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Donald A. Yerxa


What books should I keep? What stories do they tell?

I had it all planned. After more than thirty years serving on the faculty of a Christian college just outside Boston, I would head to the sunny Gulf Coast of Florida. My days would begin with early morning spiritual and physical activity,then perhaps some fishing, followed by four or five solid hours of professional work—writing and editing poolside on a laptop. Come late afternoon, I would head for—what else?—an earlybird special at one of the many restaurants in the Sarasota- Venice area. Then I would conclude the day at the beach enjoying those breath-taking Gulf sunsets with my wife. That was the plan.

On both sides of my family, Florida has beckoned whenever we Yerxas and Wrights have contemplated retirement. No doubt long Maine winters drove these decisions. But I'd always thought I'd buck the trend. Retiring in Florida conjured up images from Seinfeld of Boca Del Vista: senior tricycles, white belts, and Elaine pleading with Jerry's mother to turn on the air conditioning as she wilted in the heat. Not me! How could I leave the "Hub of the Universe"? I'd tough it out. Order lots of firewood. And pay some neighborhood kid to shovel me out after each snow storm.

A gently persistent wife, however, has worn down my resistance. Being a native of Pittsburgh, she has never shared my love of New England's distinctive four seasons— the mantra diehard New Englanders recite whenever someone mentions moving to warmer climates. But it's more than just my wife's lobbying on behalf of Florida. For example, the cost of the kiln-dried firewood I like to burn has jumped to about $500 per cord. And the army of youthful entrepreneurs who used to hit the streets with shovels after each winter storm has disappeared in my neighborhood. Moreover, concerns I've had about cultural and professional isolation have been allayed: with the Internet, cable, and good phone service I can remain connected to the intellectual circles I cherish, let alone still watch my beloved Boston sports teams, most of which are faring pretty nicely these days!

Baby boomers like me, I suspect, never thought it would really happen to them. Sure, we knew we would grow old someday, and we've been diligently preparing with our 401Ks and TIAA-CREF plans (more about that anon). My generation has comforted itself with the consolation— conceit, really—that if we have to retire, at least we'll be a lot cooler than our parents; we'll do it with panache. We'll plan better, dress better, and for sure we'll prove that our taste in music, while eclectic, is vastly superior. No Burl Ives, Tennessee Ernie Ford, George Beverly Shea, and Gaithers for us. From our CD players and iPods will come the sounds of Hendrix, the Kinks, Baroque chamber music, and Renaissance polyphony.

As I contemplated retirement—at least from teaching — I began to downsize my library. How many of us, I wonder, have books at home we'd be embarrassed to place on our office shelves? Would academic colleagues think less of me if they knew I read Vince Flynn and David Baldacci novels on the subway? Or if they knew I have a good number of "What If?"-type alternative historical explorations at home? How lowbrow! But I digress.

Over the years I have culled a fair number of superfluous and unwanted books from my shelves. These haven't been terribly painful exercises. The minor losses were more than compensated for by the prospect of new, more exciting replacement volumes. This time, however, it felt very different. I wasn't just pruning and thinning here and there. This was "biblio clear-cutting." I committed to keep only those books that I truly cherish, really want to read, or have some prospect of using in my post-teaching career.This hurt. I said good-bye to hundreds of books. But I also found that radical downsizing of a personal library can be instructive.

As I pulled down volumes to make the initial cut, I came across some of the first history books I ever purchased, back around 1964: Herodotus, Tacitus, and Plutarch. I hadn't read them in over four decades, but they remained on my shelves, dusty testimonies to the pedagogical genius of a high school history teacher, Charles Cahill, who sold me on history with his love of ancient Greece and Rome. How proud I was as a high schooler to own those books! Then there was a miscellany of undergraduate texts, graduate school-era monographs, and volumes supporting various classes I've taught over the years in American history, military-naval history, the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history, historiography, and science and religion.

I found myself noting little things. Those paperbacks I bought in the 1960s were so cheap—50 cents for Herodotus; 90 cents for Tacitus. Books from my student years have a simple Don Yerxa scribbled on the title page. Books purchased when I was a young historian often have bookplates with my name typed in. Finally—it must have been after I received tenure— an embossed seal proudly announced a book's inclusion in the Library of Donald A. Yerxa. I thought I detected a parallel trajectory with bookmarks: old slips of yellowed paper being replaced by nice leather markers from historic sites and universities in the UK or elaborate metallic markers of various design, some quite intricate. But I also came across a bunch of garish Amazon.com bookmarks from the late 1990s, when they would send them with every purchase. The existence of so many bookmarks signals that I failed to finish a lot of books I began to read with good intentions. Did I give up on John Buckley's Air Power in the Age of Total War because I disliked the book, or was I simply distracted by some other title or project? I used to keep a reading journal listing every book I read. But my "rules" stipulated that I had to read them cover to cover in order for them to be included. After sixteen years, I stopped keeping record last year. What's the point?

