financial catastrophes of photo-demigod Annie Leibovitz and her Civil War-era Greenwich townhouses, which are on the verge of an inconvenient divorce. This too, briefly, reminds me of some archival materials I'd worked on in a Lutheran archive, which contained tremendous amounts of financial records of a Lutheran minister, scholar, and educator from the 19th century, Henry Warren Roth. One of my colleagues in the library cosmos had said that "these are worthless"--referring to the bank checks, receipts, and ledger books. I strongly disagreed, saying that they were a unique tracing of a specific profession in society, and could not simply tell about the spending habits of one man, but of the general practices, purchases, and needs of several generations of clergy in 19th century America.
But onto other things. I had all but forgotten of these episodes of my neighbor's home. And then something happened...
So, the other evening I rode my bike by the trash bins, and scanned something on top of them. They turned out to be 1955 editions of LIFE magazine! So I took them. I had an immediate visceral reaction to the fact that someone was tossing out such beautiful texts that were more than half-a-century old. What exactly is that? Nostalgia!? I'm not convinced of that. But then I thought more about it--would I have hesitated or thought differently, if these magazines were from the 1990s, 1980s, even 1970s? Surely. I would have been fine with them remaining on top of the bins. But then 1960s..., 1950s!? One of the images on the cover of the magazines was about Islam. Just that topic seemed like an interesting historiographic thought. And so, a rescue was in order. I gathered these magazines above and brought them home and took some photos of them for this article today.
Of course, though the advertisements were meant to sell things, they are certainly fine indicators of the past--indicators that tell us something about spending habits and about the products Americans desired over 50 years ago, whether specialty "Rath Black Hawk Meats" or a new Goldenrod Yellow Plymouth.
The Professor's Collection
But the good professor's collection--this is another story.
Professor Ed Krentz retired from the Lutheran School of Theology over a decade ago, but has continued to teach and be an active part of the community. Recently, he and his wife decided to move from their home into a retirement facility, thus downsizing their personal library. In so doing, there were hundreds, if not thousands of books that the good Dr. Krentz offered for free to students, faculty, and the rest of the seminary community.
Now, I did not take many of his books, because many were not of interest to me. But there were a few items, including a tome containing comparative studies of the Gospels. This book, pictured both above and below is a large and heavy book, which dates back to around 1650. It is titled "Harmonia Quatuor Evangelistarum... ." This was by far the oldest that he was giving away, and now it is the oldest book that I personally own. It does seem to be rather well constructed, but it also has some mild worm damage. But, we try and continue to take care of our perishables.
Here are extracts from inside of this antique book...
...and an image of an austere 17th century gentleman, of course, with beard, and the best black-robed Christian couture of the day.
Here is the cover and outside of the "ancient" tome.
Ahhhhh, the bookshelves. These finely crafted bookcases were put together by Prof. Krentz nearly 40 years ago, when he was still living and teaching in St. Louis. They came with him from Concordia Seminary and have been here ever since.
And here of course is our hero (The good Prof. Krentz) in action: quiet repose, waiting for summer to pass while I figure out how the hell I'm going to get these 12,000 lbs. shelves out of his basement without herniating something. Though I didn't take so many books, the good Professor gave me his shelves, for which I am deeply grateful. (Update: I did it. I hired someone to move them. They're in my basement, comfortably occupied by my two thousand tomes.)
Food For Thought...
Even though I have a special place in my heart for rare and old books, I had to go back to the 1955 LIFE magazines. This 54 year-old advertisement for "Quick Chef Boy-Ar-Dee" mushy spaghetti also has a special place in my heart. Not because I grew up on it (heck, my family was rolling pasta dough between their insular Sicilian hands and fingers since I was knee-high to plastic covers on the green couches and could say "second kitchen" and know what it meant.--only the Sicilians in the crowd will understand that, it's a cultural thing.) No, this picture yanks on my sentimentality cord, like I'm watching Johnny Carson for the last time or wanting to join the Foreign Legion. Sometimes an old spaghetti ad is just more evocative than a 350 year old book riddled with helminth holes. Even if it does explicate the best portions of the word of God, I'll have to pass. And yet, just like the two collections themselves, the two people involved in our little comparison have worn their own significant paths, not to be diminished or dissolved by rains or dumpsters. And despite the assigned flux of values on these collections, it may at the very least give us pause to consider our own places in the world, and even where we may one day be, having to make the hard decisions about our books, our papers, ourselves. I leave you with a story:
An old family friend was an avid collector of opera music. He'd collected nearly 3,500 CDs of every conceivable opera recorded, by every singer, every conductor, every orchestra. The disks were crammed into custom made shelves all throughout his bungalow. He always used to say: "I'm gonna croak, and then what'll happen to all my operas!?" We joked and kidded. It wasn't supposed to happen. But then, one day, while I was in grad school, I got a call: "he'd died in his sleep." I thought: "his omen was true!" I could only think of him once showing me a spiral notebook inventorying his music: he'd spent $64,534 on opera CDs, and now, for naught. No friends got his music; no family to speak of. A simple line in a will: "All to ASPCA." Within a few weeks, the decades of collecting and building one of perhaps the country's largest personal opera collections, on a dead-end street, in a quietly expanding upstate town, was gone. "All to ASPCA." Think about the future. The cats and dogs are all listening to Puccini and Verdi now. I just hope they don't hiss or bark at Wagner. Awh, what the heck, he probably deserves it.