Book collection reveals a life

Quills Queues is a new weekly column shared by two talented writers, eight-year Tidings veteran (left) and newcomer Angela Howe-Decker, an Ashland poet and parent.

Each Friday, Quills Queues will examine an aspect of the cultural scene &

literature, art, film, theater and lifestyle trends. From books to the Angus Bowmer Theatre, Quills Queues will examine Ashland life, chapter by chapter, page by page. Reader responses are especially welcome, so sharpen your quills and join the conversation.


I sat on the floor, sifting through six cardboard boxes full of books that were all that was left of Al's personal collection.

A friend of the family, sculptor, World War II veteran and world traveler, Al had passed away in late 2007.

Many of his books had been sold at a garage sale, and now it was my job as "the person who really likes books" to go through the remaining ones, pick out the books I wanted and consign the rest to a fate in a second-hand store.

Disposing of a dead person's book collection always seems to me to be both sacrilegious, and a great honor and responsibility.

A person's books are physical representations of the thoughts, interests and memories stirring in the brain. Then a person dies and is gone. The books remain.

Buy one book at a garage sale or second-hand book shop, and you are looking through a tiny keyhole into the original owner's mind. Read many books once owned by the same person, and that person's brain imprints itself upon your own. Is it going too far to say that, in a way, you are keeping a part of that person alive?

In Al's case, what books would a World War II veteran have in his collection? He had many about the war, which obviously had made a lasting impression on him.

In the boxes I found "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque about World War I. There were books by James Jones, whose work was used as the basis for the World War II film "The Thin Red Line."

Was it the war that, despite its horrors, created Al's love of travel? I found travel booklets for European cathedrals, castles and monasteries, as well as language workbooks and dictionaries for French and Spanish. At first, I put all the material about Europe in the pile of books I was taking, but then as I found more and more travel booklets and realized their instructions were outdated, I reluctantly put the booklets back. But I kept the language books, encouraged that even Al, who spent so much time abroad, was engaged in a lifelong and painstaking effort to learn French and Spanish.

His book collection contained many novels that I had always wanted to read, like John Steinbeck's "The Red Pony" and Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe." Some were completely unfamiliar. I picked out many that seemed interesting, and set others aside. But what was I missing?

People tend to read newspaper articles on subjects they already know about and to order food at restaurants that they like, and I do the same. But bypassing books seemed more momentous than sticking with my favorite chicken tikka at an Indian restaurant instead of trying something new.

Many of the books I did choose were about different cultures and religions. Al had several books about the Catholic faith of his childhood, but he had others about the world's religions. What books had he found during his long life that helped him reconcile his spiritual desires with his loss of faith in the specific tenets of Catholicism? He was no longer around to share his wisdom, but his books were.

After much agonizing, I ended up with two boxes of books to take home. I didn't have room in my house to keep all six boxes of books &

not unless I purged about half of my own collection.

That desire to hang onto my own books didn't make rational sense. I had already read them, and I was giving up an opportunity to add new ones to my collection. But as I had just seen, breaking up a book collection is like dividing someone's personal history.

Someday after I'm gone, my own relatives and friends will be dividing up many of my books and disposing of the rest. I hope before that happens, I will have convinced them to read the ones that are most important to me.

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