The last words my grandfather said to me were, “To be, or not to be. That is the question.” Which is Shakespeare of course. Anyone who knew my Pa wouldn’t be surprised by this one bit. Pa loved to recite poetry and literature, he had rows and rows of book shelves in his basement, all overflowing with book after book. It seemed like a secret library when I was little. I’d pretend I was in a book about a secret place, like Indiana Jones looking for the X on the floor, or the clue in an ancient script, as I thumbed through the old books. And the smell… well who didn’t love the smell of old books?
Some people get rid of books after they read them, but I’ve never been able to. Borrow them out? Sure. Donate or trash? Nope. I’m sure this is an inherited trait and that one day I’ll end up on an episode of Hoarders, but I can’t help it. Every book leaves a little impression on me, there’s always a word or phrase that might cling to me. What if I needed to find it again? What if I wanted to revisit a time or place later on after I had a new understanding of the subject matter?
Today I found myself wandering around a bookstore, looking for a new book to adopt into my Hoarder’s Hall of Shame. I usually peruse the bargain shelves first, unwilling to pay full-price for a book because I’m a cheapskate (in fact, later on I ended up at Goodwill and bought 3 hardback books there for a total of $8). The bargain shelf is miraculous because sometimes if you time it right, you can find the bestsellers which are still being advertised at the front of the store. Of course, next to those are some of the duds. The books no one wanted. Next to those is the Clearance Rack: the ones that were even worse than the duds.
I found myself staring at that rack as I pondered the books in my hands. I had a sci-fi by Margaret Atwood, and a new best-seller by Kate Atkinson. Both were on the bargain shelf. Being on the bargain shelf wasn’t a big deal, there wasn’t a stigma about it. If your book is anywhere next to Atwood, even if it’s been marked down to $5.97, you’re doing Ok. But the clearance rack? I perused the titles of misfit books, authors I’d never heard of. Boring titles, overused clichés. An irrational fear gripped me. What if that’s where I ended up?
What if, after working for years on a project dear to me, no one wanted to read it and it set sadly on a crude clearance shelf? As I thought about this, I realized this was a familiar problem for me. My senior year of high school I sat in my Art class, speaking to my teacher about the end of year senior awards he was in charge of awarding. He looked straight at me and told me who the Senior Award would be going to. Not me. Someone more deserving, someone who turned in his work on time. After telling me who would be receiving the prize he then said, “But you know, if I had an award for the most pissed-away talent, hands-down that would absolutely go to you.”
And I shrugged, because that was fine with me and didn’t hurt my feelings at all. Because I knew I’d rather my projects end up in the garbage than on a clearance rack. And I haven’t shaken that fear, yet. Being nothing seems more manageable than being just ok.
So, I spend my time fiddling with a project I’ll probably never finish while thinking of secret basements filled with beloved words their owners couldn’t part with, pondering Pa’s recitation of Shakespeare’s words, those last words he said to me. To be or not to be. It’s still the question, and I still don’t have an answer.