Is it Time Yet for a Kindle?

When you’re at least the fifth generation of book collectors living in a house that’s been in the family for eight generations and you’ve run out of bookcase space, there is one obvious solution: You load your piles of culled-out books into sturdy grocery bags and donate them to the West Tisbury Library’s annual mega book sale in July.

For me, however, this means looking at each and every one of the I-don’t-know-how-many-thousands of books there are in this large house. Every one of the seventeen rooms, counting the upstairs and downstairs halls as rooms, has one or more packed bookcases lining its walls.

Some time ago, I realized I was not helping the situation and built a studio in part to house a large new bookcase for the books I’ve been amassing. That bookcase is now overflowing. My long-term tenant has patiently put up with the five-hundred-plus murder mysteries cramming what is essentially her bookcase and whose glaring blood-drenched cover art is not necessarily her cup of tea.

So I’ve set to work. Starting with the upstairs hall (a manageable project, I thought), a good friend (my housecleaner) has already cheerfully unloaded every single book and stacked them against the stairwell railing. She scrubbed the empty shelves, leaving a seductively clean and empty bookcase, an invitation to put all those books back again.

But no, I intend to give most of them to the book sale.

The stairwell, around which the books are stacked, was built when the house was renovated around 1860. I worry about the weight of those books stacked on the fragile floor around that opening. Daphne, the cat, has already knocked over one of the stacks, of which there are twenty-four with roughly thirty books in each, or approximately seven hundred and fifty books.

I’ve lugged three bags of books down the stairs and set them in the back of my car. But now I have second thoughts. Did I really look at each of those books? Do I really want to part with them? Before I go out to my car to double-check, I’ll go through the nearest stack. I really need to relieve the ancient floor around the stairwell of some of that weight.

On the top of the stack are two small books, four by six inches. One is Drill Regulations for Field Artillery (Horse and Light) United States Army (Provisional) 1911, and the book under that is Lieutenant S.N. Riggs, 104th Field Artillery, Provisional Regulations for Field Artillery, 75 MM. Gun. It was translated by the American Expeditionary Forces, France, August, 1917.

Thumbing through the little book, I see information on opening and closing the breechblock, correcting deflection, and diverse accidents. I stop to read that one: “Officers should on their own initiative try to prevent accidents for which these regulations give no solution.”

My father, the Lieutenant S.N. Riggs of the 104th Field Artillery, served in three wars starting with the Mexican Border Campaign of 1916. He was twenty-four years old at the time and was a bugler in the cavalry. He used to tell us stories about his horse, Old Hammerhead, who, deciding in mid-air that he couldn’t clear a wide ditch, would take an additional leap (in mid-air).

After the Mexican Border Campaign, my father enlisted in the Field Artillery, and served in France in the War to End All Wars (World War I). Twenty-three years later, December 8, 1941, he enlisted in the Coast Artillery.

These two little books I simply can’t give away. Already this has taken close to an hour.

Next in the stack is a series of books called The Little Prudy Stories, part of Sophie May’s Little Folks Books. The first book I pick up is called Cousin Grace, published by Lee and Shepard, Boston, 1894. The inscription reads in elegant spidery handwriting, “A birthday gift from Auntie Jule to Dionis, 1906.”

Dionis Coffin was my mother, and that was her eighth birthday present, a series of ten books. I open the second book, Little Prudy’s Sister Susy, at random and read this: “‘Mittens?’ said aunt Madge, kissing Prudy’s lips, which were pressed together over her sweet little secret like a pair of sugar-tongs clinching a lump of sugar.” (Honestly, that was a random selection.)

Auntie Jule, who gave my mother the books, was Julia Cleaveland, my great grandfather Captain James Cleaveland’s niece. As a child, my grandmother and her cousin Julia (Auntie Jule) collected leeches at the Stepping Stones, the brook that runs past the old mill in West Tisbury. Julia’s father, Doctor Uncle Dan, paid the girls a nickel for each leech, a tidy sum for a child of the sixties – 1860s, that is. I suppose the leeches were used in blood letting.

Clearly, the Little Prudy series must go back in the clean bookcase along with the artillery manuals.

Next in the stack (nothing as yet for the Friends of the Library) is Sweet Cicely by Josiah Allen’s Wife, Funk & Wagnalls, 1883. The flyleaf reads, “Alla Cleaveland, Feb 7, ’86.” I open at random to page 126. An illustration captioned “A Woman’s Place” shows a woman in a rocking chair with her needlework.

Great Aunt Alla (Alvida Cleaveland) was a voracious reader from the looks of the books in the downstairs library. Some of her other reading material indicates she was an advocate for women’s rights back in 1886.

Aunt Alla was born in Chile during a five-year whaling voyage, and one of the family’s favorite quotes is from Alvida, age four. Newly arrived on land after her entire four-year life spent at sea, she was riding in a horse-drawn carriage on the cobbled streets of New Bedford. “Pretty rough sea today,” she is quoted as saying.

Another book to keep.

Next on the stack is Kingsley Double-Crostics, the 2nd Double-Size Volume, Series Thirty-Five. Surely this can be sacrificed. But on the flyleaf it says, “With best wishes to Dionis and Sidney Riggs.”

Some years ago, my sister Alvida, named for our great aunt, was filling out a double-crostic in the weekly magazine Saturday Review when she realized the solution to the puzzle was a poem she’d written called “Mowing Mint.” The poem describes my sister’s pleasure at the fragrance of mown mint.

I guess this book is another keeper.

Next are two volumes, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Macmillan, 1897). I’d like to read these sometime.


So far I’m almost a quarter of the way down the first stack. The sun is setting. I’d better put off going through the remaining twenty-three-and-three-quarters stacks until tomorrow, when there’s more light. And I’d better retrieve those three bags I took out to my car and look through those books. No telling what I almost let get away.

I haven’t done too well. Maybe tomorrow I can, for sure, cull out a couple of bags of books for the West Tisbury Library book sale.

Maybe, when I do, I should get a Kindle.