by Hugh Gilmore
A lot of love goes into building a book collection, and an equivalent amount of pain accompanies letting go of it. “Collections” here means a deliberate gathering of books on a single subject, associated with a hobby, profession, obsession, or deep scholarly interest.
The rest of the books in one’s library are simply an accumulation. Nothing wrong with accumulations, by the way – any friend of my library’s books is a friend of mine. Nice as they may be, they’re easier to let go of when you need more room, or you get the regrettable urge to lend a book-book to somebody (same as giving it away, since you’ll never see it again). You don’t feel a gap in your heart in the place where that book used to be.
Collections, though, have to stay together. They focus on a subject and the collectors’ motives vary. Maybe someone wants to write about a person – Hedy Lamarr, for example, and needs research information. Someone else adores Ms. Lamarr and wants to burn a candle before her picture while reading about her. Others are more interested in knowing about soldiering, or mining, or hippies, canaries, movie directors, pencil making, watches, soil, corsets, firecrackers, vaudeville, lipstick, in fact – anything. There are collectors for just about everything there is, was, will be, might be and should have been. And one’s collections say much about who one is.
My sermon today is taken from a sad, but satisfying, experience I recently had in selling a small personal collection of books on the subject on bullfighting. Take it easy: I am no lover of this “sport.” I think it’s cruel and degrading to the animals. Despite the dangers to the matadors and their helpers, the contests are essentially rigged. What passes for flourish and spectacle is simply disguised torture and taunting.
Enough of that. Through my passion for the opera “Carmen,” by Georges Bizet (who never visited Spain nor saw an actual bullfight), I developed a compulsion to see every filmed or videographed version. I’ve seen a lot of them by now, but not all. Somewhere along the way I decided to write a novel based on telling the Carmen story from the point of Escamillo, the toreador whom Carmen falls in love with. He’s usually treated as a low-grade villain in the opera. I wondered what kind of story I might make if I treated Escamillo as a sincere man who was robbed of the love of his life by the jealously murderous soldier, Don Jose, who loved Carmen, but lost her to Escamillo.
To write this novel I’d need to know more about the lives of matadors. So I began to read. I acquired books, pamphlets, and periodicals. I watched televised bullfights. I learned the language of the arena and its attitudes. I read its history. I read about Spain in the 19th century and about the life of Georges Bizet. And the architecture of French opera houses. As I learned, I wrote. My book collection grew. And after I had taken it as far as I could, I set the manuscript aside after about 100 pages.
That was in 2013. Not so long ago. But long enough to make me realize that I will never finish that novel. Or won’t. Or choose not to. In the meantime, the bullfighting books had been scattered throughout my house until I gathered them all together. With nowhere else to house them, I put them in my clothes closet shelf. I’d see them every morning when I chose a shirt and again every night when I changed to sleep garb.
It’s been my little arsenal of information if I ever had to look something up. Settle an argument. Finish writing that book.
January 1, 2018: My New Year’s resolution began with the question, “Are you likely to read these books again, ever?” No. Probably not. Their successors are on my night table, on my desk, at the foot of my reading chair.
I photographed them, went on eBay auctions, wrote a description, set the opening bid at $9.99, and clicked “Sell.” The listing sat all week. I’d spent about $300 acquiring them and would have found $100 acceptable. After all, I got my use from them and none of them was rare. The final selling amount? $9.99. One last-minute bid from a couple in Yuma, Arizona. We mailed the shipment in two boxes last Tuesday.
A bit disappointing, monetarily, I’d say. On the other hand, I enjoy the idea that as I write this they are probably experiencing the same joy I had in first discovering and reading about this subject. I think that’s a happy ending.
The hardest part was the mental acceptance that I was now no longer a minor expert on the subject. (I got an article accepted in a leading bullfighting journal and it was anthologized.) But I had to let go of the hopes and dreams I once had of being a really knowledgeable guy who could move into the inner circles of writing on this subject. Once again I had to admit that I’m just a guy who likes to follow trails until they lead to mountains. I’m an amateur, i.e., only love moves me.
Releasing a collection to the world is like taking a beloved’s ashes urn down to the ocean and opening the lid. I watch those lovely particles fall out of the box. Some drop into the water, others get carried away by the wind. In good ways and bad, I am now lighter in my continued progress through the world.