Giving Books Away

In the 1930s, if you were really rich and needed a libel lawyer, there was only one person you called: Macdonald DeWitt. He was, in many respects, the Johnny Cochran of his day; his OJ Simpson was the NY Post, which he defended successfully. Descended from a wide variety of wealthy early Americans, many of them politicians, and at one time a candidate for the New York State Supreme Court himself, he was, at the very least, a notorious and controversial figure.

He was also, as it happens, my great uncle’s patient. (My great uncle was a well-heeled doctor with, um, well-heeled clientele.) These were the days in which doctors and patients were often friends, mind you, and the two were close. So close that when DeWitt passed away in 1967, he bequeathed his entire personal library to my great uncle… who in turn bequeathed his own library (including DeWitt’s books) to me.

Some of the volumes are both valuable and precious to me: early editions of Darwin’s ORIGIN OF SPECIES and DESCENT OF MAN are particularly close to my heart, as you might imagine. But for as long as I’ve been entrusted with the collection, I’ve felt like I really shouldn’t be the one keeping it all. These are all old books, inscribed by DeWitt himself AND by various and sundry notable Americans from the early 20th century. They’re early editions, furthermore, authored by literary lions. More people need to benefit from them than just me.

About a decade ago, when I first brought the books home from my great uncle’s house, I immediately started trying to learn more about DeWitt. The only thing Google would yield, however, was the Macdonald DeWitt Library at SUNY-Ulster. Surely, I thought, if the man had put his name on a library, he’d have left them his private collection as well. It had to be a different DeWitt. But I kept digging, and I eventually called the head librarian to confirm what I’d uncovered: it was, in fact, him.

So there I was, the steward of all these great books, speaking directly with the woman who oversaw the Macdonald DeWitt Library. I wasted no time, offering to donate, at my own expense, a healthy selection of volumes from a cross-section of the collection. Better to have them there, I suggested, than sitting in my own little personal library, but she turned me down flat. To this day, I’m not sure why. She suggested that the library had space constraints, but that struck me as very peculiar. How much room might a handful of books take up? I even proposed a single volume, inscribed by DeWitt himself, but she declined. Did she think perhaps I was making the whole story up? Perhaps, though I have ample means by which to demonstrate the provenance of the collection. In any event, I was stymied.

But I was not dismayed. I made a decision then to revisit the issue once a year; I made a note in my personal calendar to check the library’s website and see whether the librarian had left her post. My hope was that someone new in her position might be more open to a conversation. And, as it happens, I was right. The new head librarian at SUNY-Ulster has agreed to permanently house a small collection of DeWitt’s books. We’re now in the process of figuring out which volumes make the most sense for the library, and then I’ll be shipping them off. In 2017, furthermore, during the library’s 50th anniversary, they’ll be holding a small celebration. I could not be any happier.

I feel as if history is about to be set right, if only a tiny bit. Some of what should never have been kept apart from the world will be returned to it; I’m not giving books away, really, but giving them back. I have mixed feelings about libraries, but I’m merely a steward here, like my great uncle, and I’m trying to do what seems right. And what seems right to me is that we should all hold the things that come into our lives the way we ought to hold our ideas: as loosely as we possibly can. Let them go, pay them forward, test them, share them, and watch them evolve. They aren’t ours, after all. They belong to the future, and the future can and will do with them whatever it wants.

6 thoughts on “Giving Books Away”

  1. Interesting. I have the original handwritten manuscript of a never published book I edited for Susan Strasberg (Lee’s daughter). I approached the Strasberg Institute about turning it over to them and they could not have been more disinterested. I am not as persistent as you, however. 🙂

    1. Make a note in your calendar, my friend. Once quick check per year till there’s a new director. Never hurts!

      Also: that’s a cool story. How’d you end up with that? Awesome. But you know what’s cooler?

      The great-uncle I mention above is buried in the cemetery mere steps away from Lee Strasberg. Weird coincidence!

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