And then there were the far-too-many books I bought that remained virginal. Some I put off so long that their topics no longer interested me. Charles Tilly's Big Structures, Large Processes, and Huge Comparisons is a good example. I didn't give up on all the unread volumes, of course. Some would travel to Florida with me, where I hoped to finally complete Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/ Maturin series—I stalled out around volume #7. I wasn't sure what to do, however, with gift books from people I care about. Very thoughtful gifts at the time, but will I have room for them in my new digs? And what to do with those books with personal inscriptions by the authors?

I began to notice a pattern in the kinds of books I found myself inclined to keep. Historical narratives, works of fiction, and spiritual classics top my list, along with necessary reference works. I find that a good story, be it historical or fictional, is of far more interest to me at this stage of life than more analytical works. I made exceptions, however, in the few subject areas where I still have aspirations to do some writing. So Page Smith's multi-volume People's History of the United States, Michael D. O'Brien's Island of the World, and various editions of the Philokalia will join FrankAnkersmit's Sublime Historical Experience, Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe, and Penelope Corfield's Time and the Shape of History on the trip to Florida.

Downsizing my library also put me back in touch with some books that have had a huge impact on my life— books such as Thomas Howard's Evangelical is Not Enough, Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary, and Brennan Manning's Lion and Lamb. Holding them in my hands and turning their well-worn pages, I'm reminded of the late Harold Brodkey's 1985 essay, "Reading, the Most Dangerous Game," in which he argued that reading may well be the most intimate human act because of the prolonged exposure of one mind to another. While Christians may interpret Brodkey's claim in the light of our culture's cheapening of physical intimacy, his argument hinges on the "dangerous" potential for reading to generate personal metamorphosis, sometimes to the point of altering the reader's sensibilities and core beliefs. Thomas Howard began a process that fundamentally altered my understanding of worship. Henri Nouwen and Brennan Manning will remain lifelong spiritual companions to whom I will always be in debt for revealing to me the depth of God's love and the meaning of the core doctrine of grace.

After decades of accumulating things—books, gadgets and trinkets, items to place on my c.v., and so forth—I have begun putting some of them aside. Eventually, of course, they must all go. But for now, just some of them. As I stacked books in boxes to deposit with my college library or leave outside my door, I could not help thinking about one of the most deeply moving moments of my life. It was a little over two years ago. And it occurred in Florida. My father had just died, and my brother had taken my mother to an assisted living facility in Ohio. I was alone for a couple of days in my parents' home. My job was to go through their possessions to select a few keepsakes, decide what things we might sell or donate to charity, and then discard the rest. I kept my emotions in check until a contractor came and loaded up his truck and trailer with piles of household items, bags of old clothes, and all sorts of bric-a -brac. As he drove off, I shuddered. These items held almost no monetary value. But they were things that only a few days prior were so much a part of my parents' lives. Now they were on their way to a landfill. The wisdom of those who caution about fretting over possessions that get tossed away in the end was never so apparent.

As it turns out, while I am still retiring from teaching soon, the Florida plans have been put on indefinite hold. Like many people our age, my wife and I have lost much of our retirement portfolio in the current recession. Moreover, real estate values on the South Shore of Boston—even with partial water views and mooring rights—have plummeted. This is not the time to pack up and move to Florida. My retirement dreams have also been downsized.

Disappointing as this has been, it isn't all bad. As many wise people have noted over the centuries, with the downsizing of even good things comes a certain liberation of the soul. And, as it turns out, retirement from teaching has opened more space for other professional activities in Boston. Throughout this time of transition, however, I have become more than ever convinced of the wisdom of Evelyn Underhill's famous observation in her little book The Spiritual Life. "Most people spend their lives trying to conjugate the verbs 'to want,' 'to have' and 'to keep'— craving, clutching, clinging—when all the Spirit wills us to do is to conjugate the verb 'to be.' " So glad I kept Underhill. There's nothing like a good book, especially in a downsized library.

Donald A. Yerxa is senior editor of Historically Speaking. He retires from the faculty of Eastern Nazarene College in June and has recently been named co-director of The Historical Society.

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