It started as purely a business transaction—a business coup, it seemed then and still does. Seventy-two moving boxes (12×13×16 inches in size), each packed like a sardine tin with books, CDs, audio tapes or photograph records. We bid $1,000 and got the lot. It took a rental trailer and a pick-up truck (and my brother-in-law’s generous help) to get all this to our double-car garage. My rotator cuff injury ached for days. And that was only the beginning.

The thousands of items had to be unboxed, one at a time, and catalogued for the online bookstore we operated at the time (Brain Books To Go) and other services where we were selling reading and listening materials. That, obviously, was the initial attraction. What we didn’t realize at the time was our thousand dollars had done more than simply glut our intellectual properties’ supply line for several months. We’d also acquired a window on a remarkable, and remarkably shattered, brain.

We knew going in that this collection carried a “must-sell” urgency because its compiler was in a coma from which he was not expected to emerge. We heard vaguely that he had suffered a lifetime of schizophrenia. That added an element of intrigue to the deal, because we purchased the library blind. The items were already packaged when we bought them.

Months later, we’d opened every box and examined every item. And it was a singular experience for us.

Sherry took charge of the CDs, audio tapes and albums. I took the books. Both categories, though, produced the same response. Our minds boggled over another mind’s remarkable achievement, given the obvious depth of its despair and brokenness.

Sherry gave me a guided tour through the albums, the audio tapes and the CDs the other night. She’s put them in clusters alphabetically by artist. It appears that our archivist started in the late 1960s. For the rest of that decade and in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was all albums. The Beatles, Grateful Dead, Beach Boys, Marshall Tucker Band, Abba, Kenny Rogers, Jimi Hendrix—those names and many others we recognized, even though their album photos often pictured them earlier in their careers than we remembered. And then there were hundreds of singles by performers we weren’t familiar with at all: Dan Fogelberg, Lee Michaels, Savoy Brown, Lightfoot, The Jim Carroll Band and Barclay James Harvest, to name a handful I turned up at random while rifling through Sherry’s orderly storage system.

In the ‘80s, our archivist turned to audio tapes. And in the 1990s and the 21st Century, to CDs. Not an unprecedented undertaking, of course. There are thousands of collectors worldwide of this sort of thing. But when combined with the book collection, we’ve been made to realize that our potential “white elephant” purchase has thrust us into the role of archaeologists for a mind that, if deeply troubled, was also profoundly gifted, active and productive.

Because the same thoroughness that made his music products collection a veritable “history” of what music producers were packaging over nearly four decades did the same for his book collection.

Clearly, he didn’t buy everything. But it is difficult to think of a title … or a writer … of importance that he missed. At one point I had to wonder, “Will I ever get all of his copies of Anthony Trollope’s works catalogued?” But I quickly forgot Trollope because then came Dickens. Book after book after book. Some a bit bunged up, but many brand new. Eleven, spankin’ clean volumes of The Diary of Samuel Pepys. The entire set of the gorgeously printed and bound Library of America series. Copy after copy of the prodigious Oxford University Press’s dictionaries and anthologies and histories and “companions to.” Somehow, he either got on the mailing lists of or prowled the bookstore stacks housing the publications of numerous university presses, and certainly the biggest and busiest: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, the State Universities of New York, Berkeley, Stanford, North Carolina, Indiana, Oklahoma, Nebraska and on and on. But then he’d also purchased practically every book Billy Graham ever wrote. And Robert Schuller. And Joan Didion. And John Grisham. He’d bought copious numbers of books about military history. And race relations. About philosophy and literary criticism. (And languages. He never seemed to have passed up a Berlitz “learn to speak it yourself”-type tape set and instructional book. But not just Italian or Japanese. The languages of the Lakota Sioux, and the Shoshoni, and the Navajo—he had those sets, too.)

But did he actually read any of his books? As I kept moving through box after box of the best and the most acclaimed (and sometimes not so acclaimed) of 300 years of writing in the English language, I had my doubts. But then by-the-bye I’d pick up one of Oxford U. Press’s 1,200-page tomes, for example, and there deep in its bowels I’d notice a series of repetitive notes. “I read this … I read this …I read this … I read this,” he’d pen in his small, slightly irregular handwriting.

And then I discovered the journals. We’d been told by one of the workers who had packaged all this about the journals. He said they were just spiral-bound notebooks filled with gibberish and they’d tossed them in the trash. But not all of them. I found a half-dozen. And it was in them that the extent of his illness became instantly and achingly clear. And also, the extent of his devotion and passion to his collections.

I’ll not quote a single word from his notebooks. It would be a violation of his copyright, not to mention his privacy. But leave it said that he read copiously. He would plan the night before to read Doftoevsky or William James or Eugene O’Neill the following day. He might even have a favorite chapter in mind (indicating that he’d read it before), and would note how eager he was to place a checkmark by it once he was finished. Every day for years, he wrote a single page about each day of his hopeless fragmented life. When he reached the end of a page and a day, he stopped, often in mid-sentence. Yes, he read a lot in his books. And, no, he couldn’t possibly have done more than open many of them a time or two, if that.

We understand that he did emerge from his coma. Afterwards, he was cared for in a health facility in the Midwest. We wish him every solace that contemporary medicine of the mind could offer. And we wondered if the store clerks checking out his endless purchases over the decades had any idea of the chaos in the brain they were conversing with.
The above commentary has appeared previously on one of my blogs. I’m choosing to recycle it here because I think the story it tells is fascinating.

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