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The Books I Left Behind

ISSUE:  Spring 1981

Academics behave like hamsters. Instead, though, of stuffing their jowls with lettuce and raisins, and when the wind is in the east, their offspring, they lard houses with books—in the attic, in the basement, on top of the stereo in the living room, on a gold rack in the john. Occasionally, an academic will declare that he is going to stop cluttering his life with books. Don’t believe him. Academics are worse off than a woe-begone sinner I heard testify in a tent meeting in Arkansas. Before settling down to heal hopeless cripples, the preacher called upon the congregation to witness to the power of the Spirit. A sister who looked like Hard Rock Mountain had fallen on her stood up. “Before I knew the Spirit,” she said, “I used to get drunk every night and lie in the gutter with some strange man. Now,” she continued, “I’ve almost quit.”

Like the poor sister, the academic can almost quit books. For a while he might put bookstores behind him and testify that he is going to take a broom to his library. Not a volume, though, will ever appear in the garbage can. I am the only academic in the eastern United States to escape the bondage of books. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. That preacher in Arkansas would be proud of me.

Not so long ago I moved from Dartmouth College to the University of Connecticut. Before leaving New Hampshire I shed more than six hundred volumes. Like a fat man who has jogged himself into a thin man, I feel better. My house is not a firetrap; squirrels don’t build nests in the attic. Mice don’t multiply in mildewed volumes in the basement, and all a visitor can find in the cabinet in the john is tooth paste, shaving cream, a pile of rusty razor blades, a bar of Zest, and four cans of “Pinewoods” Renuzit.

Books of literary criticism formed the biggest pile in the garbage can. Unless poisoned by university life, one outgrows literary criticism after 35. Literary criticism is a matter of no importance. Wordsworth was right when he said that an impulse from a green wood could teach more about morality than all the sages. The person who reads books written by the Yale English department and is not made a fool by it is very lucky. Not even Billy Graham could save the Yale critics. In the future it will be easier for an elephant to crawl through a transom than it will for a book published by a university press to rest on my bookshelf. Innocents suckled on criticism in graduate school often lose all perspective. Like a tame barnyard cock, the young Ph. D. pecks about for years in the dirt until one day he publishes an article, flaps his wings, and makes a great hullabaloo. His colleagues cackle and cluck as if he had turned up a diamond instead of a pale dunghill worm. Unless a fox runs away with his wife while he is scrabbling about in the dirt, the young teacher will ignore the world beyond the barnyard. Finding a comfortable roost in the chicken house, he will grow gray and waste his energies in profound but useless thinking. Never again shall scholarly truths crawl across a page before my eyes. Not even those I turned up myself. I threw away my dissertation, extra copies of my book, and a trunk overflowing with reprints of my articles.

As I grow old in an old century, I want warm books snuggled about me like an eiderdown. I pitched crates of fiction. Never again will Moby Dick make me seasick or Billy Budd bring on a sore throat. Life is grim enough without The Scarlet Letter. Besides, gallantry of the sort which Hester Prynne enjoyed in her salad days is the favorite pastime of most people I know over 30. William Dean Howells was right: good novels focus on the smiling aspects of life. Like vanilla ice cream and horse manure, guilt and literature don’t mix. The combination doesn’t hurt the guilt, but it sure ruins the literature.

I also banished novelists whose first names are Thomas. Mann, Wolfe, and Hardy are all tainted by seriousness. So is Francis Bacon, and although I had misgivings I threw away The Advancement of Learning. A sensible man is dreadful company. He forever confines one to the harsh macadam of truth. Farrell, Dreiser, and Lewis are also fast fading from memory. Almost no contemporary fiction remains on my shelves. The small world of the neurotic is boring and self-indulgent. Meandering with Kim along the Grand Trunk Road from Benares to Lahore attracts me more than stumbling about through the back alleys of a broken psyche. The “far-off ranges of the green-leaved mind” in which Peacock’s Sir Oran Haut-ton rescues weeping damsels is healthier than the suburban outpatient clinic. I prefer the Drones Club to Cottage Club and Bertie Wooster to Jake Barnes. Who cares about the beast which slumbers within when the Empress of Blandings lumbers without?

