Where Do the Books Go?

by Andrew Boden

 

When my father died in 1996, I inherited 300 books that have been on the Bodens’ bookshelves since the nineteenth century.  There are faded volumes of poetry by Keats and Coleridge, a little book of prose and poetry by “Silly Suffolk” and written inside it a note from the author to my grandfather, F.C. Boden; there is Bradley’s Appearance and Reality and my grandmother’s 1908 set of red and gold Kiplings with good-luck swastikas on the spines; and most cherished of all are the books of poetry written by my grandfather and the Best Poems of 1926 in which appears his poem, “The Son of Man” along side verse by H.D., Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon.  I have found yellowed letters to my grandfather in several of his books, fan mail or sometimes correspondence from a fellow British poet, but never the rumored correspondence he had with A.E. Housman.  I continued this tradition of letters kept in books, when I exchanged a letter with Doris Lessing.  I put her note in her novel The Golden Notebook and placed the book with the others.  And yet, the tradition of keeping the books in our family I can’t honour, because I don’t have children.

I have never wanted children — at least for more than an afternoon.  I make a good uncle to my nieces and nephews from my wife’s family, but I shudder at the thought of my life being taken over to raise a child.  And I can’t imagine having a child just to have an heir, just to persist in the tradition of passing on crumbling books.  Even if I were foolish enough to do that, my child may not give a damn about old books and family tradition.  My two brothers, who likely won’t have children of their own, could never take the family books.  Their lives aren’t calm enough to keep a book on a shelf or out of a used bookstore or pawnshop for the few dollars they need for drugs or booze.  I have a cousin, a bona fide Boden, who has two children, but she’s never written back to me since her father, my uncle, died.

When the books arrived at my family’s house in 1981, they stayed in their wooden crates in the basement until my father built wood shelves for them.  I was twelve then and already a congenital booklover with two years of volunteering in my elementary school library on my CV.  I tiptoed into the basement once and lifted one of the lids on the crates and peeked inside at the handsome, leather-bound volumes.  They smelled of stale tobacco like I remember my grandmother did.  When I opened one of the books of poetry, the paper was orange-yellow like I remember my grandmother’s skin was.  When the books came upstairs to their freshly built shelves, I used to sneak into my parent’s bedroom, where the books were, pull one down and begin to read.  I never read for long because I was nervous about being caught touching them; they still had the air of austere reverence my grandmother brought to our house in 1980 when she visited from England and made me learn fractions and pi after school had let out for the summer.  When my father left my mother, he took little more than these books with him to the basement apartment where he lived until his death.  He never told me to look after the books, but I read from his acts what was important.  What I must do imprinted itself on my emotions: the gravity that has kept these books in my family’s orbit must not weaken with me.

I’ve tried to reason my way out of my dilemma: “in a few generations, these books will have crumbled into dust anyway” or “they are mere things, you should get over your materialist thinking” or “how long can you be expected to defend paper from Time?”  I have open beside me my father’s poetry notebook, from his time in Berlin, where he was stationed in the sixties as a British Air Force corporal.  “This book is the property of a struggling, would-be poet, and represents the life-work of him.”  My philosophical thinking can’t rid me of my pre-emptive sorrow, should that notebook be thrown into the trash after I die.  A young, ardent man – my father  — wrote sixty poems and the fate of these will be the fate of so many of our words — annihilation.  I can barely write about it because some part me of believes these books and words of my family are imbued with its spirit, with its identity, both of which I want to persist because I fear extinction; that both will extinguish with me.  There is more than a little vanity in my sorrow and talk of duty to the books.  Most of all, I want something of me to survive, even if it’s just my books joining the family traveling library.  I want mine, too, to be passed on and placed lovingly on shelves, with the hope that the day comes when one of my brighter relatives says, “Here’s a letter from Doris Lessing to Andrew Boden in The Golden Notebook.  Andrew Boden who was he?  Ah, here are his journals.”

When I find time for a more practical mood, I know I could give the books to the university library, where I worked for twelve years.  They could go into the climate-controlled vault of “Special Collections” where they would sit for generations and wait for a Boden to wander from the wilderness and reclaim his or her birthright.  No, the books aren’t valuable enough or rare enough to make it into Special Collections – the general collection, the stacks, is the fate for them, to be pawed over and scribbled in by students and shit on by mice.  Once I came across the collected papers of BP Nichol: books, notebooks, manuscripts, gaming magazines, everything in the vault.  The answer came to me in a flash — if I were a famous enough writer, some library would want my papers and, thus, the family books.  I could live with the occasional graduate student combing through our books to identify an obscure thesis and I wouldn’t mind my biographer searching for Boden bons mots.  But how to become a famous enough writer?  I posed that question to Doris Lessing fifteen years ago in a letter embarrassing, among other things, for its naivety: should I take an MFA in creative writing, Ms. Lessing, should I … or should I?  She advised me to read the very best authors, to learn from the best.  I must read the family books to write the books that will save the books.

If I had a son and knew he was going through what I am now, how would I advise him?  I like to think that I would be wise enough to say, “Son, something of our family will survive us.  It may not be the books.  It may be something more important.  I’m not sure we get to chose.”  Or by the time I’m giving out such advice from my deathbed, perhaps I will believe in reincarnation: “Son, the words in trashed books come back.  They keep coming back until they evolve into great books, which we keep.”  But I fear I will never learn to die well, as Seneca and the other Stoic philosophers admonished in books and letters, which our civilization has kept in the human library for almost two millennia.  If I told my son to save the family’s copy of The Best Poems of 1926, save The Golden Notebook, I don’t want it to mean save something me.  I want to be wise enough to understand that what is important in us can’t be transported to the future in books or paintings or old family jewelry.  We leave our things behind.  We should be grateful for the easing of our burden.

About Andrew Boden

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Andrew Boden is the co-editor of Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness, a groundbreaking anthology of evocative personal essays by writers who either suffer from or have close family members who have been diagnosed with a serious mental health or developmental disorder. His articles on mental illness have appeared in Open Minds Quarterly and Other Voices. His stories and essays have appeared in The Journey Prize Stories: 22, Prairie Fire, Descant, Vancouver Review, and the anthology Nobody's Father: Life Without Kids. Andrew is vice-president and director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Exchange, a Canadian children’s literacy charity, and has helped build homes in San Quintin, Mexico. He enjoys cave exploration, especially on Vancouver Island and in the Chilliwack region. He currently resides in Burnaby, BC.