I had a phone call last week from someone wanting to donate her sister’s cook book collection to our library. I usually like to honour such requests (particularly for someone who’s died) , with the proviso that we can offer them to students if they’re not suitable. It really wasn’t until she was in the library that she saw our dilema – space. We also have a new collection coming here at the end of the year, and we need to make room to accommodate it.
It’s a large collection, more than 30 large-ish boxes. I can only keep the tiniest portion of it, if anything. Opening the dust-sprinkled boxes, I found that they were mostly in wonderful condition. Their former owner clearly chersihed them. Looking at her collection, I wonder about the person who owned them, and how much of her life is represented by the books she left behind. In a throw away society, we accumulate ephemera that we discard without a thought, because it’s only a thing. But we collect so many things during our lives that have meaning for us, and that meaning’s shadow lingers when we die to the extent that it can touch strangers. I wonder about my things, and what they say about me, and what will happen to them when I die.
Like everybody, I have books and games that I’ll happily donate, sell or otherwise pass on to someone else. Many books I’ll read only once. I enjoyed them, but don’t need to keep them. But what of those items that have meaning outside of their use value? There’s my copy of Moby Dick that I bought during a wonderful holiday in Broken Hill. There are the biographies signed by Ian Chappell and Doug Walters. The second-hand copy of the Lord of the Rings bought at a charity shop in Stratford-upon-Avon. My Traveller modules that remind me of RPG sessions lunch during high school, and my copy of Squad Leader (a boardgame, folks) which I also played incessently while in high school. These and many other items have a meaning that is more than their function. I haven’t played my copy of Circus Maximus in 28 years, and will probably never play it again. The counters are almost rubbed bare from repeated play. But I can’t get rid of it.
Our lives are more than the sum of the stuff that we buy. But some of the things that we buy will carry meaning. I’ve always thought that we should live with as little clutter as possible (something that I’m increasingly failing at), and I still think it’s a good ideal. But Physical things are such great memory repositories. The smell as you open up a game box, the cover and heft of a book stimulate the memory – I suspect even more than photographs do, because of the added associations that an artifact brings. if you’ve watched a program like Time Team, you’ll know how it feels when someone’s lost coin, or a piece of jewellery s brought back into the sunlight.
So, though I can keep only a tiny proportion of them, I hope that this person’s books end up in a good home.