I kept novels which slope into the night like moon-lit sails. Happy endings are imperative. I see enough bad endings in the daylight and don’t want to confront them in the evening over port. Marriage always completes the good novel. Charles Dickens and Jane Austen make the heart leap up and bring Christmas to the feelings. I have two editions of each. They glow in warm red leather where Russian novelists used to glower in yellow paper. Russian novelists, including Solzhenitsyn, have been exiled to a Siberia of the mind. Like all moralists Solzhenitsyn wants to save us from pleasure. The first volume of The Gulag Archipelago once ruined my vacation at Sea Island, Georgia.

I began The Gulag, lounging in a folding chair under an umbrella on the beach. While I read, the sun moved across the sky, and before I knew it my legs broiled. That night my calves were swollen and bristly, resembling the trunks of coconut palms. Not even a regimen of Planter’s Punch helped. My vacation was ruined. I could not go back on the beach. At night I had to wear Bermuda shorts; and no woman wants to dance with a man whose legs appear covered with prickly heat and who is wearing shorts, even if they are the sportiest Palm Beach shorts. If I had been reading Trollope, Fielding, Sterne, or Smollett, nights would have found me tripping the light fantastic toe. Throughout the reading delight would have seized me. I would have paused for smiles and laughter. Certain that God shined from his heaven, I would have looked up to drink in the beauty of the creation and would have noticed the sun on my legs.


Aside from Pnin and a maidenly Lolita, modern novels contain few characters I want to meet in the afterlife. My family is only second generation Episcopalian, and a lot of Christian still courses through my veins. Recently, I had a New England craftsman build me a pine coffin. Until I ripen for occupancy, however, I have had it fitted for book shelves. On them are those novels which contain characters I would like to meet when I walk along the golden streets. Sam Weller, Doctor Thorne, Toad of Toad Hall, Long John Silver, Parson Adams, Lady Wishfort, Uncle Toby, Captain Cuttle, Pecksniff, Sophia Western, Emma Woodhouse, Humphry Clinker, Mr. Venus and his shop, and a host of other evergreen characters. Instead of being accompanied by my wife in suttee fashion— indeed once I am promoted to glory I would like to try out my wings and have a bit of a fling before settling down again to comfortable connubiality—I have instructed my heirs to paper the inside of my coffin with the title pages of my favorite books. As being slightly with child often leads to rounded pregnancy, so I hope the title pages will be the seeds of full-blown dreams.

Before I left New Hampshire, I gave away my Faulkners, Flannery O’Connors, Eudora Weltys, and Katherine Anne Porters. I don’t disapprove of these writers. The grotesques which they describe are too familiar and resemble my high school friends. Just this past Christmas Robert Palmer’s story was concluded. Poor Robert was afflicted with more intelligence than most students in my high school. In despair he tried to drink himself into normality. Unfortunately, he passed through cirrhosis of the liver and into the everlasting beyond with great alacrity. A retiring inhabitant of our vale of tears, Robert was known only for a red madras sport coat and was never seen without it. Near the end of his decline Robert married. Although he was but 32, he embraced a mature spouse of 56. She was a widow. Her late husband had owned a rental clothing store, and she carried on the business, hiring out paraphernalia for masquerades or morning suits for garden weddings. Mrs. Palmer did not, alas, enjoy Robert’s company for very long. Four months after their blessed matrimonial day, Robert rose to glory. This winter I needed a white tie for a ball. Of course I patronized the store run by the wife of a departed friend. While waiting to be fitted, I glanced through the costumes for rent. Gorillas, clowns, vampires, Arabs, werewolves, and Geishas hung limp in long rows. One rack, however, contained everyday clothes: suits and assorted jackets. As I looked at them, I noticed a red madras coat hanging near the end of the row. “It couldn’t be,” I thought. It was, and one could wear it for three dollars and 25 cents a day. “Mrs. Palmer,” I said, when she came to fit me, “isn’t that Robert’s coat?” “Yes,” she answered, “and every time I see it walking out the door I think of him, poor soul. Would you like to try it on? For one of Robert’s friends I would lower the price. He would like it that way.”

