|Some of my grandfather's books, now on my book shelf.|
It took me awhile to appreciate his loss because, when I first came across his letters to the Czech government and claim forms listing his library, I thought to myself, what's the big deal? You can always buy books again, can't you? And why do you need to have all those books? They are such a nuisance when you move, voluntarily, of course, in which case you schlep them along in many heavy boxes. However, over time I have realized that some books you cannot buy again. They go out of print, or are written in a script no one can read anymore (such as some of my books in old German lettering that I can still read, simply because I was stubborn enough as a child to plow through them).
But a library is so much more than a bookstore. It's a reflection of who we are if we are the kind of people who read and care about books. I was reminded of that again the other night when I could not find the readings for the memoir class I am teaching that starts next week. I did have my old syllabus, and while I tweak it a little every year, I pretty much use the same memoir excerpts. Could I recreate those readings? Did I have all the books? Turns out I had most of them, but not all. It was more disconcerting, though, that if I had indeed lost those xeroxed copies of chapters and passages, I had also lost my notes on those readings, unless they were in my books. And that's one of the beauties of my own books: They have my markings in them, underlinings here and there, flags attached to a passage that I like to use to show how to write about smell, for instance, or pages that are dog eared because I loved a particular phrase. Those kinds of things you cannot recreate by buying a new book if you've lost your library. (I did find my packet of readings again, thankfully.)
Another thing: A personal library is instantaneous. The books are right there. Some of the books I had copied readings from were from the public library. Getting another copy would have taken time, which I didn't have much of as I tend to assemble materials at the last minute. The same goes for buying books, whether online or at a store. So I decided, right then and there, to put those missing memoirs in my Amazon shopping cart to extend my own memoir library.
There's also a certain inheritance that comes along with a personal library. What kind of books you have says something about who you are. They are, in a way, a giant diary. This summer, my daughter had to read The Merchant of Venice for her AP English class. I was almost giddy with joy when I told her we didn't have to buy the book because I have a full collection of Shakespeare's plays. A few weeks later she was worried that I'd be upset that my copy of The Merchant of Venice, a Penguin paperback from the 1980s, had fallen apart at the spine while she was reading it. On the contrary, I was happy that it had gotten such good use. We can always reassemble it and stick it back into that row of paperbacks on the shelf, and it will be a testament to our reading habits.
Living in post-war West Germany, my grandfather was never able to build the same kind of library he had had before, but I do have some of his post-war books that now seem old and precious. How much more precious would it have been had my siblings and I inherited his library and, along with it, our great-grandfather's. We did not know our grandfather well as he died when we were very little, and we never met our great-grandfather. But I am sure that we would have met some of their personalities hidden in those books.