Awhile back, the head of housekeeping at our castle here in Powell requested my help in a project aimed at sorting through our personal library. This was a reasonable request, since I’m the person responsible for adding 99 percent of the additions to that library.
She didn’t fool me, though. I knew the librarian side of her personality had already looked through the library, because she had cataloged all of them. Every book, including the discarded textbooks I have saved, Bible study books dating back to the ’60s and a cupboard full of decaying paperbacks are all contained in a database on the computer. What she really had in mind was reducing the size of the library, and she hoped that a voyage through the vast sea of books would wear me down and convince me to discard some of them.
That actually was a worthy goal, because her cataloging had revealed some truths about our book collection. There were duplicates in it as well as a number of books that no longer deserved the name. There were, for example, three copies of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” each of them located in a different room. I’ve never read it, so we kept one copy.
Similarly, there were two copies of a book noted for its place in early American literature, “Two Years before the Mast.” Ironically, I had read that book for the first time recently, not with one of those copies, but in an electronic version on my iPad, where it still resides. So we tossed the two paperbacks.
After eliminating duplicates, though, things slowed down. My wife had an answer for that. She knows that my attention span tends to wander when confronted with a task such as this one — that is, one that isn’t urgent, and/or one I am reluctant to do in the first place. She worked around that flaw in my character by putting a medium-sized pile of books in a prominent place and told me to go through them, but only when I wanted to.
Well, surprisingly, that worked, sort of. It took about a month, but I looked at each book and decided whether to keep it or not. In the end, very few books were disposed of, but apparently, Karen was satisfied. And it was good for me as well, because I found two books that I’m currently reading.
One is a pale green hardback with a nondescript title, “A Book of Stories,” that was required reading for my freshman English class. Naturally, they are the sort of stories that dig into the lives of the characters and reveal the emotions and thoughts that make us humans act as we do.
The other book was an impulse purchase made during my college days. I was taking a class in East Asian history, and during a lecture on Medieval Japanese culture, the professor talked about “The Tale of Genji.” The book was written by a Japanese woman around the beginning of the 11th century, and some experts believe it’s the first real novel ever written. I wrote it all in my notes in case it showed up on the next exam, but didn’t think much about it. A couple of weeks later, though, I was visiting the book store in search of another book when I stumbled on a copy of “The Tale of Genji,” and bought it out of curiosity.
Well, I didn’t have much time for any reading that wasn’t required that semester, and by the end of the year, the urge to read it faded. But it stayed in my library, showing up occasionally during searches for other books, and when it turned up this time, I decided to read it.
Well, now I’m halfway through Genji’s tale, and even though it’s 1,100 years old and from a culture quite different than ours, the story seems relevant today. Genji is the emperor’s son, and he is blessed with an overabundance of charm and good looks. But he also has his eye on another man’s wife, and as a result, he finds himself entangled in a web of deceit and tragedy. I haven’t quite sorted out all of his problems yet, but the story of a powerful man misusing his power because of a woman is actually pretty familiar.
The stories in the other book also tell familiar tales. One of them, for example, involves two French boys who hate each other so much that they engage in rock-throwing battles. But the story never reveals why they hate each other, and as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that they really don’t know why they are enemies. In fact, each of the boys seems to be totally ignorant of the other’s life and experiences. Such ignorance is at the root of much of the conflict we see around us today.
I began this essay as a light-hearted narrative on a mundane domestic task. Somehow it has morphed into a comment on literature and life, and I have no profound way to end it, except to issue a warning.
Never throw away a book, even if the story is a thousand years old. Someday you might want to read it.