Back when I had some semblance of disposable income, I enjoyed going to used bookstores and loading up. It became a somewhat notable tradition during intensive course sessions at graduate school in Minnesota that I would take one or two nights and go raid a few of my favorite spots after dinner with some of the cohort. Some went along and got hooked. I bolstered my philosophical and theological library considerably at a fraction of the cost of buying new. (EDITORIAL ASIDE: let’s face it, when you buy a new version of an old book, you’re not paying for the original content. You’re paying for the cover and whatever crap is slapped before and after the text as ‘introduction’ or ‘commentary’. Looking at you, Bible publishing industry. And you, Penguin Classics. You’re even more shameless than those hacks who write ‘[insert pop cultural phenomenon du jour] and Philosophy’ piles of lithographic crap; at least they attempt to riff off of something rather than parasitically insert themselves into the work itself. I digress.)
When I got home and went to file away the books I’d picked up, I would leaf through them and some were tagged. Some by stickers, others by those awesome embossing stamps, others simply with a sticker. One book was actually tagged after its previous owner passed away, his library presumably liquidated and whatever remained was sold to a certain bookstore where all the books are 50% off. Incidentally, it was one of the better finds from my trips to St. Paul.
I am a firm believer of the notion that you can tell the quality of a person by the quality of his or her library. With few exceptions–perhaps as few as one–the most interesting and engaging people I’ve met are well-read. (In fairness, while ignorance is irritating, well-read, uninteresting people are more irritating: how can one be exposed to so many ideas and be so socially lame? That’s beside the point.) And, while lawyers chase ambulances, those of us with niche, fetish interests chase estate sales: a few years ago in Kansas City, when an estate sale noted that some vintage McIntosh stereo equipment was up for sale, allegedly a dozen audiophiles were there before dawn, ready for fight each other for the right to those delicious pieces of audiophilia. When professors retire or pass away, their libraries tend to go up for sale, and aspiring academic vultures will come to see what’s available. As morbid and cynical as it may seem, this is actually tribute: people come because property becomes available, but they also come, unwittingly or otherwise, because someone who cared is no longer able to tend to his or her interests.
The estate sale is the epilogue of life.
Now, what I’m not saying is that the toys we leave behind are all that matters, Malcolm Forbes could not have been more wrong. Indeed, what matters most is what we invest into those around us. And, when we’re gone, the legacy we leave behind is whatever it is we have invested into others. And, when the time comes for my estate sale, I would hope that people would see what it was I’ve left for them to do and be as time marches on. Leaving things worthy of remembrance, things that may or may not be valuable, but things which attest to the kind of person I am and, at that time, was. People who attest to the kind of person I was. People who have their lives embossed with me. Something about ruach writing torah on the heart seems fitting.
Legacies don’t make themselves, they are earned every day by people who relentlessly choose to live. So, what will be embossed with your name? Who will be inspired by your life?
What kind of estate sale will they have for you when you’re done?