Do you own books that, despite their quality, reputation, significance, pleasures, virtues, rewards, and overall worthiness, are still somehow your least-loved books? Mine reside at my office, where I’ve now exiled all the titles I can no longer fit on my shelves at home. I know I should donate these books or give them away—why bother keeping them in the first place?—but even the least-loved book still casts some kind of spell, just enough to keep it out of the Goodwill box, if only for a few more months.
Mass-market paperbacks, already fading from the landscape when I began buying fiction, are perhaps the least loved of my least-loved books. I still have my dog-eared copy of Franny and Zooey, with its spare, green and white cover (I cannot accept the idea of Salinger in hardback or trade paperback for some reason, especially The Catcher in the Rye, which has always seemed to me the center of the mass-market paperback universe), along with my Victorian paperbacks, even Bleak House, my favorite Dickens, here among the least loved nonetheless. I’ve somehow held on to my high school copy of The Grapes of Wrath, another mass-market paperback that should look more worn than it does—did I skim The Grapes of Wrath? A least-loved book, flipped though again, gives off a faint whiff of guilt.
Books assigned in college fall easily into the least loved pile, many of them still wearing their university bookstore price stickers, others sporting highlighted passages no longer needed for anything, the exam long since over. Several contain my handwritten margin notes—“industrial revolution,” “death of God?” “pantheism”—in my embarrassingly bad script. A copy of Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, assigned for a course I can barely remember, shoulders a row of other college texts, for courses also forgotten, no matter how hard I try to recall that moment in my life when, according to my highlighting, I finished Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, or had grasped enough of Bergson’s “Laughter” to write “Charlie Chaplin, etc.” at the end of an essay. A least-loved book mocks you for how much you’ve forgotten.
Books loaned from students, colleagues, or friends join those given as gifts, and keep the other least-loved books company. Loaned books remind you that you really should have given the book back months ago, the same thought you recall having had months ago, when you still didn’t feel like reading the book, although you told yourself otherwise, smiled, and assured the book-loaner you couldn’t wait to get started. Gift books carry the expectation of a thank you and a rave—I loved it!—an expectation your most-loved books would never impose.
Accidentally acquired books define one of the lowest strata of least-loved books, these sudden guests, these strangers, these party-crashers, these mysterious visitors. Why do I seem to own a novelization based upon a Graham Greene screenplay I’ve never heard of? My other Graham Greene—deliberately acquired—remains at home, clearly most-loved, too worthy to group with this screenplay, whose title I can’t even remember now. Where did I get that book? How, too, did I end up with two copies of a memoir I’d be too embarrassed to admit owning one copy of, not to mention reading, which I didn’t—still, the book remains, least-loved, but not yet donated, no matter how many times I’ve thought, I really should donate that one. Another layer of least-loved-ness: they remind you of everything else you’ve been putting off lately.
Sometimes, though, when I’m at home searching for a book, a book that feels just out of reach—I know it’s here somewhere, etc.—I’ll wonder if it isn’t really at my office, there with the least-loved titles? But no, it couldn’t be, I’ll think. Not that book. No way. But then it occurs to me that it must be there, since I’ve been searching for it, and since an exiled book occupies a place in the mind nonetheless, as if it were loved after all.