A time to hold and a time to give – when to pass on old books

Today I made a decision to do something necessary, yet it was a wrench.  I decided to give away my copy of the 1608 Commelin edition of Tertullian’s works.

I bought it over the internet, years ago.  In those days we had no PDFs online.  The only way to get hold of the detailed apparatus, found in early editions, of the works of Tertullian was to venture onto the market and buy copies.

Indeed most Tertullian scholars have little collections of early editions; the 1539 of Rhenanus, the 1545 Paris edition, the 1550 of Gelenius – if they could find one – and the 1583 Pamelius edition, high-point of the counter-reformation scholarship.

My Commelin is a reprint of the Pamelius.  It is still bound in the original ornate white leather binding, a bit battered after the centuries but perfectly sound.  The book itself has clearly seen little use.

I got it from a German book dealer.  It arrived in a big yellow Deutsche Post box – for it is a folio volume, and some two inches thick.  And in that box it has remained; for, like most people, I live in a little house and I have no bookshelves suitable for folio-sized volumes.  There seemed no point in taking it out, merely to expose it to dust.

Also it would need to rest on its side.  I knew better than to stand it on end, thereby placing the whole weight of this heavy volume on its ancient stitching.  Where to put it?

This has been the question for many years.  I have seldom opened it.  Once it sat in a cupboard, inside its box.  For the last couple of years, or maybe more — how quickly the years pass these days, without my being aware of them — it has sat, big and obtrusive, atop a set of bookshelves that I constructed myself in younger days.

No more.  Today I decided that it was time for us to part.  I can’t sell it.  I don’t know the rare books market, and I don’t live near any dealers.  I could post it, and get it back, and do all that; but I do not care to, and I should certainly be taken advantage of.

Instead I have agreed with a fellow Tertullian scholar to donate it to him.  He will treasure it, I am sure.  Tomorrow I shall take it to the post office and send it on its way.

It has long been my policy not to keep a book unless I believe that I will read it again, or, in the case of reference books, have use of it in future.  This is particularly essential for novels, for which most of us have a tyrannous appetite.  Unless you have some similar policy, you will quickly find your book cases, and then your house, filled with books which you have no appetite to read.  I have a pile in the corner of one room, to which I assign books that I believe I will not read again; and, if after a suitable period, a book is still there then I dispose of it.  I took two bags full of books to a charity shop yesterday, in fact.

It is harder to know what to do with scholarly books that we no longer need.  Some have donated their books to libraries; yet I know too much about libraries and their practices to suppose that any such donation would be more than temporary.

Let us accept the fact that one day they must go on, and let us donate them freely to our fellow workers.  They will value them; and we need not grieve at their departure, knowing that they go to serve another as they have served us.

For one day all of our books will pass into the hands of others.  Rough hands will pull at our shelves and throw our treasures into boxes, most of which will perhaps end up in some second-hand shop.  The little paperbacks we bought at college, once fresh and bright as we ourselves then were, now foxed and yellowed, and which have accompanied us through life, and are almost friends to us, will end up in some second-hand shop.  If they are lucky they will pass into the hands of one whom we might have been pleased to call friend.

Sic transit gloria.  For the world and all that is in it are always passing away.

But the Christian has hopes of more than this from life!  He can thank God for Good Friday.  And so can all of us, if we sign up with them.

NOTE: Annoyingly WordPress deleted a large section of this post when I posted it.  I will try to recover it from memory.

4 thoughts on “A time to hold and a time to give – when to pass on old books

  1. What an elegiac post, but how right you are! When I look at my own collection of 3,000 plus books, I sometimes wonder what will happen to it after my death. Those faded Loebs, those Bude, Teubner and OCT texts of the Greek and Roman classics (around 200 in total), a generous selection of Penguin Classics (regularly replaced when they fall to pieces), the complete sets of the Cambridge Ancient and Medieval Histories, the Cambridge History of Iran, the Oxford History of England, the Oxford History of English Literature, the austere CSCO monographs on Syriac authors, the scores of texts from Gorgias Press on Syriac Christianity, and (more recently) those lovely I Tatti hardback texts of Renaissance writers …

    Most valuable of all, arising out of my interest in the Sino-French War of 1884-1885, a delightful shelf of some 50 leather-bound reminiscences from French officers, all written between 1885 and 1896. My particular treasures are an 1883 map of Tonkin produced by the Navy Ministry for French colonial officers in Vietnam, and a French officer’s paybook from 1885.

    But most of all, my hundreds of Folio Society books and Everyman hardbacks,and my growing collection of Pleiade French texts. As you say, novels tend to predominate …

    What will happen to them all? I really need to sit down one day and write a will, to make sure they all go to a good home (particularly the Sino-French War collection).

    I need to be as ruthless as you, Roger, in weeding out books which, while evoking my younger days, do not actually get read any more. Any bids for an almost new Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon, or for the leather-bound 1866 version (purchased in Thorntons in 1974, in my first year as an undergraduate at Oxford)? Was it really 40 years ago? It seems like only yesterday …

  2. We must all pass on and leave our treasures to others. But if the New Jerusalem is anything like the old, we will be reunited with them, where no good thing is ever truly destroyed.

    What an evocative picture of your books. Our books are almost an extension of ourselves, aren’t they?

    I’ve never been able to sell books. Too much work and too little money. I give them to friends and colleagues. At least it gets them off the floor.

    The Loebs will be alright! More specialist stuff will depend on whether you appoint a literary executor, I think.

    You were only 5 years ahead of me at Oxford. Thorntons bookshop is gone now, replaced by a coffee shop. I don’t think I ever bought anything there, but it was a wonderful old bookshop.

    I never dispose of books to which I am sentimentally attached. What I do is look at each book and ask if I will ever read it again. I am generous with myself here; but in a lot of cases I know that I won’t. If I think so, I put it in a pile on a bookcase in one corner of the room. This I call the “out pile”. It will sit there, for some months or longer. Every so often, when I want a book, I look in that pile, and sometimes rescue a book. But if it is still there, when the mood comes on me to take the pile to charity, then clearly it isn’t a book I even think I might want. I’ve only once got rid of a book I regretted that way.

    Do make a will. Why give our bloodsucking governments any more opportunities to loot our possessions than they already have? Any of us can fall under a bus.

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