Library book sales always leave me with an almost physical sense of sadness, a kind of psychic fatigue that settles over me as as soon as I glimpse those tables with discarded books from unknown homes all lined up like judgmental ex-lovers.
Many book people love these events, savoring the chance to spelunk in the vast piles of other people’s castoffs. When I was younger, I used to feel the same way. I looked at the library book sale as a challenge, knowing that there was gold amongst all those Dean Koontz novels and inspirational Christian weight loss books.
Today, I am a man of reduced patience who cherishes organization, and so the library book sale is a kind of mild ordeal. At the county library book sale happening this weekend, this was heightened by the sheer scale of everything: half a million books, organized by only the most notional categories (“General Fiction,” “General Nonfiction,” like two waving middle fingers). I drifted among the tables like a monk at a buffet, moving unnoticed among all the people using their feet to prod boxes of books around on the floor as they heaped up more treasures than they could carry.
I stared forlornly at G. Gordon Liddy’s autobiography, a collection of Shakespeare from the 1970s, and an undistinguished mystery novel side-by-side in the “General American Fiction” section. I noticed titles familiar from the shelves in my childhood home and felt faintly sad; I scanned the stacks and stacks of World War II histories and could barely shrug; I wondered who would stumble upon the battered and stained mass market paperbacks, the political campaign books from the 1990s, the copy of “The Readiness of the Soviet Soldier” and say, “Eureka!”
Each book at the library represents a death; the death of an afternoon, a night in bed, a week’s worth of lunch hours, an abandoned ambition to read “Tender Is the Night.” Of course, they also represent literal deaths: the authors, but also the readers and owners whose hands they passed through before ending up, spent and unwanted, under fluorescent lights in a hangar out on the county road.
My participation in these events is a kind of mourning, then. For all the lives that these books filled up, but for my own as well, because it’s impossible to look at half a million little headstones and not think about your own mortality. I know I’ll never read all the books I want to read, or even all the books currently in my to-read piles. If I’m lucky, I’ll read maybe 4,000 in my lifetime, about enough to fill up half a dozen tables at the county library book sale. My life is measured out in books; there are not enough, there are too many.