A Potency Of Life

by Mary Hrovat

Every October there’s a huge book fair in my town, where used books donated by the community are put up for sale in a large hall at the fairgrounds. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a high point of my year.

When I walk in and see table after table laden with books and inhale the unmistakable smell of the printed page, I almost always get a sense of the richness of the world and a feeling of optimism about my opportunities for learning about it. Even though I know that in addition to many treasures, the tables also hold things like the 1979 edition of What Color Is Your Parachute?, I still feel the thrill. It reminds me of when I was a teenager and didn’t realize how finite my life is. I was in love with history in particular, and with archaeology, with music and art and astronomy. But I also wanted to learn how to do things: draw, paint, play chess, grow vegetables. Growing up in a family where my mother was often too busy and my father was too distant to teach any of us much beyond the fundamentals of their religion, I thought books could teach me those things too.

The layout at the book fair is always pretty much the same. There are certain tables I visit first, and some I rarely check. I usually have a few specific titles or subject areas in mind: There’s an author I’ve become interested in, or a historical period I’m reading about. I always look for Paul Theroux on the Travel table. Over the better part of a decade, I slowly assembled all eleven volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization and the Norton Anthologies of English and American literature.

But of course it’s not the kind of thing you go to with a shopping list. In fact, the key attraction is that the selection is unpredictable. The book fair isn’t like a retail bookstore, where I will see the most popular recently published books, or even a used bookstore, where the books are typically chosen around some theme or set of interests, however broad. It’s a product of countless spring cleanings, moves, graduations, marriages, deaths, and other upheavals in the lives of my fellow Bloomingtonians. The books are a cross section of the reading habits and tastes of my community.

It’s partly this variety, which sparks my curiosity, that encourages me to see the event in terms of limitless horizons and potential, an echo of the days when I was very young and hadn’t realized that you can read pretty much anything you want to, but you can’t read everything you want to. It also helps that the prices are very reasonable. Money has always been at least a little tight for me, and I tend to dither over spending decisions, even small ones. The prices at the book sale are so low, though, that I can take chances on the unknown, with little at stake. If I don’t like something, I’m not out much.

Thus, to take just one example of many, I pluck up a book by an unknown poet, caught by the title, The Weather of Words, and become enamored of Mark Strand’s work, which I might never have become familiar with otherwise. Some of the books I read right away; others await their time. I bring home books that I’ve heard of and know I want to read, but I also pick up things that look interesting and then, sometimes years later, pull them from the shelf at home with a pleasant sense that some kind-hearted person has stocked my bookshelves well.

It’s especially rewarding when this happens late at night, when I can’t sleep or I’m at a loose end, between books, or in the middle of books that I can’t settle into reading. It feels providential to find just the thing to help me through the night, and the dry spell. And I like seeing one or two hefty books waiting for me; this winter I think I’ll read The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s memoir of his time in Antarctica with Robert Scott’s failed expedition to the South Pole, and Norman Davies’s history of the British Isles. That sense of future potential, of banked wealth, means a lot to me.

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As the years pass, though, potential slowly turns to experience. These days, the soaring youthful sense of future reading and discovery is not as intense as it was. The horizon of the future is drawing in somewhat, and I’m slowly coming to terms with my finitude. I’ve learned to donate books back to the book fair as well as take them home. This is partly because I don’t have room for them all and have realized that I probably never will, and partly because I reluctantly admit that I’m not going to learn that language, explore that facet of science, or read that author.

Marcus Aurelius advises “Mislead yourself no longer; you will never read … the annals of bygone Romans and Greeks, nor that choice selection of writings you have put by for your old age” (the Meditations, 3:14, translated by Maxwell Staniforth). I will have to get much older than I am now before I can entirely agree with him, but I have learned to give up on some of my books. I’ve even learned that making room for the things you do love is as important as filling your mind lavishly but indiscriminately.

A friend who is about a dozen years older told me a few years ago that he had sold or given away all of his books and now could fit almost everything he owned into his car. He was clearly pleased with this development. As I walked home after our conversation, I toyed with the idea that I might someday want to emulate him. I concluded that being without my books would probably never feel like freedom to me, but would be more like giving up a part of my extended mind that I couldn’t do without. I feared I’d feel truncated. However, when I walked into my house, I thought that perhaps the only thing sadder than selling any of my books was the thought of my sons someday having to deal with them after I’m gone.

Eventually, though, the presence of the book fair in my community reconciled me to that thought. My mind and my personal history are the threads binding my books into a more or less cohesive and unique whole. I don’t relish the thought of those threads someday being cut. However, I’ve picked up enough bits and pieces from libraries once held together by other minds that I can live with the thought of my books going out into the world after I’m gone. Just as my constituent molecules will be dispersed into the biosphere and eventually taken up by other living things, I hope at least some of my books will be picked up and enjoyed by other people.

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I struggle fairly often with depression. I usually think Merlin was right when he told the young Wart, in The Once and Future King, that the best thing for being sad is to learn something. My books are, among other things, a hedge against the lesser varieties of depression and anxiety. There’s a large research library and an excellent public library nearby, but I’m comforted by the idea that I can almost always find something at home if I don’t feel up to going out, or don’t have the energy to browse an entire library. It was in an anthology of poetry that I found at a past book fair that I ran across Louis MacNeice’s poem “The British Museum Reading Room.” It begins:

Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge—
Honey and wax, the accumulation of years—
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.

There’s certainly something of those last two lines in my wish to keep my books about me.

One year, I happened to be in the grip of a particularly painful episode of depression when the book fair came around. When I walked into the hall where the books were spread out, I felt only an overwhelming sense of the futility of all human endeavor. I felt exhausted and almost nauseated at the thought of all those words and how little difference they made in the long run.

I won’t say that I was exactly wrong about the futility of human endeavor; in the long run, nothing we do will amount to much except to those very close to us, and someday they will be gone too. But life is better when I can forget that. Sometimes I think depression is, at least in part, the inability to forget it and absorb myself in the everyday. Or if not forget it entirely, offset it with good things: happy times with people I love, the many things I learn and savor. As Robinson Jeffers memorably put it in his poem “To the Stone-Cutters,” writers, like stone-cutters, are “foredefeated challengers of oblivion,” but despite this, their work is still valuable:

Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.

Again the sweetness of the honey. What a lovely counterweight to the mere negative achievement of deadening the drumming of the demon.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay. Title courtesy of John Milton (from Areopagitica). You can see more of my work at maryhrovat.com.

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