An old man walks into the shop. He’s covered in tattoos, gray straggly hair hangs down his front and back. His face looks swollen, but not fat. His eyes are rheumy. He asks for the art section.
I always feel guilty when people ask for that section because it’s tiny. Maintaining a collection of good books in a shop like mine is a combination of both wanting to sell them (of course) and not wanting to, for the sake of having a solid shelf of quality. Anyway.
He disappears round the corner, looks for five minutes, of course finds nothing.
He comes back to the counter and with the conversational gait of a lame donkey, asks: “Do you know where I can find a place that I can give a collection of books to?”
I reply, “I’m biased, I would say here. You’ll find a good home for them here.”
“Well I have a collection of sixty to seventy books on Japan.”
It’s then I notice the beautiful tattoos on his back of a Japanese woman in traditional garb. I comment on it, but he seems not to hear.
“Y’see, I don’t want them to be thrown away. I asked the library and they just throw them away. I could do that if I wanted.”
“The only books I throw are those series romances,” I said. “I won’t throw anything else if I can help it.”
I’m talking to him, but he seems only to hear parts. I wonder if he’s stoned. He’s not, but I don’t realize that until later.
“I’m 62, I’ve had three heart attacks and I’m nervous that I won’t be able to find a home for them.”
I reiterate my policy of not ditching books if I can help it, and specifically assure him that I wouldn’t even consider losing a collection like the kind he was referring to.
Again, he seems not to hear. Something is mentioned about tattoos again, then he shows me the one on his back, of a historical Japanese diorama. It’s impressive, and he’s obviously proud of it.
A little more small talk and he leaves, ambling out of the door and back to his car.
Has this guy ever been to Japan? What has this guy ever done? Fearful of his mortality, he cares about his books. A legacy in a handsome collection perhaps. I’m not sure. We humans anthropomorphize everything, and I think I now know why, and this gentleman inadvertently showed me. We interact with things, because we know they’ll outlive us. Perhaps if we can make them real, alive, cared for, we’ll be remembered. The temporal nature of our flesh, countered against the soaring freedom of our consciousnesses, creates a conflict manifested in the concept of a legacy. We wish to live forever because our minds say we can. Our bodies say, and show, otherwise. Our belongings say who we are, they symbolize our identities. We can say “I learned this“, or “this was my love“.
It’s an overwhelming concept, that of our lives, and the end of them, the end of us.
I’ll leave by mentioning something I have in the back of the shop. It’s a book titled ‘Tennyson’s Poems, Vol. I’, a beautiful small edition, with a gorgeous navy blue hard cover. My good friend Steve gave it to me, and he picked it up in a bookshop in Korea, when he was stationed there. The date of printing is MDCCCLXIII, 1863. Scrawled on the inside front cover is a signature that I think says ‘Reynolds, 1884.’ I have never stopped wondering how that book got to Korea, or who ‘Reynolds’ was. Did he read the poems regularly? Did he love that book, as to take care of it and leave it in the excellent condition it is as I hold now? Who was he? And what if all that remains of him is this signature?
Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears: but all hath suffer’d change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold:
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
Or else the island princes over-bold
Have eat our substance, and the minstrel sings
Before them of the ten years’ war in Troy,
And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things.
Is there confusion in the little isle?
Let what is broken so remain.
The Gods are hard to reconcile:
’Tis hard to settle order once again.
There is confusion worse than death,
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
Long labour unto aged breath,
Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.