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Dec 12, 2005
My Father's Library - Forbes

One man spent a lifetime collecting the books that would teach his son about life--even after they started disappearing.

During the months after my father's debilitating stroke, his second wife divorced him, his bank accounts were emptied, his furniture disappeared, the cat ran away and a trio of booksellers purchased his book collection. When my father eventually regained his senses, he telephoned me with what really bothered him: "Where the hell are my books?"

My father's lifelong relationship with books mirrored Hugh Hefner's relationship with bimbos; day and night, he always had to have several within reach. He slept with a pile of them on his bed. He drove with a couple of them open on the seat next to him. While traveling, someone, usually the smallest in the family, had to trail him with a book bag as if it were the President's nuclear football.

A mental snapshot of him conjures not a face but a ribbon of pipe smoke emanating from behind an open volume, an omnipresent red pen poised in midair for the next margin note. He had some 30,000 victims to thus deface--more than two books for every letter in this article--the fruits of a lifelong delusion that everything with a binding belonged to him, and if it didn't, it should. During the course of 70 years of collecting, an indecent number of library books, hymnals and other items of dubious provenance found their way onto his shelves.

Dad never drove a new car in his life. He reused his coffee grounds. He always flew coach. But he never saw a book he didn't want to buy. His best friends were book people, and whenever he entered a bookstore, he was greeted like a favorite relative come to pay the rent.

Pulp has been running in the Jones family's veins ever since my great-grandfather, one Herschel V. Jones, left the no-horse-town of Jefferson, New York, in 1883 with the stated purpose of creating "the world's greatest private library." It seems a far-fetched ambition for a poor boy, but according to his biographer, he "acquired during his lifetime four notable book collections," including the most lauded private collection of Americana in this country. "He was referred to as 'The Miracle Man' by his generation of book collectors." To this day, the strategic name-dropping of my great-grandfather in a rare bookshop opens the liquor cabinet.

Like drug addiction and poor pronunciation, book collecting is one of those sins prone to be passed from generation to generation. My grandfather, Carl Jones, even published the stuff in his home--a kind of literary moonshine. His high-grade history and magic books still enjoy cult status. For my father, it must have been like growing up in a crystal meth lab, with all the tweedy chain-smoking book pushers hanging out in his childhood home. Dad never had a chance. At first he was hooked on the quality stuff: 19th- and 20th-century classics, history and science fiction. Then his habit got expensive, with letters, manuscripts and first editions. Later in life he reverted to paperbacks, newspapers and endless magazine subscriptions--the crack of bibliophiles.

He cut it all with memorabilia. Writers' personal possessions mingled with ours as if their owners lived with us. Hemingway's skis with leather bindings sat next to ours in the garage rafters. I was greeted every morning in the hallway by a full-length signed photo of Zane Grey with giant tuna. I watched TV in the remote exile of our basement while sitting on Charles Dickens's stiff-backed writing chair. When choosing nails from the toolbox, I had to avoid using the large rusty ones from Jack London's ranch in Sonoma. His Dictaphone rested on the stair landing.

When I was still young enough not to repeat tales like this to my mother, Dad brought me to Sonoma to visit a fellow Jack London fanatic with a bookstore right next to the Jack London Ranch. "Here's something for the collection," Dad's jovial book pal said, pulling out from his desk drawer a large clear plastic bag filled with gray powder. "Jack's niece," he announced. "She died without any relatives, so now I've got her remains." Dad examined the proffered bag with fascination. The air between the two men filled with unspoken genetic speculations, price calculations and home-storage ideas. One of them--I'd like to remember it as being Dad--finally broke the silence: "Probably best to spread them over his grave?" There should be a punctuation mark for regret.

But Dad had his home runs. Shortly after Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, Dad beelined it to Key West, Florida, where he knew Hemingway had stored his papers before moving to Cuba. The items were kept in a closet belonging to a favorite bartender from Sloppy Joe's. The estate executors had already gone through everything and the barkeep was about to throw the rest out. Dad bought it all sight unseen. Contents: house keys, fan letters, ticket stubs, old bills and other junk. There were also story doodlings going back to high school, the manuscript for an unpublished story and a few dozen canceled checks. The checks currently go for more than $1,000 each. At another time, he noticed the carefully preserved love letters of one Agnes von Kurowsky in a Sotheby's catalog and purchased them, knowing that they were from Hemingway's great femme fatale, his World War I nurse. The writings went to the Ernest Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park, Illinois. And the love letters became the basis for the book Hemingway in Love and War, later turned into a Sandra Bullock movie. Dad attended the premiere as a guest of honor.

