The unfamiliar country
In the summer time I spent two weeks in my home town. The days were hot and sunny, the nights were cool. Every morning I woke up to the song of cardinals outside my bedroom window - the same bedroom I grew up in, the same bed I slept in through my entire childhood. I went to a park at the bottom of the street every morning to feed the geese. Around noon I rented a fiberglass canoe and went canoeing on the local river. At some point every day I saw a rabbit in my mother’s garden. I knew it had a hole somewhere under the hedge. One night I went for a walk after dark. I heard a distinct scratching in the branches of a maple tree at the end of the driveway, before I even left the property, so I scurried back into the house, retrieved a small but strong flashlight from the kitchen, ran back out and searched the tree. I immediately saw a raccoon perched in the lower branched staring down at me. There were also skunks living somewhere in the neighborhood. I knew it because I could smell them every evening. One day I drove 2½ hours cross-country to Lake Huron for swimming and got badly sunburned. I took a host of pictures to document every day and every sight on my blog and on Facebook.
This year I was on a mission to begin a years-long project or re-distributing my large book collection. Some of my library is with me here in Tokyo, but the majority of my collection - somewhere between eight thousand to ten thousand books - is in storage in Ontario. The books I collect are neither valuable nor collectible (although I do indeed have a few valuable, collectible books), and the cost of storing them is greater than their worth. So you see my long-term predicament.
You see, I’ve crossed a threshold. My dream of living surrounded by my books looks like it will never come to pass. I have only a few years left to live, and so has my mother, who has been the guardian of my affairs and my property in Ontario for many years. Even though my mother is in her eighties now I am still anticipating pre-deceasing her. The reasons why don’t concern you. My Canadian family told me straight out that they did not want the burden of my stuff. This declaration played large in my decision to sell my condominium apartment in Guelph in 2015, and now that same declaration is contributing to my decision to begin unloading books. The book decision feels more like the crossing of a bridge. It’s unexplored territory for me. It’s the crossing of a threshold like the decision to sell my condominium was before it.
So while I was in Ontario I collected and opened all the boxes of books I had stored in my mother’s house there - heavy boxes that I had sea mailed from Japan. I had contacted a private high school in Fergus, Ontario whose librarian happens to live in Guelph and she agreed to take the books, making an on-the-spot decision what to accept and what not. She took about 350 hard cover volumes, with the possibility open of taking more in the future when I am home again. But she took everything I had to give at the time. I thought it was a good start. I was really into it. I was imagining books being removed from the dark and shelved in a library for teenaged students to see and use. I was so distracted by the joy of giving that I probably over-estimated my accomplishment. 350 down. Over 8,000 still to go. It will take years to resolve the issue.
Together with my mother I visited my storage unit, which I hadn’t laid eyes on in about eight years. I just keep paying the storage fees. When I opened the unit door I saw my entire life there. It was impossible to reach any more boxes of books because of all the (dismantled) furniture that was in the way. Not just my furniture, but objects from other family members that had been stashed there.
I was so concerned with books, running around in my final days looking for ways and means of distributing books, carrying and driving books around in my mother’s car that I forgot to return to a drug store to pick up some medicine that I had ordered during my first days in town. I hated when that happened.
After returning to Tokyo I did the same thing. In late August the librarian of an international school visited my apartment with a school vehicle and two assistants, and took away over 100 hard cover books. It took about four months to arrange the meeting - I mean, to find time in our schedules to meet. She took everything I offered: World History, Fine Art, old textbooks, children’s books (including a complete set of Dr. Seuss), some hard cover literature, and some paperback novels. What does this leave me? And about my collection in storage in Canada, what will I be left with when it’s all done? I am paring my library down, but simultaneously continuing to build up certain parts of it. I still avidly collect Bibles, dictionaries, and editions of Shakespeare. I already keep over 600 Bibles, multiple editions in multiple languages and multiple formats, around 20 Complete Works of William Shakespeare (including a number of facsimiles of the First Folio), and a few dozen dictionaries. I am anticipating settling out around 1,500 volumes of this sort. That seems to be the direction of my current interests, but it will take a few more years to realize it in full. I don’t expect to live to see the fulfilment of it. 600 Bibles seems to me to be only a beginning. Of course, there are many who think that if you have one Bible then you don’t need another. They’re all the same, aren’t they? No, they aren’t. The same holds for any other object - book or not. Mass production does not erase individual idiosyncrasies. But even more than the idiosyncrasies is the cultural and historical significance of these things as physical objects. My most precious book is a facsimile of the Codex Sinaiticus.