I didn’t rent the jacket, but I got rid of novels containing Southern grotesques. Perhaps I revolted against my background; I didn’t stop with Southern writers. Southerners grow up convinced that England is truth and truth is England. Suddenly I am tired of people whose heart is in the Cotswolds and think of Church Row in Hampstead every time they sing “Nearer My God to Thee.” Southerners ought to come out of tour buses and declare themselves Americans. Leave England to Henry James and T.S. Eliot, whose books incidentally can no longer be found in my library.

From Eliot’s Collected Poems, I razored out “The Hippopotamus.” His description of the Hippopotamus slapping saints on the back and strumming a golden harp is worthy of Jerome K. Jerome. Religion has always interested me, and I kept the 1940 edition of the Episcopal hymnal. In one’s late thirties, one goes to bed with many strange women, and the hymnal makes good bedtime reading. There are always a few hymns which strangers can sing together. After 35, relationships with females change, so much so that the odd becomes mundane. Recently, as I started for the A & P to buy Diamond pecan halves and a jar of Hellmann’s real mayonnaise for Waldorf salad, my telephone rang. It was Claire, a girl whom I was going to marry. She informed me that she was cracking up and could never see me again. “What,” I said, thinking I had better hurry the conversation because the A & P would soon close. “Hmmm, very interesting,” I continued as she galloped through her symptoms like the hound of the Baskervilles. “I really must go,” I finally said, urging her to take the pills which her psychiatrist had prescribed and adding that I had an important appointment. I got to the A & P just before the doors were locked, bought the nuts and mayonnaise, and that evening whipped up a tasty salad.


Little poetry remains on my shelves. The truly civilized man carries himself with grace and dispenses wit with largesse at cocktail parties. All else, virtue, intelligence, is mere fume. I kept two anthologies of poetry so that I would be able to sparkle at the country club, greeting casual acquaintances with a negligent wave of the hand and an effervescent “Hail to thee blithe spirit” or responding to a hearty “Heard melodies are sweet” with a wink and a tripping “but those unheard are sweeter.” Despite the insensitivity of anyone who could use a word so harsh and graphic as palate, much less describe bursting grapes thereupon, I almost kept a volume of Keats. Like all good reasons, mine was sentimental rather than intellectual. In heartier days I attended St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and rowed five in assorted college boats. Francis Ratcliffe always rowed ahead of me at six. At boat club dinners, “Rat” and I invariably tumbled into the sherry and the port. Occasionally Rat almost drowned. When this occurred he would recite the entire “Ode to a Nightingale.” The poem was his life raft; by the time he finished he was ready for more beakers tasting of flora and the night rapidly became less tender. Once while I lay beached with sherry lapping around my lips, Rat tried to extinguish my right eye with a cigar. Only brushing my eyebrow conceals the scar. On another occasion he seized me, hung me around his shoulders, and we spun around like an airplane until we crashed over a television and through a window out into the clear night. Alas, youth does grow spectre-thin, and splendor melts from the grass. Rat is now a minister in the north of England, wrestling with the devil instead of me.

Although rational people outgrow sentimental, familial ties, I kept the third and fourth books of Childe Harold. When I was small, my father used to read me Byron’s description of the Colosseum and the dying gladiator. For a similar personal reason, though, I threw away the Horatio Hornblower novels which father gave me. They were an emblem of the discrepancy between life led and life dreamed. In 1929 when he was 20 years old, my father graduated from college. Immediately he went to work for the Travelers Insurance Company. After that, he never traveled. At night he read adventure novels and dreamed of faraway lands where flying fishes played. He never saw a faraway land or a flying fish. Instead he received two watches from the Travelers, one after he had worked for 25 years and another when he retired after 43 years. Engraved on the back of the last one was the Travelers Tower in Hartford, as if Hartford and that gray building, not sweeter, greener lands, were objects of all aspiration.