The biggest payoffs came during family trips with the ubiquitous book bag whose unexpected weight inevitably elicited I-should-kill-you expressions from porters and bellhops. Inside were old WPA guides, diaries, local histories, newspaper clippings and esoterica to aid us in adventures into the obscure. Pumped up on pulp, Dad was the Mick Jagger of tour guides, imbuing our travels with manic literary passion. We camped out on top of Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail while reciting from the pioneers' letters. We retraced Virginia Woolf's suicidal last walk with her original diary at hand. We drank picturesque quantities of strong bourbon in William Faulkner's Hollywood watering holes. And we used John Steinbeck's notes to retrace the footsteps of Emiliano Zapata and his revolutionaries across the dusty Mexican state of Morelos.

"Where did they hang the owner and his family?" Dad demanded of a local scholar he'd hired when we came to a certain hacienda visited by Zapata & Co. The poor man shrugged, knowing he was in over his head with this crazy gringo and his bag of books. Dad's face disappeared for a moment behind Steinbeck's notes. "Right there!" he shouted triumphantly, heading toward a nearby grove to pick a few leaves as souvenirs. For years afterward, he greeted anyone remotely Latin-looking with a zesty "Zapata lives!"

The books lined our lives, much the same way as they lined the living room, attic, garage, hallways, bathrooms, stairwells, even the furnace room ("God doesn't burn books"). Now that I've forgotten what I learned in college and grad school, the wisdom from hanging out amongst Dad's books remains. Shelving was destiny. Large books on the lower levels meant that at the age of seven I knew whaling techniques, the contents of the Prado and the illustrated history of sex. I still think of the three subjects as connected, much to the delight of fishing companions.

When Dad decided to move some of his more valuable books out of the reach of grubby little fingers, he replaced them with his extensive mountaineering collection. Hence, in the midst of Minnesota's flatlands, I entertained myself with tales of the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps and Andes. A decade later, every time I headed off on another expedition to those mountains, my Dad rued his decision. "Why didn't I put religious texts on those lower shelves?" he'd mutter.

As rumors spread of an "extraordinary library" in Wayzata, Minnesota, an eclectic group of fellow pulp junkies found their way to Dad's doorstep. Statesmen, princes, paupers, hippies and eccentrics appeared out of nowhere, and stayed for as long as Dad left the lights on. On one particular night in the mid-'70s I was shuttling drinks between a bearish man devouring the "Big Little Books" in the basement and an intense Polish fellow with a beak nose that seemed to be harpooning a first-edition Moby-Dick upstairs. They'd appeared with one of Dad's pals and stayed all night reading. "Obviously good book people," Dad whispered to me, as the still-unknown Jerzy Kosinski and Stephen King anointed his library. They left behind signed copies of their first books, which more than paid the electricity bill for the night.

When the bloom fades from the rose, many a married man turns to his mistress. When Dad's first marriage turned sour, he turned to his prized books, which he moved to a press-board-lined basement office with a pull-out couch a beer can's throw from the highway. He stayed there for weeks at a time. Amidst his treasures, where literature's most eloquent voices competed for attention, he was the world's least lonely man.

The office was often left unlocked for the night janitor to get in. And there, the riches lay hidden in plain sight. Who would ever think a signed first-edition Faulkner being used as a doorstop could be worth $30,000? Or that the worn-looking plastic-covered parchment often used as a drinks coaster was a letter from Napoleon? He never even insured his collection.

His method worked. Nothing was ever stolen--at least while Dad was healthy. None of his children knew that the collection was worth much, but Dad did. In his will he appointed a committee of well-known book experts to administer his literary estate once he'd gone to that big library in the sky. But what lawyers can do, lawyers can undo.

While packing in a San Francisco hotel room for his annual pilgrimage to the Jack London Ranch in 2000, Dad suddenly got so dizzy and disoriented, he passed out. He'd suffered a severe stroke. He managed to get onto a plane going back to Minnesota, but it would be 24 hours before he received medical attention, at which point the damage had been done.

