Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A mission of salvation in a dark basement room

Yesterday I scavenged through a dead woman's bookshelves. Although I don't know her name, or anything about her except that she was a former school teacher and a survivor of the Holocaust, I came to admire and like her in the couple of hours that I was there in her dark, empty house.

The books we found there gave evidence of an intelligent person with eclectic tastes: hardcover, first-edition novels (from Lolita to Star Trek), a collection of Samuel Beckett's work (in English and French), travel books, cookbooks and issues of Bon Appetit, humor, biography, and trendy psychology—written in English, French, German, Spanish and even Russian. She had been a voracious reader—there were stacks of books in other rooms of the house,  and they obviously had been read because almost every one contained scribbled comments on the inside front page that summed up her reactions, e.g., "...highly amusing" and "...a suspenseful read."

My companion and I were there to take out what we could for the local high school's annual book sale because no one else wanted her books. She had been single, childless and elderly, and after she died in that house, no one came to claim her books. In fact, the realtor who bought it was just going to throw them away. We were there on a mission of salvation.

Looking through her collection, I was reminded of the autistic knitter. This woman's book collection also represented a kind of art form or life's work. And all of it, including her tiny commentaries, had been destined for a garbage can. Perhaps there was other evidence remaining of her life beyond that quiet house—art works or crafts or letters she had written, still preserved by companions or the sons and daughters of her companions—but I doubted it. With a sinking feeling, I felt like I was deciding what part of her would go on, even if only to strangers that won't know her name.

But what struck me more was the sudden realization that if everything she had read had been on an e-reader, my friend and I wouldn't have been there in her house in the first place, and I never would have spent those few moments in her lingering presence. All those titles, the odd juxtapositions of Art Buchwald and Ferlingetti and science fiction paperbacks, gone in a blip.

1 comment:

mystrtreefrog said...

Thoughts in boxes, a reduction in rationalization, past/perfect and present tense,the eventual cost of NOW.
The most mind numbing trauma of going through my dead brother's effects, besides trying to read his old notebooks; was staring into a chipped old mirror he owned.