When I attended college, I was like most undergraduates, too young and too innocent to learn much. Characters rather than ideas impressed me. The man who taught Romantic poetry drove an old Ford; in its trunk he kept a spade and a complete Wordsworth. Whenever he saw a pretty wildflower, he would stop, dig it up, carry it home, and replant it in his garden. For him, the meanest flower that blew conveyed thoughts that lay beyond tears. In his classes the still, sad music of humanity rang out clearly, unencumbered by brittle intellectuality. On my desk now sits a complete Wordsworth. To it I have owed sensations sweet, felt in the blood and passing into the heart with tranquil restoration.

Compared to biography, poetry occupies a large part of my library. Human beings are too complex to be laid out on a page like a patient etherized upon a table. No biographer can finally know his subject, and no biography can be definitive. Only the ignorant, the naïve, and the young believe that another person is ultimately knowable. In graduate school I bought and read many biographies, including the first three volumes of Leon Edel’s Henry James. I never purchased Edel’s two other volumes. Before the Flood when man lived seven hundred years, he could spend a decade reading a book. The Flood contracted man’s life span to three score and ten years. Mr. Edel should have looked at the ark and been wise. In any case the three volumes of the James biography and all the other biographies which I owned have now been recycled.

Unfortunately, the sins of the first printing are probably visited upon the second and they have become dictionaries. Before I left New Hampshire I threw away my two volume Oxford English Dictionary when the magnifying glass broke. It was a fortunate break. I have put much thought and work into simplifying my life. Complexity results from a failure of will. With its interminablé lists of meanings, the OED confuses and imposes complexity upon definition. General use of the OED by all classes would lead to every species of enormity and folly. There would not be a madhouse in the country in which a considerable number of the inhabitants had not been driven there by the book’s extravagance. Government would be impossible and the nation would become a vast asylum for incurables. Along with the OED I also pitched my French, Latin, and German dictionaries. In academic circles foreign languages are useless, except for the occasional and well-enunciated “Je ne sais quoi.”

Age brings understanding of the useful and the useless. Teachers tell children that the study of particular subjects will enable them to live better lives as adults. The advice is always wrong. Unfortunately, one learns this only after spending long hours beneath the lamp. “A knowledge of history,” the child is informed, “enables the individual and indeed the state to learn from and thereby avoid the mistakes of the past.” No individual, much less nation, profits from the past. Thankfully, man is blessed to go on his way doing as he has always done. Moreover, it is almost impossible to determine just what man has done in the past. Not even literary criticism is more subjective than history. The father of lies was the first historian, and through apostolic succession his mantle has passed into the present. Still history has an anecdotal value. Although I threw away Thucydides, Gibbon, Macaulay, Namier, and a complete set of the Oxford History of England, I kept Herodotus, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Carlyle. Carlyle’s is the only account of the French Revolution not marred by pretension to truth.

If what the world calls useful is not useless, it is vulgar. I threw away all the “how to” books and etiquette manuals which presumptuous friends and a solicitous family had given me. My collars are white or pin-striped and I will never be my own repair man. The inner gurglings of televisions, refrigerators, and septic tanks do not enthrall me. Insofar as I know an angel lurks under the hood of my car, not what the cognoscenti call an internal combustion engine. Furthermore, I have no desire to study body mechanics. On an informal night school basis I have learned enough about such matters to last several lifetimes. With relief, I threw away those books which clinically describe the extraordinary activities of Himalayan tribesmen. After 35, unless one enjoys visiting the chiropractor, one should concentrate on detumescent prose. Aside from a few rules to hold barbarity at a distance, the matter in etiquette manuals is unimportant. Yeats was wrong. More often than not custom and ceremony destroy rather than nurture innocence and beauty. Etiquette books do not teach people to become insiders; they teach how to make others outsiders. They exclude rather than include and destroy spontaneity and creativity. When whiskey is not going to be served at a wedding reception, I avoid the wedding. Never, however, do I write, “Samuel Pickering, Jr. regrets that he will be unable to attend the marriage of. . . .” Instead I use the occasion to write a personal letter rich with embellishments. Recently I was unable to attend a ceremony in Atlanta because a friend who had just escaped from rebels in Chad was visiting me. He was now in the process, I informed the hostess, who happened to have been recently reborn, of trying to extricate the 17 swarthy children he had been forced to sire while a prisoner.


