Harvey H. Jackson: The books on my shelf
Feb 13, 2013 | 2878 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I once collected books.

Accumulated is a better word.

When I first started teaching, I felt a college professor was expected to have a large “library.” So I began filling my shelves with the free books that publishers pushed on faculty in hopes that we would adopt them for our classes. (This was back in the days when bunches of Baby Boomers were hitting campuses, so a major textbook adoption could make a book salesman’s career. I also noticed then that the stogy old men with battered briefcases who had been publishers’ representatives were replaced with cute young women just out of college who brought us doughnuts and took us to lunch. That’s marketing for you.)

The books began to pile up.

I even read some of them.

Which should come as no surprise, for I have always been a reader. Without video games or smartphones or even television, my generation was stuck with books, magazines and newspapers. I blame the decline of print media today as much on the passing of the torch from my generation of print readers to a generation that reads electronically — if they read at all.

But I digress.

My reading was helped by the fact that there were always books in my home when I was growing up. My father had a small library and I had the run of it. It was there that I discovered books that were not in the local public library, like God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road — books deemed “dirty” by our guardians of community morality. Daddy had those two in paperback (a relatively new innovation back then) and they had pictures of busty white-trash girls on the cover. So, naturally, I wanted to see what was inside.

Marketing again.

Daddy didn’t mind. He believed no one was ever corrupted by a book unless they were corruptible — and if that was the case, then, at least with a book, corruption had a literary component. As I have so often in my life, I came down on Daddy’s side.

So it follows that over the years I have sought out books to add to my accumulation. I enjoy spy novels, like those of John LeCarre, whose spies are not James Bond flashy but are seedy little men doing dirty jobs that require a lot of deceit and deception. The joy of these books is that with my memory being what it is, I can read one, put it back on the shelf, and a year later I have forgotten the plot and can re-read them as if they were new. Naturally, I never give them away.

My tendency to accumulate books grows whenever a library sells off its surplus. Had it not been for one of those book sales, I likely would never have been introduced to the works of Graham Greene. Where Greene had once been popular with patrons of the library holding the sale, he had apparently fallen out of favor for a bunch of his books were on the table. Since a couple of the titles were familiar to me, I bought what they had. At 50 cents each, how could I go wrong?

I have been a Graham Greene fan ever since.

And then there are yard sales.

Though I have never found a first-edition treasure among the piles of old National Geographics and hardly-used textbooks, I have picked up books I meant to read and never did.

Once I found a book that I had given a relative, even had my inscription in it. How it got into someone else’s yard sale I can’t say. I started to buy it and then give it to the person I gave it to originally, with a note saying “apparently you lost this,” but on second thought I decided not to stir that one up.

I am waiting for the day that I find a book I wrote in the pile at one of these sales. The last stage of an author’s slide into anonymity and oblivion.

A lot of folks buy books just to fill the bookcase — decoration. The custom is an old one. It is told that in pre-revolution Russia, aristocrats would buy French books with leather bindings by the yard (things French were vogue). Folks still do that. I have been in many a house where attractively bound books were displayed as part of the décor — fashionably unread.

Still, there is something to be said for owning books to make a statement. Even if you don’t read them, somebody might.

But now, with the new electronic age upon us, status-seeking book accumulators could become a thing of the past. As e-books replace print books, there will be fewer of the latter to display. It is going to be hard to impress anyone with a Kindle on the shelf.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: hjackson@jsu.edu.
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