Of Proust and Penguins


September 19, 2009

By Helvi Oosterman.

I’m standing in front of our floor to ceiling book cases and I don’t know where to start my weeding; we are moving to a smaller place and I have to select which books to take and which not. I have three milk crates on the table: one for daughter, one for charity and one for the cottage. The ones I want to keep can stay until we actually move.

I take books out at random. ‘The End of Certainty’ by Paul Kelly is the first one. It was a birthday present from Allan, who passed away far too young at fifty. His beautiful hand writing makes me choke at the loss of a dear friend and I want to keep the book. ‘In the box’, says the boss who hasn’t even read it. The next one happens to be a slim volume by Marguerite Duras, a French writer who used live in Vietnam when it was still Indo-China. I start reading ‘Practicalities’; beautiful short essays about life, love, writing, Paris and wasting time. I feel I’m not wasting a minute re-reading this and not sticking to the task at hand: I have to keep this one;  it’s only a slip of a book.

On the bottom shelf, out of sight are my yearly diet books; I have bought one every January, new year, new me. Easy goodbyes to all; from Atkins to Scarsdale to South Beach. I count only seven;  many of them have already left the house to end up fattening girl friends’ book shelves. Then I pick a stack of yellowed old Penguins, Mishima, Kawabata, Hermann Hesse and Böll, which have escaped the previous throw-out. They are like very old friends now;   I put them back on the shelf.

I’m not doing too well, and I decide to take a break and walk to check the cottage collection. I find that most of them are results of previous culls, books that I had not chosen myself. Even so I managed to bring back an armful: a book on Finnish art, a long lost one of V.S. Naipaul and ‘By Way of Sainte-Beuve’ by Marcel Proust.

I have spent some hours by now and not much to show for; maybe the best thing to do is to tackle one shelf daily until the job is done. We have time;  we haven’t even put the house on the market yet. Husband walks by and looks at the empty boxes, he can see that I’m getting a headache and am close to tears: Maybe I can help tomorrow? This is not what I want;  he’ll only leave his Patrick Whites and some boring stories about Aussies migrating to Paraguay and maybe George Perec’ s  ‘Life, the User’s Manual’. ‘You can help with the cook books and the gardening ones’, I say as I have already promised to give them to family members; I have enough recipes in my head by now and my new garden will  be very small.

Oh no, I have totally forgotten about dictionaries and other language and reference books in the office and all my favorites in the bed room!

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