A few nights ago, I spent a pleasant half-hour browsing Richard Skorman's downtown bookstore, looking for titles to take on vacation. Eight books, including five hardbacks in fine shape, cost less than $20.
I was pleased by my haul, and surprised by how little I paid. One hardcover, a pristine copy of Carl Hiaasen's 2004 Skinny Dip, cost all of two dollars. Downloading it from Amazon costs $6.99, but I suspect that for many of us convenience outweighs (or underweighs!) cost.
Books are nothing more than antiquated information storage systems, bulky, inconvenient, difficult to transport. Who needs 'em? That would be me.
Toward the end of the 19th century, one of my ancestors wrote a family history. "While (our family) includes no one of particular wealth or fame," she wrote, "it may be said that no Farnsworth was ever less than respectable."
My mother, who for 40 years owned Edith Farnsworth's Bookstore at 9 N. Cascade Ave., used that prissy little boast whenever I misbehaved. She did so with a smile, because she thought respectable people shared a single characteristic: They owned, read and cherished books.
Thanks to the values I learned as a child doing small chores in that bookstore, I've accumulated thousands of books — some that have descended in my family for generations, books that I had as a child, books that I picked up yesterday.
I've got more than enough content, and no more shelf space — so why keep on buying?
A book is a noumenon, a thing that exists outside its physical reality, thought as well as object. My copy of Little Women, inscribed by my great-grandfather to his daughter Alice in 1873, is a treasured heirloom. To hold it is to sense the past, to share the lives of men and women long dead. It's also a wonderful read, a door that Louisa May Alcott opens into the 19th century, a world that lives in your hand. It's a delight and a privilege to care for such a treasure, which is why I gave it to my daughter, Alice's great-great niece.
She's a "respectable" woman, an attorney whose accomplishments would have pleased her great-great-great grandfather. The book is safe with her.
But not every volume has such a pedigree. Most are ordinary, the unsorted, un-catalogued record of a life. There's a 1955 edition of the Omnibus of Science Fiction, which I loaned to my friend Billy Stone in 1956. He returned it at our 45th high school reunion. (Bill, you're the best!) Next to it is another sci-fi tome, Hidden Empire, cryptically inscribed by prolific Monument author Kevin Anderson. Then there's a dog-eared copy of Marshall Sprague's Newport in the Rockies, half a dozen books on dog training, and a 1962 edition of Sight Reduction Tables for Air Navigation.
Sprague inspired me to become a writer. "There's only one difference between writers and everyone else," he told me. "Writers write."
Dog training? Didn't take. Sight reduction tables? Used them sailing around the world in the 1960s.
Among my new acquisitions was a pristine copy of John LeCarre's The Honourable Schoolboy, the 1977 sequel to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Looking more carefully, I realized that it was a first edition, far too precious for an upcoming trip to a Mexican beach. What a find!
Ten years ago, I got a call from a Colorado College student. "Did you have a relative named Samuel Hazlehurst?" she asked. He was my grandfather's cousin.
"I've got some books that belonged to him that I got at the library sale," she said. "Would you like them?"
Would I? Oh yeah — Dr. Sam was something of a family mystery. He had died without issue; his papers and possessions scattered to the wind.
She dropped a four-volume set of Half-Hours With the Best Authors, inscribed "Samuel F. Hazlehurst, Colorado Springs, 1890" at the Indy office, refusing payment.
"They didn't really cost me anything," she said, "and I'm happy that they're where they should be."
After I'm gone, much of my library will scatter to the wind as well, and that's OK. I like to think of a future bargain-hunter poring over the remnants, and finding treasure.
"I think this is a first edition of Hidden Empire," she'll say. "Only two bucks, what a find! How did it get here, with all these junky old paperbacks?"