In a snit, I have decided to get rid of most of my books, which sit untouched year after year until I pick one up and am appalled at the amalgam of skin flakes, dog dander, cat hair, pollen, bits of long-deceased mites, clothing fibers, and microplastics familiarly known as dust.
This, I reflect as I blow the stuff off my fingertips (which then settles on the nearest surface, probably another book) is an outrage to the most elementary housekeeping, not to mention the written word. My books—the majority of them old friends who have seen me through many a dark hour, week, and month—deserve better than this. Left to languish undusted, books will deteriorate, largely due to the acidic nature of skin flakes, dog dander, etc. which interacts with paper and slowly but surely destroys it. Sites frequented by bibliophiles recommend dusting books (with a paintbrush or soft cloth) every week. For once, Martha Stewart is less exacting. She advises us to take down and dust all our books every three to six months.
The initial purge of 48 boxes of books during the downsizing from house to cottage still left me with about 14 linear feet of bookshelves to look after. Working at a sprightly pace of one shelf every ten minutes, it should only take me a little over two hours to take care of the entire collection, something I can surely manage to do a couple or four times a year. But I don’t want to.
Sido, the mother of the great Colette, used to say that when she spent time carefully wiping her collection of porcelain cups she could feel herself growing old. For me, even thinking about dusting my books every three months, let alone every week, conjures up the unrelenting approach of decrepitude. Plus, dusting the books would only be the beginning. I would have to dust the shelves in addition to the books, and after those, the tops of the picture frames, followed by the lampshades, the stretchers under the dining chairs, the staples inside the pantry, the mouldings of the doors, the baseboards, the baseboard heaters, the refrigerator vents, and the inside of the cups that hold my pens. (If you think that this sounds extreme, take a look inside the cup that holds your pens and you’ll know what I’m talking about.) With dusting, one thing leads to another, and before you know it you are really old.
Vacuuming and mopping pale in comparison to the complexity and intricacy of dusting, which is the fundamental key to real cleanliness. But the thing about dusting is, it never ends. I could spend my days dusting our little cottage, and as soon as I dealt with the last dust mote in the living room, a new drift of the floury stuff would already be settling softly on the bedroom, which had been pristine just an hour ago.
So, hoping to delay decrepitude, I’m getting rid of most of my books. I will keep only those that would give me an actual physical pain to part with, and comfort myself with the thought that if I ever feel an urgent need to revisit, say, Death in Venice, I can get it on Kindle, one of whose many attractions is that it never needs dusting.
Is it silly to be so tormented by dust? I have brought up the dust issue with lots of people and they don’t seem to share my angst. Me, I despise the dry, powdery feel of dust on my skin, the very thought of which makes my palms sweat. But I think that the real problem has to do with the hopeless nature of dusting, the fact that I can never truly be finished with it. Subconsciously, as I wipe and brush and flick, I know that my frantic striving to keep entropy at bay is doomed—dust will eventually claim victory not only over my books and tchotchkes, but over me.
Ash Wednesday is two weeks away, with its yearly reminder of what we are and to what we shall return. Perhaps it is high time I made friends with the stuff.