The birth of our second daughter a few months ago has forced my wife and I to “reorganize” the house to make more room – and that means parting ways with lots of miscellaneous stuff. You know, those boxes of old possessions that you have squirreled away in closets or in the attic that you haven’t even thought of in years… Well, over the weekend I unearthed a sizable crate of my parents’ decades-old albums (don’t ask me how they wound up in my basement) and decided to bring them to a local used bookstore that also buys and sells old records. As the bookstore owner was going through my old-time vinyl stash – The Best of Mario Lanza, Christmas with Andy Williams and the Williams Brothers, Here’s Steve Lawrence, Robert Goulet on Broadway, etc. – he laughed and said, “Wow. Another Barry Manilow. When civilization ends and nothing else is left, there will still be Barry Manilow albums out there.” And then he added this: “It’s interesting to see what people bring in – it’s the albums and books they don’t want. All of the really good stuff is back home on their shelves.”
After selling him a measly five albums at 75 cents apiece – that’s $3.75, folks! – I lugged the still sizable stash back to my truck thinking about what he had said. The good stuff is still on their shelves. Upon returning home, I went in search of some long neglected literary treasures – not necessarily classics or critically acclaimed bestsellers, but books that I’ve read decades ago that, although I have never read them again, I still possess and deeply cherish.
As a kid, I was a voracious reader and around the time I was in fourth or fifth grade, I conned my parents into letting me join some mail-order science fiction book club where I could get up to three “book club editions” of genre standards per month on the cheap. And after more than 30 years, I still have some of those books! Talk about being influential, these books unarguably altered my life (I grew up to become a science /fantasy book reviewer) – Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama, Isaac Asimov’s The Far Ends of Time and Earth, and John Varley’s Titan, to name just a few…
…and during my search for “the good stuff,” I also uncovered some interesting not-so-classic books that, for whatever reasons, have still remained on my shelves after decades of bimonthly purges. Here are two that stood out:
Oron by David C. Smith (1978)
I bought this paperback for $1.95 and it’s straightforward adventure fantasy in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Featuring a young broadsword-wielding warrior named Oron, this was just heavenly literary escapism for me as a kid. I think another reason I loved this book so much was that I was pleasantly surprised by several full-page illustrations inside. Here’s a taste: “Amrik, the Bull Man, his black beard spattered crimson, looked like a demon from hell as he wildly rode in full pursuit of his enemy…”
The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad (1972)
This paperback was also $1.95 and asks the disturbing question: “What If Hitler Wrote Science Fiction?” An alternate history of sorts, this novel is actually a story within a story about Adolf Hitler as he immigrates to the States in 1919 and becomes a pulp SF illustrator and writer. After his death years later, a manuscript is found (Lord of the Swastika) and published to critical acclaim. I think the reason this read was so memorable for me was because it was one of my first real forays into post-apocalyptic fiction – Hitler’s novel takes place after a nuclear war turns much of humanity into nightmarish mutants – but the thing that really resonated with me was the thought-provoking themes it explored: prejudice, intolerance, the insanity of war, etc.
So my experience with Mario Lanza and Barry Manilow – and later looking through my bookshelves for "the good stuff" – has compelled me to look at my belongings in a different light. I have literally thousands of books in my house, bookshelves in every room (except the bathroom) and I know that I’ll never have the time to re-read all of these books again. So why have I saved all of these books? Why can’t I just let go?
After some quiet contemplation (next to a huge bookshelf filled with science fiction and fantasy books), here’s what I’ve concluded – my standards for keeping a book are relatively simple: it's all about preserving the memory. For example, the experience of reading Oron when I was 10 or 11 years old – immersing myself in the storyline, smelling the pulpy pages, taking in the cover art and interior illustrations, was obviously a memorable event in my life. Holding onto the book, for me, is like keeping a photograph from an enjoyable vacation. So my bookshelves are like massive photo albums, I guess…
Do I have deep-rooted psychological problems with the gathering and storing of my worldly possessions? Am I a dreaded book hoarder? Are there others just like me out there? Until I seek out therapy, I won’t have any definitive answers but I do know this – if anyone wants any Barry Manilow records, let me know…