I’ve collected books for as long as I can remember. It started with Curious George and graduated to Goosebumps before snowballing into books on hip hop, biographies of gangsters and cultural figures, politics, history, art and wherever my weekly obsessions led me. But my personal library has recently reached a whole new level of pretentiousness. I often brag to a friend that his own assortment will never out-snob mine. I can’t, however, fully take credit for the magnitude of my current collection.
I started working at a small bookstore in the summer of ’05. While touring the stockroom I met an older man with a white beard and 20-plus years of tenure under his belt. It may have been 30-plus years. His name was Jeff. My first few days there were his last, but he’d stop in every so often to talk shit with us and visit his wife who was still working there.
For lack of a better term, this dude was a trip. He’d walk in and immediately control the room. He was smart and cynical and irreverent and fucking hilarious, the type of guy who probably had always been a crotchety old man, even long before he was a crotchety old man. Two particular incidents stick out:
Back when I mildly gave a shit about sports, I followed college football and routed for USC. This was back when Reggie Bush was killing the NCAA. Jeff was a die-hard UCLA fan, and he’d always go out of his way to put a spear in my side, no matter the topic of conversation and regardless of who was around.
“I tell ya’, Bush is just such a goddamned nightmare…” He pauses and looks over to me. “I’m talking about George, not Reggie.” He looks away from me. “So like I was saying…” He pauses a second time. “But fuck Reggie, too… So anyways…” There was always time for trash talk, and he wouldn’t let a second slip by.
When he was ready to leave, the guys and I walked out to the parking lot to see him off. As he drove past us in what was, if I remember correctly, an older green car, he slowed down, looked directly at me and shouted, “Just remember, if you work hard here and move up the ranks, one day you’ll be able to drive around in an old beat-up pile of shit like this one!”
I wanted to share those stories at his funeral but didn’t think it appropriate for a guy he barely knew to address a room full of his family and closest friends. After his service, two of my former coworkers and I walked through the cemetery, sharing funny stories as we passed around a bottle of rum.
Around a year or so later, his wife had taken a detailed inventory of his book collection, and somehow, I was one of the people to end up with the list. She wanted his books to go to people he knew, and I was asked to highlight the titles I wanted. I literally couldn’t believe it. I was flattered and ultimately felt undeserving. The list was nearly a book itself. There were thousands of titles, all organized by author. He had entire catalogs of my favorite writers. Books I’d only read about in other books and never expected to even hold, let alone own. Books that have been out of print for longer than I’ve been alive. Limited editions, original covers, shit that Hitler burned and Sarah Palin would love to ban. It was all there.
The books came in several large boxes. Some of them were worn from years of use and others were brand new without a scratch. I spent hours sorting them, smelling them, skimming the first few pages of each and basically just geeking the fuck out. When I got to the bottom of one box, I noticed a small piece of paper turned face-down. I flipped it over, read it, and then read it again. “When I am dead I hope it may be said ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
Initially, I interpreted this as the wish of a book collector. Which is to say, he wanted to be remembered as a man who actually read all of the books he owned. It wasn’t until I began this entry, however, that I remembered something. Something that changed the way I read those words whenever I see that piece of paper. At Jeff’s funeral, it was revealed to those of us who hadn’t known him as well as others that he himself had written novels, some of which had been published. He wasn’t just a book buff, he was an author. He was a connoisseur, well versed in both ends of his passion. I now believe it was his wish not to be remembered as someone who merely read books, but as someone who wrote books.
I doubt his wife will ever read this, but she gave me a lot more than just some old books that once belonged to her late husband, an ornery old man I used to shoot the shit with. I spend a lot of time thinking on my own mortality and the direction in which my life is headed, and I’d rather ten people remember me for what I make than ten thousand for what I own. Not because I don’t like owning things, and not because what I make is any good, but because it’s a hell of a lot easier to be a consumer than it is a producer. And nothing I own brings me as much joy and fulfillment as what I make. I haven’t a clue where I’ll be in ten years, but I plan to enjoy myself every step of the way.