On Books, Respect, And Time

A simple word a librarian suggested that I keep in mind when dealing with books was a calm, stern reminder--"respect."

Respect that you may hold in your hands the dried-up remains of the sweat of a man 400 years dead. Don't drop them, the librarian said. Respect that you hold wrought leaves of paper that were molded and dried long seasons ago into these pages, and that they have drunk up the learning of generations. Don't pull it from the top or the binding will break, the librarian said. Ultimately, respect that what you hold is a treasure brought out of the fog of time, out of the mind of a master, whose message to the world is that which has shaped it. Don't misshelve them or no one will find them, the librarian said.

People build lives out of this respect. Forty-year-old Helen Kelly opened a used-book store in 1977 on Beacon Street and soon began selling rare books and manuscripts. Seven weeks ago, she opened a second, two-room store above a floral shop on Center Street in Jamaica Plain to house the more valuable items. She celebrated the opening of the Boston Book Annex branch with the birth of her first child, a boy, three weeks ago.

"I think you really have to be passionate about it, you have to love it," Kelly says about her book business. "I love to read, I love books. When our TV broke in 1956, my father didn't have it repaired for three years. He worked in a paper recycling mill so he brought old books home. That was one way we kept a lot of them around."

Kelly keeps a lot of them around now, too. About 57,000 in her two stores. Among the most valuable are a copy of Margaret Fuller's essays on American literature owned and annotated by Walt Whitman, a signed first edition book by Jack Kerouac, and a catalog of Henry Miller's works written in his own hand.

Kelly's store is no cemetery for books long out of print. It's more like a resting place for a few specially chosen friends. Kelly says that out of every new lot of books, she throws out the majority and saves only a handful of pieces that are worth more than $50. Those that made the shelves include an illustrated children's book called Old MacDonald Had an Apartment Building and an 1828 cabinet-making guide.

The result is walls lined with rectangular bindings, multi-colored, multi-shaped, leaving the impression of geometrical shapes--blocks really--sitting on rows of sagging shelves that shrink into the distance down the wall. Kelly recalls instances when books lose their magic amid this anonymity, when their pages and ink disappear into solid volumes of useless weight.

Once Kelly went on a buying trip to an obscure Massachusetts book shop, owned by an old lady who operated out of her garage. The woman's books were piled there in a heap, like they had been dumped from a truck, Kelly says. When a specimen was needed from the top, its owner would gather her skirts in one hand and scale up the sliding slope with the other to collect it. Coming down, the practical woman simply slid. "I was so stunned," Kelly says. "No matter where you go in the English-speaking world, you can find books," Kelly says.

But what about these "piles of books" in garages, homes, stores, libraries? What prevents all of us from turning them into glowing pyres that would light the nights for miles? Many of them have no value. Most will be forgotten. They will be destroyed--by men like Kelly's father at his pulp plant.

SOME will be destroyed for other reasons. A friend from Laos tells me how they burn the English books there. They burn it all, books, papers, maps of America; they burn the evidence of a nation, culture, civilization.

In the name of preserving their culture, people sanction the impressment of numberless leaves with their own language, their thinkers' thoughts, their most subtle, most powerful dreams as nations. But these dreams turn upon themselves.

Remember the image of the book as an object, as a welding of board, paper, string, glue and ink; remember the pyramids of the Egyptians, built from sand, stone and mortar: They were built to ward off time. Each individual block, though carved to protect a pharoah, was a move by man to withstand wind, water, night and other men. Each book we print adds to the monolith of similar blocks we preserve, that we stack in piles, climb on top of, burn out of fear.

When you read a book, what matters in the largest sense is not what you read. The information becomes outdated, the writer converted, the reader cold and dead. What matters is holding a book, seeing them line up one against the other, realizing that they are heavy, like concrete, like stone. What matters is realizing that books are not only the monuments of the past, but that they are monuments of us, that they will take our living, breathing place, and that they will assume our space when we have gone.

Helen Kelly understands this. She says she can tell the best booksellers and buyers when they walk into her store. "The really good ones don't look you in the eye. They look at the shelves and at the books," Kelly says.