The 4541st Sacred Thing

A few weeks ago, my brother-in-law (my husband’s brother, not my sister’s husband, for those of you keeping track) had to downsize his lifestyle fairly abruptly. I won’t get into why. The point is that we, his family, suddenly became responsible for dealing with his massive collection of books.

Perhaps because he couldn’t help move the books himself, my brother-in-law gave us complete discretion over what to do with his library. We could have tossed them all in the Dumpster. We could have kept them ourselves. We could have sold them all and kept the money. He didn’t care. Whatever made it easier for us to help him was what he wanted done.

And there were a lot of books.

Seven bookshelves, some of them double-stacked, plus enough books in piles to fill all those shelves again. And a small storage unit filled with even more books. By my estimate, based simply on how much space they took up, I think there must have been at least 4,000 volumes.

My parents-in-law were tossing around the idea of just tossing them. I announced that I’d sort through all the books myself, if that’s what it took to save them. They seemed unconvinced. When my father-in-law casually announced that he planned on dumping them—actually planned—I startled both of us by ordering him to do no such thing.

You have to understand that, 1) I am almost pathologically agreeable and, 2) my father-in-law is a gentle and cheerful person whom no one has likely ordered to do anything since he left the Army 71 years ago.

But I did talk back to him. And I did save those books.

About half were religious in nature (my brother-in-law is a preacher), and most of those went to local churches and church members. The others were an eclectic mix dominated by history, Sherlock Holmes (mostly written by people other than Conan Doyal), and Star Trek. There were classic novels. There were cookbooks. There were guides to talking to women (written by men). There were Spanish textbooks. There were at least three copies of “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” And on and on.

My husband and I sorted through the collection together and boxed everything up. Each of us claimed a couple of boxes for ourselves. I made up boxes to order based on the interests of various friends, while he made multiple runs to area libraries for everything else Eventually, we even took the bookshelves—two of them look very nice in our room, the others we lugged up to the attic. We sold a few boxes but will not keep the money. My bother-in-law seems pleased to know that his collection is safe.

Why did I do this? Why did I insist on it being done? It’s not so much that I wanted to have them, or wanted my friends to have them, or wanted to make sure these books could be enjoyed by others—while I wanted some of those things for parts of the collection, there were others…let’s just say my brother-in-law and I do not have entirely convergent taste in books. Those guides to women, for example? I hope those were gag gifts. Really.

I guess I just consider books sacred.

As a writer, I don’t want to see anybody’s book treated like trash, even if the content is ridiculous. That’s somebody’s life work, there. Writers, editors, printers, sometimes illustrators, the labor of many people filled up those pages, and that effort deserves respect. But my respect for books goes beyond that.

Books carry culture, for better or worse. They carry history, learning, voices, ideas. Books have been copied over by monks, burned, saved from burning, smuggled into and out of oppressive regimes, prisons, and the bedrooms of adolescents. Books have both preserved and toppled empires. Books are the medium by which the dead can speak and the isolated can hear.

Books are also the medium of the free press, or part of it. What that means, at least to me, is that the act of investing pages with an item of culture has significance beyond that of the item of culture itself. I can think a book is stupid. I can think a book is insulting, hurtful, and just plain wrong, but that does not give me the right to destroy it or to allow it to be destroyed. I don’t want other people destroying books that bother them, therefore I don’t have the privilege, either. Free speech is free speech. The truth of our culture must be preserved.

Does that mean I think that literally all books, everywhere, must be preserved no matter what? No, probably not—and yet I cannot be the agent of their destruction. They’re books.

Which makes this thing we try to do, as writers, pretty awesome, if you think about it.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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