Dead men's books
When my mother was dying, she made it very clear that she didn’t want anyone wearing her clothes after she was dead. I didn’t quite understand this at the time. After all, she would have happily have given away her internal organs if they hadn’t been past their sell by date. And she happily distributed her used clothes during her lifetime. So why not after her death?
I vaguely supposed that it was something to do with the final annihilation that people going through, choosing or rejecting your clothes would seem to entail. And didn’t give it much more thought.
But last week, I came face to face with that sense of annihilation when the vultures(self included) descended to take the pickings of my old, recently dead supervisor’s books.
For many academics, books have much the same significance as clothes. They are what you use every day and you have your favourites as well as your expensive mistakes. Not to mention the carefully mended, the carelessly torn, the messily annotated.
The trouble is what happens to them when you’ve gone to the great library in the sky.
In Cambridge, the labour of disposal often falls to your college – which normally take its pick for the college library, then lets the local second hand bookseller take his pick and make a tidy profit.
John Crook’s college had made a different decision. They announced an afternoon when college and faculty, students and staff, would be let into his old rooms to buy any book they wanted for a pound, though larger donations were welcome. All profits were to go to a fund for the college staff. It was a nice idea – designed, I guess, to ensure that the old man’s books went to those who would use and value them.
In fact it turned into a truly ghastly occasion.
The omens were bad when I walked into the college and met one of my graduate students who said that he’s just bought a copy of my PhD thesis. Now, it couldn’t have gone to a better home, and I'm truly glad he got it. But I still felt that somehow it was a personal thing between me and Crook – not something to be flogged for a quid.
It was altogether worse when I got in his rooms. They were emptier than he had left them, but his cap was still there, the desk in the same place and all the books still on the shelves – or some of them were. For the vultures were already at work, rifling through them section by section, picking out some, casually rejecting others. A few people had piles numbering what looked like hundreds of volumes.
Couldn't they have put the books on tables? Or just somewhere else? It seemed like theft taking them from the shelves where some of them have spent the last 50 years.
The worst moment was when I heard one student bibliophile loudly bark: “Is it a presentation copy?” I could have thumped the boy. I wanted to say, “That book was given to him by a friend, who wrote in it for him …and he then used it. It isn’t a commodity which will enhance your collection because its got an author’s signature in it.” But what was the point? We were all there sniffing out the bargains, a bit like the first day of the sales.
Mum was right about her clothes, I thought.