Dishing the Dirt

Have a seat, chamomile cocktail. Put your feet up on that banana box and let some of the salt and slush fall from your galoshes. It’s been a while since we had a heart-to-heart about dirty books. And spring is coming, so you know what that means.

Now, nobody brags about donating dirty books to a book fair. In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t think of anybody who has even admitted to it. And yet, somehow, dirty books do turn up. I know Santa Claus didn’t bring them through the chimney. It’s the wrong time of year and, anyhow, he’d slip on our neat new roof tiles. So somebody out there has been bringing in dirty books, hat down over their face in case the security camera on the dock photographs them doing it.

It’s the gardening books that set me thinking about it, I guess. I get lots and lots of coffee table gardening books, the sort of thing you put on the coffee table if you live in a high-rise apartment, to show what you’d do in the garden if you had a garden. People who have gardens and coffee tables will put these on the coffee table, too, to show what they’d do in the garden if they only had the time.

But the gardening books I got last week were the other kind, the kind of reference book people actually carry out into the garden. And sometimes the book winds up in the dirt instead of the rhubarb, or you forget to bring it inside when you tell Jimmy to go out and water the garden. Jimmy, who is sixteen and is required by law to text whenever he steps outdoors, has no time to notice those two gardening books on top of the bucket, where you left them. One will get soaked and the other will fall off into the mud on the far side of the bucket.

So I understand why gardening books come in sometimes with a half inch of dirt along one side. Sometimes you try to fix things by actually asking Jimmy to hose down the books before you bring them inside. This sort of conservation treatment leaves its mark, generally in a warped cover, stained pages, and some good earth lodged in the binding. I also understand why you don’t want to bring these into the house any more, much less set them on your coffee table.

But why donate them to me? I don’t even HAVE a coffee table.

I suspect some people think I have only to send such things up to the Conservation Lab at the Newberry. Some people even point repairs out to me. “The front cover’s ripped off, but you could get it reattached.” “There’s a coffee stain on Luciano Pavarotti’s autograph, but someone upstairs can remove it.” “I suppose someone at the library will know how to get this dirt off without damaging the cover. By the way, I don’t THINK Jimmy dropped it in the compost heap on his way in.”

You are probably correct. In Conservation they probably do know how to tidy up the book even if Jimmy did slip as he walked past the manure spreader, and if not, they would enjoy the challenge. The problem is that they’re kind of busy with nineteenth century manuscripts and fifteenth century books, and can’t spare the time to fix up that copy of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood that you put under the back wheel of your Yugo when it was stuck in the snow.

Anyhow, that is your own dirt, isn’t it? Dirt from YOUR garden or YOUR yard or at least the parkway in front of YOUR building. It belongs to you, oh citizen and landowner, and you shouldn’t be giving it away to just any old Book Fair. Cherish it, treasure it, put it in a pot and plant your family tree in it. That dirty book is part of your heritage, crabmeat croissant, and I wouldn’t dream of taking it from you.

I hope you’ll reciprocate and not dream of bringing it to me. Especially if you had Jimmy put it in a bag back when you were working in the garden last April and it’s been sitting in the garage since. That mold is practically a second cousin of yours now, isn’t it?

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