Monday, February 7, 2011
Letting go of a personal library: no regrets
Several weeks ago, my English Department chair sent an email to my department colleagues with an offer that intrigued me: Free books!
A colleague who retired several years ago was making his collection available to any one who might be interested. First come, first served. Dr. Robert Weiss said he and his wife, Jane, were planning on moving into an apartment in Philadelphia before too long. He wanted to unload his collection.
I have enough unread books in my house to last a lifetime. Like many academics, I've been collecting them since my days as an undergraduate. I don't really need more. But the pull of perusing an entire collection was impossible to resist. I called him and said I might have some interest. What did he have?
"A little bit of everything" was his answer. But that remark didn't really do justice to his collection.
I knew Professor Weiss had founded the Pennsylvania Writing Project and run it for 18 years at West Chester University. Before that, he had been hired to teach literature at the university. I figured his personal library would have a lot of composition books (that I had little interest in) and some classic novels in time periods I had not read since I was an undergraduate (those I wanted to see for myself). My expectations for bringing home more than a box of books were pretty slight.
What I found was mind boggling, in the sense of having a mind set loose from its moorings. I discovered a treasure trove of books on ancient history and art, anthropology, philosophy, politics both old and modern, mythology, religious studies, feminist studies, economics, critical theory and literature that spanned five or six centuries.
It was plain and simple evidence that Professor Weiss was the best kind of seeker: he was curious about many aspects of the world of thought and human development. He had not confined his inquiry to one small parcel of academic expertise. He was an old-school Renaissance scholar. He wanted to know as much as he could about anything that struck his fancy.
Weiss, a friendly, avuncular man, explained he used to house his collection in a spare bedroom on shelves he had constructed himself not long after moving into his home on S. Matlack Street in 1970. Later, when the spare room was turned into the master bedroom, most of the shelving had to go to make room for a new bathroom. Leisure reading stayed in the bedroom (see picture below) but the rest of his collection was stored in his basement.
That's where I started my mission. After about 75 minutes, I had hauled five boxes of books out to my car and had barely made a dent in helping Weiss unload the detritus of a lifetime of pondering. The books were housed in a dusty, poorly lit corner of his basement on shelves that, though constructed years ago, were still sturdy. For the most part, the books were in very good shape because the basement was dry.
Yes, there were notable works of literature, old and new. Many of them were small, hardback Modern Library editions and some of them still had $1.98 price tags on them from their initial purchased 40 years ago: Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds, Blaise Pascal's Pensees and the Provincial Letters; Marcel Proust's Swann's Way; Honore Balzac's Pere Goriot; The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci; Augustine's The City of God; The Apocrypha; Beowolf and a nice version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by that Medieval scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien.
But what really got my intellectual pulse elevated were books on the history of religion and mythology. I took dozens of books off those dusty shelves about the ancient church and the roots of Judiasm and Christianity: Joseph Campbell's three-book series, The Masks of God; Charles Leland's Etruscan Magic & Occult Remedies; W.B. Stanford's The Ulysses Theme; Ernest Crawley's The Mystic Rose: A study of Primitive Marriage; Adolphe Didron's Christian Iconography: the history of Christian Art in the Middle Ages; H. Mellersh's From Apeman to Homer: Max Rudwin's The Devil in Legend and Literature; Ernest Becker's The Structure of Evil; and Philip Hughes' The Church in Crisis: the Twelve Councils. I brought home dozens more.
Weiss's interest in mythology, anthropology and folklore was inspired by a professor during his days as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, MacEdward Leach. He started out studying pre-med and zoology, but switched majors halfway through his college career and ended up with a creative writing degree.
"I couldn't write very good short stories and didn't think I had a novel in me," he said. "I found myself more interested in mythology and folklore, taking that one course" from Professor Leach. That fed his curiosity, spurred his imagination and eventually lead him to seek out classics in literature.
In his free time he would head to the Penn library, look at syllabi for professors teaching Russian and French literature, and start reading those books on his own. Eventually the National Defense Education Act provided him money for an assistanceship at Temple University and he pursued and eventually received his Ph.D. from Temple in Literature in 1968.
He was hired to teach at West Chester in 1967, while he was finishing his dissertation. He retired from the university after 30 years of teaching and running the Pennsylvania Writing Project.
Giving up the books in his basement isn't so very hard, he said. "I'm glad to have someone interested in them. It's time to let them go."