Guest Column: Spring cleaning the bookshelf

By John March


As I do every year, last week I cast a cold eye on my bookshelves, pulling the books whose claim on my reading life had lapsed. I do this pruning when newer books (or new old books) need to be accommodated and something has to yield on my crowded shelves. The discards go to the library for their next sale.

This year time was up for some Thurber; some old Perelman; an obscure Borges volume; a collection of Warren Buffett’s annual letters to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders; a paperback guide to emigrating to New Zealand (another dream unrealized); stories by Andre Dubus (not without remorse, as it was inscribed by my sister); a collection of letters exchanged by Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; a photographic tour of James Herriot’s Yorkshire; Lewis Thomas’s small book on etymology (nice enough in its way, but no “Lives of a Cell”); a duplicate copy of Stephen Potter’s “Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship;” the only unreadable book John McPhee ever wrote (“The Ransom of Russian Art”); two novels by William Maxwell (“The Chateau” and “They Came Like Swallows”), in part because the type was now too small for my aging eyes; Gerald Weissmann’s essay collection; Darwin’s “Audubon,” which I was unable to finish; and “John is Easy to Please,” a collection of reported pieces by New Yorker staff writer Ved Mehta.

It was a motley crew, as it usually is. Books that years ago found a home on my shelves were now dragged into the cold light of critical inspection and found wanting, usually through no fault of their own.

Time had dated some of them, inevitably, but others fell victim to my shrinking reading horizon. The sand that measures my remaining reading time is now racing through the hourglass. Books that, once upon a time, I was sure I would get around to now seemed intended for someone else, or a younger, more expansive version of me, now lost.

In any case, my reading life, always somewhat erratic, had simply moved on. Books I had wedged in horizontally on top of other books quickly claimed the newly liberated space and a new, slightly different order asserted itself.

Some old-timers did obtain a reprieve, but with each year their chances seem to dim. How likely is it, if I’m honest, that I will ever read that large compendium of Updike criticism? Those novels by Graham Greene? Boswell’s “Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson”? (And yet when I pull it off the shelf it opens to a page with this wonderful sentence: “I was agreeably disappointed in Sir Allan.” And so it survives another year.)

Others are being saved for my grandchildren, principally the old Scribners Illustrated Classics, including a well-worn copy of “Robin Hood” by Paul Creswick, with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. This had belonged to my father when he was a boy and it exerted a powerful pull on my young imagination. Also in this group and for slightly older adventurers are the Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester. A reader can certainly come directly to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels without first absorbing Hornblower — but why would you want to? My grandchildren will be trained in the proper course.

Other authors and other titles are sacrosanct, and will always be exempt from my pruning. Robertson Davies, John Fowles, Nadine Gordimer, Rex Stout, John Buchan, Mary Renault, the “Uncommon Law” reports of A.P. Herbert, Wendell Berry – you can all relax. I cometh not for you, now or ever. Hilary Mantel, your position in the pantheon is secure. But others will need to assert themselves or risk eviction. Edward Hoagland, I’m looking at you, and Wilkie Collins, it will not profit you to hide behind the table. I know you’re there, and if I have to choose between you and the new Barry Lopez, Lopez will win in a walk. Next year will be here before you know it. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

John March lives in Seal Harbor.

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