Books, if they are inscribed presents, are particularly difficult to get rid of. But I did—some 30 volumes across the title pages of which ran inscriptions whose style ranged from circular female intimacy to crabbed academic jealousy. Jettisoning gift books is quite satisfying. For a moment one believes he is escaping the hackneyed commonplace of personal identity. I took great pleasure in dropping into the garbage can Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, the first gift book I received in high school. When I was 16, a brunette cheerleader with whom I was on hand-holding terms presented it to me during the football season and lovingly inscribed it, “To my dearest Cuddles.” That girl will never know the agony she caused. One of my team mates saw the inscription. For the entire fall, my classmates, the members of the team, even the coach called me Cuddles. When The Prophet fell into the can, I felt like Christian at the Cross, free from a lifetime of burdens.

Akin to gift books were those books which I autographed myself. In the past I never bought a book without inscribing it. I delighted in stunning undergraduates with the wide range of my acquaintances and in bringing out my books at dinner parties when all the guests had reached rosy befuddlement. Hemingway and I watched baseball together, and “Big Ernie” wrote in my copy of In Our Time, “Always throw hardballs Sam.” Bill Faulkner wrote, “Laddiebuck, if only Caddy had met you when she was fifteen.” Wallace Stevens wrote graciously, “My everlasting thanks to the man who corrected so many of my poems in manuscript.” Poignantly, Percy Shelley wrote, “To Sam who has spent many hours trying to teach me to swim.” When I showed this last inscription to the brightest graduate student I knew at Princeton, she exclaimed, “My God, Sam, you knew Shelley! Why haven’t you said anything before now?” “Modesty,” I answered and beat a hasty retreat. Nowadays such incidents don’t rise to the funny bone so quickly as they used to. I’ve known Shelley, Big Ernie, Bill F., Wallace, and a hundred more all too well. With relief, almost as if I were escaping family, I stacked the autographed books outside for the trash man.

I cleared my bookshelves with the passion of a sand-hill parson fondling a copperhead. Gone are all my college textbooks and their embarrassing marginalia. So are the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Shakespeare. Blackguards of the first water, worse than the Kymer Rouge, inhabit the first two books. As for Shakespeare, his plays must be seen to be understood. Besides, no academic reads Shakespeare regularly; it just isn’t done. Even those who teach him rarely read the plays, preferring instead to graze across criticism. While raging through my library like Attila in Central Asia, I did spare some volumes. Although places and occasionally people matter to me, I have never taken a photograph in my life. Instead I buy coffee table books containing pictures of my favorite places: Prague, Leningrad, Petra, Jerusalem, Rhodes, Florence, Budapest. Leningrad with its bone-white columns yellowing in the pale sun streams into countless associations: 18 days in a row at the Kirov and then Dzerzhinsky’s Fate of a Man. Performed for a Sunday matinee, the only time in the week Russians were not pushed aside for tourists and Western currency, Fate of a Man is a Soviet opera, describing the life of a common soldier during the Second World War. By the end of the opera, the man had lost home and family. While flames flickered in the background, he stood distraught among the ruins, not only of his life but of Russia herself. Then among the rubble he found a starving child. Reaching down he picked up the boy. Cradling him in his arms and singing all the while, the soldier crossed a bridge which had been suspended above the orchestra pit. Down the aisle of the Kirov he strode singing. When he went out the back and the opera ended, no one applauded. At first I believed the audience disapproved of the opera. But then I looked around. This was Leningrad. The house was full of old men and women who could not and would not forget. Tears ran in torrents. Even I almost wept—not for the Russians, they mattered little to me—but for myself. I knew that nothing: no work of art, no love, no horror could ever make me weep in public.

