When I was just out of college, I worked for three years in book publishing, in New York City. Because the starting wage was usually enough to cover your rent and groceries, but never enough, for happy-hour beers, many of us assistants ran a supplemental racket for extra dough.
We would secretly hoard copies of the new books that were constantly arriving at the office. These were books that were not yet in stores. I kept my stash hidden in an old black duffle bag under my desk. When we had a decent enough pile amassed, we'd pick an evening and lug our loot down to the Strand, that iconic secondhand book bazaar in The Village.
We'd empty our sacks on to the buy-back counter and watch expectantly as some bookish, harried employee would rifle through the pages with disdain and lowball us on most everything we presented. Every once in a while you'd get a nice surprise -- ten bucks for a first edition by this writer or that, 15 for the four-color coffee table book...
But, like the Indian divers in Steinbeck's The Pearl, we were utterly powerless to negotiate with those brokers of the written word. Who knew how they decided on a book's value? Who knew how to contest them? We'd accept whatever crumpled bills they'd push at us, afraid that at any moment they might point and scream thief. Then we'd slink off to some inexpensive bar to get drunk and talk about what we were going to do when we won the lottery.
One of the reasons I never made too much money at this racket was that I couldn't part with the really good books: My first editions of All the Pretty Horses, Written on the Body, The Secret History, The Sports Writer, This Boy's Life... Because these books touched me I spared them the selling block. They'd end up on the ever-expanding shelves in my apartment. The best of the best. Each one read, each loved, each on display.
When I bailed on New York and moved to Seattle at age 26, the books of course came with me. But then I picked up a new book that spelled the end for the rest: The Gift, by Marcel Mauss. One of Mauss's points, I read, was that in small 'archaic' societies gifts were meant to stay in motion. You received a gift with the intention of giving it to someone else, not of keeping it. If you kept it, say, on a shelf, people believed once upon a time, the gift would die.
The night I read this idea I went to bed in my little affordable-housing apartment above the Pike Place Market. I stared in the darkness at my wonderful collection of books, silent on new west-coast shelves. Road-markers on my journey. Heartwrenching, life-changing, inspiring, challenging, unforgettable... I'd paid for some of them, pocketed others, but they were all gifts, really, weren't they. And I thought, these books, encased like that, already read, are indeed dead. Look there: a deceased love story, a lifeless adventure, a comedy of errors without pulse.
The next morning I woke up and made a new rule. I would only keep as many books as would fit on a tiny, two-tiered bookcase I'd been using as a shelf under my bathroom sink. Even books I hadn't read yet had to fit -- stacked vertically, not piled flat. That would have been cheating.
I can't remember which ones I kept, but when I was through I had less than twenty books on that little shelf, and a dolly overflowing with more than three hundred. I wheeled the dolly into the hallway of my building, took the elevator to the lobby, parked it and left this note: FREE BOOKS.
Then I went out to do what you do on any given morning in Seattle: drink some coffee. I came back 45 minutes later. All of the books were gone. Every one of them. The shock of it sucked the air out of me. I had expected some early scavenging -- some books removed, others stacked politely to one side -- not this wholesale and vulgar ransacking of my sacred temple. A temple that had taken me years to build.
Then, I made myself think of The Gift. My old books weren't relics to be looted, they were winged things that I'd freed. I felt exhilarated. Lighter and giddy for the burden released. Later that day I was horror-stricken. As I fell asleep I felt such peace. In the morning, panic.
That's pretty much the rollercoaster ride I still take each time I think about that morning nearly 20 years ago. Ouch, whew. Ouch, whew. I thought about it again this week when a big box arrived at my house in Barcelona. Inside, the author copies of my memoir, Never the Hope Itself, to be published in less than a week. 35 pristine copies. First editions, no less. The smell when I opened the box. Winged things, motionless in cardboard.
Give them all away, a voice has been yammering in one ear. Over my dead body, whispers another.
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