YOUR Collection, Part II

So I was telling you about the mistakes people make dealing with books after they die. They are, of course, at the mercy of people who are still alive. You really need to see to my three rules before you shuffle off your mortal coil. I can’t do much for you if you keep putting it off (Read the rules, I mean. You can postpone the Great Golden ultimately as long as you please. Or as long as I please, which might involve a different date entirely.)

I was called in once to pack up and carry off the estate of a doctor. He had massive amounts of books, I was told, dealing with his hobbies—Scrabble and antique silver—and with his vocation. I was told to expect to fill at least thirty boxes. I collected thirty boxes and reported for duty.

The executor of the estate, however, had packed up the books for me: all five boxes of them. I saw seven Scrabble sets, and a number of dictionaries and some novels. Well, yes, I was told, the deceased did have a collection of antique silver, and an entire bookcase of books on how to recognize and classify antique silver. But the auction house dealing with the silver itself had explained to her that the Newberry Library Book Fair was just a sale for people who read old mysteries and romances, and such people would not appreciate books on silver. So the executor gave the auction house all those books for their own reference library.

As for the medical books, why, she had thrown all of those away. She could not allow me to hurt people by selling outdated medical information. She had saved me a few things from the doctor’s collection, including a file folder where he had listed all the books in the collection. The first sheet in the folder bore a headline in bold pencil “These Are Not Just Old Medical Texts. Do Not Throw Away.”

The deceased was the first medical officer in the United States to allow cortisone to be used at his hospital. Cortisone was the stem cell research of its day: derived from dead human bodies, it presented such moral and ethical problems that the article the doctor himself wrote on the subject was rejected by all medical journals except one, and THAT one prefaced the article with a warning that it did not endorse the sentiments expressed. His contribution to the work was so important that when the developers of cortisone received their Nobel Prize, he was asked to accompany them to the ceremony.

He had thereafter built an enormous collection of books dealing with the history of the diagnosis and treatment of gout, rheumatism, and arthritis. Out of all of this, the executor had saved only the 17th and 18th century books, a couple of recordings of radio programs where he’d spoken on the subject, and this magazine where his article had appeared. She clutched that as she told me the story, saying she really should have thrown it away with the others, but had kept it simply because it was his.

“Oh, do let me have it,” I cooed, and she gave it to me, probably unaware of how close I had come to taking the bound volume from her hands and knocking her down with it.

Yes, I know: I have this reputation for wanting to sell the most bizarre things. But when I got back to the library with the books she felt were too old to throw away, I found that there is, in fact, a library in Texas which specializes in collecting books on the history of the diagnosis and treatment of gout, rheumatism, and arthritis. I immediately wrote to them, mentioning what I had (one book was the first in which the word “rheumatism” ever appeared.)

They wrote back to say they HAD all those 17th and 18th century books. What they needed was the stuff from the 19th and 20th centuries, which people always threw away, thinking it was just outdated data. They made me a nice offer for the doctor’s article, the recordings, and even the doctor’s list of books, which was practically their own wishlist. I mentioned a cheap paperback book, Arthritis and You, which is an outdated text very popular in its day, and which I sell for fifty cents as a period piece at the Book Fair. They sent me ten dollars for it.

RULE ONE: Try to find an executor who will respect your last requests.

I went to pack up books from the estate of one of those Lonely Bachelors. They were up in a Lonely Bachelor sort of place: bare walls, kitchen floor not washed since he moved in, etc. The books were of modest interest. The deceased’s executor, a lawyer, let me in.

“Hey, look at these,” he said, pointing to a stack of canvases. “What do you think? I wouldn’t use ‘em to pick up after my dog.”

I may not know art, but I know what I don’t like. The man had spent his evenings working on paintings which were flat and lifeless, lacking any kind of sparkle in their color, design, line, or subject. There was one halfway nice painting, but that was the one he was working on when he died. Had he lived, he would have made it as uninteresting as the others.

“And you know what?” said the lawyer. “He left instructions in his will that I have to offer these to three museums—the National Gallery and the Art Institute are two of them—before I can dispose of them any other way. This means I have to take pictures and mail them (this was before digital cameras and email) and wait for curators to say no before I throw ‘em away.”

Try to find someone like THAT. 

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