I also kept the memoirs of and books by several posturers and liars like Trelawny and Richard Halliburton. Academics feel close to such people. To be a successful teacher, preacher, or country music singer, one has to have a bit of Trelawny in him. I kept several essayists: Lamb, Hazlitt, and Sydney Smith, with his sound advice to take short views of life and hope for the best. I even have Cobbett’s Rural Rides although I know I’ll never read it again. I also have The Anatomy of Melancholy; I have never read it, but it is a wonderful commonplace book. I kept Gilbert and Sullivan, although other humorists like Freud, Marx, and the Lawrences, D.H. and T.E., made the little list of writers whom I’ll never miss. With regret, I banished Twain. His cynicism has a dangerous way of burrowing through the skin, dropping into the bloodstream, and becoming incurable. Still, whenever I read the newspaper I think of Pudd’nhead Wilson when he said he wished he owned half of an objectionable dog. When asked what he would do with his half, he said he would kill it. Today most of the dogs are gathered in Washington. You’d have to go some, though, to buy even a smidgen of one. The AMA, NRA, AFL-CIO, Boeing, Lockheed, General Motors, Mobil, Exxon, etc. have cornered the canine market.

I also have a family Bible. It is difficult to throw away a Bible. Although I did get rid of nine others, I kept the oldest and biggest. It was filled with locks of hair, wedding and funeral invitations, Confederate money, and forget-me-nots of people long forgot. Early this fall I put in two black-eyed Susans which Claire gave me. In ten years, will I remember that I put them in there and why? I’m not sure how much of the Bible I’ll read in the future. The heroes of the Old Testament seem to be the first cousins of the scoundrels who besieged Troy. Sometimes I have nightmares about climbing Jacob’s ladder and being met at the top by David, eager for me to collaborate with him on the definitive, annotated edition of the Psalms.

The only part of my library that remained relatively undisturbed was that devoted to children’s books or books which appealed to the child in the adult. Like Wordsworth’s poetry, fairy tales seem forever fresh. I did not keep Bettelheim, reckoning his book too much a reductio ad genitalia. Bettelheim was right, however, in believing that fairy tales are dragon slayers. Not simply for children, but also for adults. By describing the world of the always possible, fairy tales beguile away the long night and charm the shadows that darken the day. I kept many children’s books: The Wind in the Willows for Ratty’s “messing about in boats”; Horton Hatches the Egg for its wonderful depiction of all men’s dreams—day after day through the seasons man sits on eggs dreaming, invariably what he hatches turns out a surprise; Ferdinand the Bull for the cork tree and flowers far from the fret of life; Uncle Remus for Brer Rabbit, the downtrodden everyman who triumphs over the foxes of the world. With regret, I threw away The Little Engine that Could. For a child sure of immortality and whose heart leaps up when he beholds a rainbow in the sky, it is a joyful book. For a man beyond 35, a marriage or two, and an eternity of hopes, the Little Engine steams along on heartache.

Well, that’s the story of the books I left behind. I know I will regret leaving some. Tonight, though, I’m stretching out with Uncle Fred in the Springtime. It’s hot stuff, just the sort of thing to make one forget winter and a cold, lonely house. Mustard Pott, Pongo Twistleton, Horace Davenport, and Sir Roderick Glossopp are down at Blandings Castle livening up the old rock pile. Later I’ll read Charles Lamb, not “Dream Children,” however. The last time I read it, I called Claire. The line was busy. Upon the telephone company’s dark poles our fate often hangs. After the call, I threw away the address book with her phone number in it. I am sure I can forget the number if I give up eating Waldorf salad.


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