Of Dewey and Geneology

Coughing one’s way through the book-paper dust of an inherited library is a fine way to spend an evening, surely. When my father’s Aunt Mickey decided to pack up the essentials and relocate to a home with fewer staircases, I did not — could not — understand how many books I was about to glean from her collection. The currency with which the elderly trade is bifold; possessions and the memories attached to them, and my wife Jess’s and my reward for muscling Mickey along in her move is books.

Not all of them, not by the longest of shots. Aunt Mickey is a highly clever woman, the acuity of her speech never giving away her eighty-five years, and it would appear that the fountain of her continued youth is reading. As my wife tells it after days spent packing a life’s worth of possessions into cardboard with the deftness only an Army-brat upbringing can teach, she owns at least ten times as many books as we do, and has read them all. Imagine that! Actually reading all the volumes in one’s personal library.

I flicked through the boxes of books Aunt Mickey sent Jess home with every day, searching for arcane ISBN numbers in order to log them in my own unachievable task list and wondering what rubric she used to determine which would go to us and which to the “donate” pile. Why, exactly, did she feel that I specifically needed ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’? Why so many 70’s-and-80’s woman-power paperbacks? The musty pile surrounding me on the couch certainly represented the prism through which Aunt Mickey views us, and sleuthing out the whys made for a lusciously narcissistic diversion.

Corners of paper stick out from many of the books. Aunt Mickey did not just read her library, but continually annotated it. Scraps of notes in the horrific handwriting to which all in my family are heir can be found in a large percentage of the collection. Newspaper clippings have been folded into to the covers with the care of a film preservationist. Would you like to know the answer to Carroll’s raven-and-writing-desk riddle? I’ve got it, tucked into the leaves of an annotated Alice. Images of Mickey sitting in her casually mod living room, gasping with interest at an article and describing it to my uncle as she tries to remember just where precisely that one book got to are now among my favorite non-participant memories.

Time spent with these books has given me an archaeological taste of my aunt’s life and those of her family. One of my cousins went through a youthful period of UFO obsession in the sixties, for example. Somebody in the family studied more than a little French. A better argument for dating one’s books cannot be made; a reading life like Mickey’s could be measured in the tree-rings of the inside covers.

And what of when I am eighty-five? How will some great-nephew know my life? Through a pile of video games and check stubs? At the very least I can hope that my new acquisitions will provide a feeling of connection to family history and that my own library — and life — will be as worthy of interest.

5 thoughts on “Of Dewey and Geneology

  1. Greg

    Robert’s Rules of Order lends an air of propriety and procedure to that magnificent chaos.

    The way you write this, it almost sounds like the books are all constantly chattering away in semi-private, highly engaging conversations. Robert is there in the middle of it all, banging his gavel and demanding that delegates only take the floor and speak when they have been called, and only on the topic on the table.

  2. subscription girl

    you have signed l’engle and didn’t show me?! it’s cause you knew i’d drool all over the signatures, right?

    i’ve recently been thinking that i should buy some books that:
    a) don’t have pictures
    b) were not purchased in an airport.

    cause really, it’s getting silly.

  3. John

    there is only one thing worse than having things in disarray, and that is having them in order.

    As I get older my perception of time is constantly changing. It changes similarly for most if not all people. Of course the phenomenon to which I am referring is the feeling that time grows ever shorter; that life feels ever more fleeting as one ages.

    With this reflection in mind, I consider the fact that you have been entrusted with this tremendous library that is almost fully annotated, and two things come to mind (both of which I think are very telling about my person). First, it is nothing short of a marvel that someone would bother to annotate these books in the first place. Surely as your aunt aged she realized that she herself would never have use of those notes; that even should she desire to go back and study them all, she would simply not have the time to do so. In my estimation, then, said continuous note taking is a wholly selfless act, and that is remarkable. Second, I’m so, so glad that I live in an age when, should one desire to do the same thing, he can easily do it electronically. It makes the act less selfless, but so much more practical.


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