I might have been unfair when I asked recently what books you’d rush to save in a disaster. Unfair, because I didn’t tell you my answer, and I still can’t, because I don’t know it, even though I have thought about this for weeks.
In our house, my husband and I have a bookcase that contains the books we hold most dear — autographed, or written by friends, or otherwise beloved. So I would probably choose one of those, but that’s still 100 books to pick from.
Fortunately, you are more decisive. A lot of you know just what you’d grab on your way out the door. On the other hand, a lot of you couldn’t bear to choose.
“ ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare,’ and ‘The Abridged Oxford English Dictionary,’ ” said Cary Griffith. “Being a writer, you want to read the greatest user of the language, and when you come across phrases like ‘wear my heart upon my sleeve / for daws to peck at’ — you want to be able to look up ‘daws.’ ”
Niomi Rohn Phillips faced disaster 20 years ago when the Red River flooded Grand Forks, N.D. “We moved my books — 500-600 of them — from our lower-level family room to the main floor,” she wrote. “I tried to keep them in orderly stacks.”
But the floodwaters kept rising. “We returned to a house beyond repair. I have an enduring memory of hauling armloads of sodden, waterlogged books to the berm, and my husband, wordless, putting his arms around me as I stood there weeping.”
When Gary Kinkel of Shakopee tried to choose, it came down — theoretically — to his books, or his wife. The books — theoretically — might have won.
“I would take some irreplaceable 19th-century editions,” he wrote. “I would also make sure to include two very thick books published in Germany right around 1700.”
After listing more books written in German, as well as Hebrew, Greek and French, Kinkel realized the load would fill his car. “Hmmm, my wife might have to lie on top of the books filling the back seat! This is simply too hard!”
Melody Villars of Bloomington would rely on sentiment. “I would save the classic antique books my grandpa gifted me as a child,” she wrote. “The most precious one of all is my mold-spotted ‘Les Miserables’ which grandpa gave me when I was 10.”
Kevin Fenton of St. Paul narrowed his list to two. “Thanks to Gutenberg, I could replace most of my books. But not these two — my copy of the ‘Boy Scout Handbook,’ and my signed copy of Greil Marcus’ ‘Mystery Train,’ which he autographed 14 years after I bought it.”
Thomas Gille, who lived through Hurricane Andrew, went the other direction — he would try to save all of his books. His plan involves packing books in big plastic bags that could be hermetically sealed.
He’d paste address stickers to each bag in case they floated away. In the end, though, he knows it would likely not work. “But I couldn’t abandon my precious possessions to the whims of nature without a fight. And that’s only one of many reasons I don’t live in Florida anymore.”
Steve Johnson of St. Michael, Minn., would save two books. “Homer’s ‘The Odyssey,’ which I used to teach, and the King James Old Testament. I’d take these two because I’d never totally master either, and both would provide endless fascination and entertainment. So many of the books I’ve read, while great, informative, fun or classic, are like Beatles albums: Eventually you learn everything there is about them, making them ‘unnecessary’ to take with you because they’ll always be a part of you.”
And that, in the end, is a comforting thought.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks