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“Like the Fingernail from the Flesh”

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

In the Spanish medieval epic, The Poem of the Cid, the hero fights to help his king regain territory lost to the Moors.  Like all such epics, the story is mostly battles and bloodshed, except for the moment when, preparing to leave on a raid, the Cid says good-bye to his wife, and the two part \”like the fingernail from the flesh.\”

That was me last night, sorting books to give away in preparation for our downsizing.  I was working on the French bookcase, boxing up my high school French books, my college anthologies of French lit., the fusty Old French lays and epics and romances from grad school, and finally the texts I\’d used to stuff all that knowledge back into the heads of my own recalcitrant undergraduates.

With a few exceptions, the books were dusty, since I hadn\’t touched them since our move to Vermont nine years ago.  For that matter, I hadn\’t touched many of them since grad school, except to take them down and box them up and then shelve them again at each of our many moves. 

But this time is different, because Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes won\’t be coming with me.  They\’ll be going to new homes or, more likely, to recycling plants, because who wants a bunch of old French books these days?  I\’ll be keeping the leather-bound Prousts and Colettes and a few others.  But the rest–the yellowed and brittle copies of long-ago works of genius with  my maiden name written inside the cover in green ink and the bizarre upright handwriting that I thought distinctive in my youth–I\’ll never see again.

As I forced myself to place each book in the box, it did feel a bit like the  fingernail being parted from the flesh, over and over. 

Today I\’ll tackle the Spanish and Catalan bookcase.  Next will come the art books, and then the dog books, and the country-living books.  I must be ruthless and not keep too many of them, because there\’s still three floors of material possessions to sort through, and I don\’t want my independent-living cottage to become a shrine to my past.  I must remember that the key to successful aging is flexibility, non-attachment, and a sense of adventure.

I know I\’ll get through it somehow, but by the time this move is over, my fingers will be a bloody mess.

15 Responses

  1. It has to be really difficult going through your books — especially beloved ones. I rarely part with books, unless I disliked them. Then I leave them places for others to find or give them to friends with a warning — \”I didn't really like this.\”

  2. I can relate to this so well. I'm just starting, and so far it's mostly at the contemplating phase. All of these different categories of books represents a different period in my life. I have to remind myself that in giving away the books that I will never re-read, I am not actually giving away my past; it will still be with me. Memories don't take up shelf space and need to be dusted. Besides, I will at least give the books a chance to be read again. Sitting on a shelf, they are not fulfilling their destiny. I've been a book miser, holding onto them and not using them. Can you tell I'm giving myself a pep talk? That I have to overcome an irrational fear of some bookless future? But there's also the saying goodbye. These books have been companions; we've journeyed together, the books and I. We have made a connection of the mind. But now it's time to free them to make that connection with someone else.Sigh.

  3. I need to downsize and since I had/have stacks of books that won't fit in my bookshelves, I thought culling books would be a good place to start. I've made some progress, but other books have taken their places. I found it easiest to give away books when I knew they had a good home (my collection of chapter books for middle readers went to a new teacher). I wonder if your French and Catalan books would be welcomed at a university or high school? (As for the art books, these are a problem/treasure in my family too! My mother's bookshelves are home for a large collection now, but we will have to find homes for them when she moves.) Wishing you many happy memories as you tackle this project!

  4. I give old books to the Public Library, and take a tax deduction. But yesterday I received a new old book, from a friend, who said anytime a new book comes into the house an old book must leave.

  5. I agree with John about donating books to the public library. Around here, at least, any the library doesn't want they give to the Friends of the Library. Friends of the Library sells them, with the proceeds going to support the library. So the books have a chance of finding a new home and the library benefits, a win all the way around.

  6. Ah, you've touched a cord. I clearly remember my own culling of books when we moved from the \”big house\” with a room I had designated a library because of the walls of books, and, of course, books in every room – because what's a room without books. How hard it was to decide on only a handful I would take with us. I did donate many to the local library and some to college libraries.But I also remember the lovely trip back that each book brought as I boxed it – to student days, teaching days, travel days, and especially days around the fire or in bed. I still have those books in my head, but I still miss them.When I visit a favorite old friend who has never moved from her house of forty plus years, I see her collection and it comforts me. But I don't look back; of course, I've started collecting again – how can I not? This time, the books don't stay very long; the shelf can only carry so many. When one comes, one goes. But books are always around. This may be the hardest past of your move – was for me…

  7. My 82 year old mother, who has always been an awful cook, began clearing out her bookshelves a while back. She started on the cook books and THREW AWAY into the TRASH CAN most of the tattered books that taught me to be a great cook, including her mother's old cook book that was a wedding gift in the 1920's. It had little notes in my grandmother's handwriting that said, \”not this one, bad bad bad\” or \”I prefer mine with a bit more pepper…\” and now that wonderful tidbits of my ancestry is gone forever. It was my fault. I told momma that nobody looks at encyclopedias anymore and to free herself. There is now an empty spot next to the ugly green and beige encyclopedias of my youth with a potted plant instead of cookbooks taking up that empty gap on the shelf. I didn't fuss at mother, who hates to cook and surely never cracked that book open, but inside I died a little.

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