A love for black children’s books
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    Our love affair with hoarding books

    I was at a reading this week by author Isabel Wilkerson on her new book about the Great Migration – that mighty flood of black people who left the South in the early part of the 20th century to escape the debilitating racism and segregation in the states of their births.

    The presentation was held in a basement auditorium at the Philadelphia Free Library, and upstairs, paperback copies of her book were waiting to be sold and autographed. I sat there trying to decide if I wanted to buy another book to decorate my nightstand.

    Hoarding books

    Boxes and boxes of books are often available at auctions.

    I usually attend these readings with several friends, one of whom loves to get her books autographed by the authors. This time, she brought her hardback copy of Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” and stood in line to meet the author and have the book signed.

    Wilkerson offered a thoroughly researched and fascinating talk about the Great Migration that made me want to read the story as she has told it. Her book is apparently not some staid and stuffy history; she walks us through the lives of three people who migrated to the Northeast, Midwest and West. The book was released in paperback and on audio this month, and some people in the room indicated in the nods of their heads and outbursts that they had already read and enjoyed it.

    Hoarding books

    I’m from the South, and I know only of family members on my grandfather’s side who took the long train ride into their future: one brother left for Detroit in 1915 and another in 1922 after reading that the Ford Motor Co. was hiring. At some point later, another group ended up in Cincinnati, OH, but the bulk stayed behind in Georgia.

    As I pondered if I would buy Wilkerson’s book, a friend sitting next to me in the auditorium mentioned audio books. I have listened to audio books before, and realized then that I loved being read to. I’ve listened in my car to the works of authors whom I would never have picked up had I not bought their audio books for $5 or so at a book sale. Each time I’d start an audio CD, I couldn’t wait to get back into my car to hear the rest of a Lee Child or a James Lee Burke tale.

    I now knew that I would buy “Warmth” as audio and have someone else read it to me. So, it wouldn’t be autographed, but I could live with that. In this case, the story’s more important to me.

    We are a nation of people whose love and hoarding of books border on gluttony. I see tons and tons of books selling for as little as a penny a piece at auction. Once, they probably had been someone’s treasures, but now the family just loaded them into boxes and sent them packing. These are not necessarily autographed books that might bring in a few dollars; they were likely bought to be read and never were.

    Hoarding books

    "Works of George Meredith" were among the older books offered at one sale.

    The hoarding of books may be generational and headed to extinction. According to a Washington Post story from 2007, one in four of us did not read a single book the year before. That’s a lot of people who didn’t pick up a book, and it partly led to a drop in book sales.

    We are reading e-books, though, and those sales rose substantially in June 2011, according to Publishers Weekly, followed by audio book downloads for our e-readers. Sales of hardcover and trade books for adults dropped. The Association of American Publishers reported that in February, e-books increased 202 percent, beating out adult hard-covers, adult paperbacks and others in the trade category. Downloadable audio books rose 36.7 percent, continuing consistent monthly gains. That was attributed to the holiday sales of e-readers.

    Most of the books purchased were new, although some were titles that had been around for at least a year, according to the publishers group. Older books are the kinds I tend to buy at sales. I don’t buy as many anymore, but I do have a built-in bookshelf in my office that houses my stash. Some I have read, most I have not. A few vintage ones I bought individually at auctions – “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” N.C. Wyeth’s illustrated children’s books, Lynd Ward, Booker T. Washington, Julia Child, Langston Hughes’ “First Book of Negroes,” Charles (Chic) Sale – and others that were part of box lots. Some I picked up at library book sales years ago.

    When I moved into my house about 10 years ago, I cleared out some of them and donated them to the library. But there are plenty left. There are some you just can’t give away.

    Hoarding books

    That was pretty apparent at an auction I attended more than a year ago. The auction house was selling artwork and other stuff from a local artist named Earl Wilkie. Among them were racks and racks of his books (above), indicating that he had an extensive library. His taste was eclectic, from religion to African American fiction and history to well, art. His son told me later that two bedrooms in his father’s house were filled with books from wall to ceiling and that he read every one of them.

    His boxes of books were readily snatched up – just as books are at most auctions. Whatever subject you want or need can be satisfied at these book offerings. One bidder told me once about a buyer who drives up to a flea market, sets out his books on tables and two hours later packs up because all of them are sold.

    Hoarding books

    Books at auction come in all subjects, including the reign of a president.

    Books for me are like breathing living human beings that can lull me with their stories or turn me off with their lack of imagination. If a story doesn’t grab me in the first few pages, I’m outta there. That’s why I have about a dozen books on my nightstand untouched – they haven’t compelled me to sit down and explore their tale.

    Wilkerson’s history of the Great Migration appears to be one of those that will invite me to come in, take off my shoes and settle back. I’ll try not to get too comfortable, though, since I’ll be listening to it in my car.

    Hoarding books

    A shelf of books waiting to be auctioned.

     

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