Whenever I enter a room whose ambiance pleases me, my head automatically tilts to my right shoulder and I find myself, before even beginning to engage in meaningful chatter, involuntarily sidling along the bookshelf-lined walls. It’s not an uncommon tic. I’ve often seen others suffering from it in my own living room. Many a time, with a wine glass in each hand, I’m confronted by my guest’s back, his head also skewed at this uncomfortable angle. Of late, however, my bookshelves have offered slim pickings. I doubt that my collection awakens quite the awe, envy and covetousness other personal libraries do, ever since I’ve begun to ruthlessly weed out the fluff. It’s not that I fear being judged by the books I keep; it’s just that after carting books from one continent to another, I have begun to feel the burden of ownership. Potboilers are easily the first to go, if not to any of the local libraries boasting an English section, then to a needy neighbour keen to improve his use of the English idiom.
I find it difficult not to find a new home for my books. I’ve tried telling myself they’re only paper ever since some thirty years ago, I watched a bookstore clerk rip the covers off books he planned to return to the publisher.
“They’re just paper,” he explained, catching my horrified expression.
Some books I toss with alacrity, Lord of the Rings for example, more like bored of the rings as far as I’m concerned. The most Tolkien’s trilogy ever did for me was induce guilt for not being able to say I’d read it. So too, do I toss should-have-read-but-never-did-and-probably-never-will-novels, classics excluded.
Books that have turned to dust are made to bite it, like the thirty-year-old copy of Slaughterhouse Five that crumbled in my fingers. I chucked it, elastic band and all. Commonsense dictates that duplicate copies should pose the least problem, but they pose the greatest. Whose volume to dump, mine or my husband’s? One criterion for reshelving the peripatetic tomes was that hard covers usually prevail over soft, except once, when both kept their ground.
I had recently married and since I planned to live happily ever after, decided we could as easily share a book as a bed. (My husband would deny this, not the part about the bed, but the bit about the book. He just has to hint that a book he’s reading might interest me or guffaw once, and by the next evening it will have migrated to my bedside table, never to find its way back unless sought and forcibly returned.)
When it came to the Odyssey, it was an ode of a different genre. We owned both a hard and a soft cover edition. Logically mine, the paperback, should have been tossed in the trash but his Homer was older, worn and musty smelling, altogether less attractive than my pristine copy. Just before pitching it, I glanced inside hubby’s high school Homer. From beginning to end, it was annotated in his handwriting.
“Can you read this?” I challenged.
He opened the book.
“Μήνιν άειδε, Θεά, Πηληιάδεω Άχιλη̃ος ούλομένην η̃ μνρΐ Άχιοι̃ς άλγε’ ̉έϑĸε, πολλάς δ΄ίφϑίμους δέ ξλώρια τεύχε κύυεσσιυ οι̉ωυοι̃οί τε πάσι—Διός δ̉ ε̉τελείετο βουλή—ε̉ξ ού δή τά πρώτα διαστήτηυ ε̉̉̉ ρισαυτε Άχιλλεύς! he said, or words to that effect.