As Dad lay up in his bedroom back in Wayzata in a stupor, trying to get reoriented, a trio of book dealers quietly emerged from the shadows and began making for themselves the best book deal since Hermann Göring got a library card to France.

For years the three had been attempting to butter up the old guy, inviting him out to dinners and book parties, and offering to take his entire library off his hands. They were repeatedly turned down.

After hearing about the stroke, however, they made an offer to Dad's accountant and ex-lawyer that should have been refused. Quicker than you can say "elder crime," the accountant rehired the lawyer and together they rewrote Dad's will, abolishing his wish to donate his collection to various libraries and museums, and granting themselves the right to begin selling the collection to the booksellers on Dad's behalf. To cap it off, they charged him more than $150,000 in professional "fees" and "personal gratuities."

Armed with their contract, the merry band of booksellers raided Dad's office, carting off tens of thousands of books. They and their cohorts also carted off practically everything else they could, including the furniture, artwork and even the telephones. Viva Zapata! When Dad's loyal secretary and archivist showed up for work, the lawyer confiscated their keys and ordered them to scram.

The looters then went to Dad's house and repeated the fun. To make this more of a family affair, they even smashed open a locked trunk in the basement and shipped off our childhood toys. They returned to their respective shops and boldly listed their takings for sale on the Internet, often at five times what they had estimated the retail value of individual items to be in their "contract of sales."

A few days later, as Dad improved, he put on his bathrobe and took a walk through the house. The gang had kept the bookshelves around his bedroom unmolested. But when he wandered beyond this literary Potemkin village, he spotted all the empty shelves and went into a panic. He then called me in Washington, D.C., on one of the few remaining phones, to let me know, in language not usually associated with bookworms, that he was ready to kill somebody.

Weeks later, while medicating his withdrawal symptoms with the long-neglected TV, now lording over the empty bookshelves, Dad suffered a second stroke and was moved into a nearby Alzheimer's unit. After 74 years, he was cured at last: He'd never need to read another book.

Meanwhile, the lawyer and accountant, feeling the heat--mainly from me--made a desperate effort to obtain a "get out of jail free" card by petitioning the Hennepin County court to accept their dubious sales contract. They scheduled the review the day before Thanksgiving, gambling that with Dad's out-of-state family preoccupied, the court would simply rubber-stamp the deal.

And so, the day before Thanksgiving, I found myself tagging behind one Paul A. Sortland, Esquire, from the "Professional Malpractice" section of the Minneapolis Yellow Pages as he marched into referee Richard Wolfson's courtroom in Minneapolis. We were met by the disbelieving stares of the accountant and his attorney. Wolfson carefully read the petition from the bench, intermittently sighing in a marvelously theatrical manner. He asked a few pointed questions, and then concluded that he would further review the contract after Thanksgiving to make sure everything was really "as crazy as it looks."

The gravy had not yet congealed around the family turkey back in Washington, however, when Sortland called me to announce that the gang wanted to settle. The artwork was returned, and a few books. Substantial profit from the sale of the rest of the collection was repaid, the proceeds going toward the education of my father's grandchildren; if they won't inherit his library, at least some of them can inherit his desire for one.

My father's library is now dispersed into the world, borne out on a literary tide to fetch up in other libraries, bookstores and private collections, washed back into that material universe of eternal recurrence forever pondered by astrophysicists, Buddhists and eBayers. Like my father himself, those 30,000 books turned out only to have been on loan. Had he collected beer cans or Star Trek memorabilia, I might not have minded as much, but books seduce, and rare books seduce even more. No amount of philosophizing can get rid of the memory of old friends whose contents still electrify the atoms of one's brain better than the highest-grade blow.

And in this sense, my father was very successful with at least one unspoken intention behind his lifetime of collecting. What good are vices if you can't pass them along? I recently purchased a house in Los Angeles that seemed awfully empty. Then I installed enough bookshelves to hold some 2,000 volumes. The first 2,000. After that, I noticed that my kids' rooms still have plenty of wall space....

As for my father, I fly out to see him every other month. If he misses his books, he doesn't show it. His library has become internalized, secret, exactly as he liked it.

A lifetime of written wisdom has gently settled like silt on some distant ocean bed, and somewhere within, the long conversation between man and books continues, though ever quieter. Love disappears, wealth disappears, desire disappears. But good books stay absorbed in the soul, and a soul, if educated, endures. Or at least that's what some pretty good books say.

   
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