Hemingway Might Love This Story

“I suppose if a man has something once, always something of it remains” —  Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

I opened the mail at my house in Atlanta last week to find an invitation that made my heart do a few flips.  A book club in my Atlanta neighborhood is having a book sale tonight, and all of the evening’s proceeds go toward building a school in Haiti.

That invitation couldn’t have come at a better time.  I’m selling my Atlanta house, and I simply can’t take all my books with me to Florida.  It was time to find a new home for some really great books, and I couldn’t think of a better place to donate them.

I went to my library and started pulling books from my shelf.   What you keep is what you can’t let go — the line from Jimmy Buffett’s song “Don’t Chu Know” played in my head as I considered which books to donate.

I discovered that I had three – three! – copies of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s There is a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem.  I can only speculate that at some point in my life I believed myself to need three times as much self-help as the next person.

And while I contemplated how I’d acquired three copies of the same book, I realized that I had eight copies of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez. That’s because back when the book was on the bestseller list, my then-husband taught Sunday School and used The Prayer of Jabez as a textbook for the class.

As I looked at all those Jabez copies, I realized I still remember the Prayer of Jabez word for word:Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain.”  The last line of the prayer gave me pause as I thought about how many times I prayed that for my husband during the dark days of our marriage.  Whatever else that prayer did for me, it taught me that there are some things we can only ask for ourselves; praying for other people something they might not want for themselves is nothing more than using God as an attempt to control others.

Giving away my books was harder than I thought it would be.  Because for each one I picked up and pondered, I thought about where I was when I read it and what it meant to me at the time.  And that, I think, is the point of any book – how it changes you.

The ones I couldn’t part with?   My books by Pat Conroy, Cassandra King, and John Irving. And I kept one copy of Dr. Dyer’s book.

Of course, the late Lewis Grizzard is one of the great loves of my literary life and will always have the prime spot on my bookshelf.  I was heartbroken the day he died, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read every word the man ever wrote. I have an autographed copy of one of his last books, and even though people joked that copies NOT signed by Grizzard were rarer than signed ones, mine is very important to me.  You see, Grizzard was notorious for being cranky at book signings.  He was once voted the worst author to have to escort on a book tour.  But all I know is that when my very pregnant 25-year-old self waddled up to the table, he was very, very kind to me.

Right next to Grizzard, both on my shelf and in my heart, is Ernest Hemingway.  I don’t own a copy of everything Hemingway wrote and certainly not an autographed one.  But I have an autographed photo of Hemingway (the same photo as pictured above) in my house, and I’ve always had a secret longing to own a first edition Hemingway.

When it was all said and done, though, I parted with over 70 terrific books that I hope will bring in good money for the children of Haiti.  As I carried those boxes of books over to my neighbor’s house, I wondered how they would change their new owners.  And how they can possibly change life for a few children in Haiti.  (And no, I didn’t pray the Prayer of Jabez for the books’ new owners — it was more of a simple, “God bless whomever ends up with these books.”)

Two nights later, back in Florida, I was sitting outside sipping a margarita at a neighborhood party.  One of my neighbors, a close friend of my parents’, sat down next to me and said, “I have something for you.”

I don’t know if this story is about the nature of desire, how sometimes a secret desire left undisturbed can spontaneously be fulfilled. Perhaps it’s more about the law of giving and receiving – the principle that the two are as inseparable as two sides of a coin and that giving is a prerequisite for receiving.  But I do know this:  three days after I gave away all those books, my neighbor left a first edition copy of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls on my doorstep.


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