Trev's Books: Unpacking my Grandfather's Library

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Trev’s Books Unpacking my Grandfather’s Library

Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collec​tor's passion borders on the chaos of memories.

Walter Benjamin Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting

Trev’s Books Unpacking my Grandfather’s Library

MY GARAGE IS STUFFED with endless boxes of books. It will take me months to go through them all. Whenever my back can handle the pressure of hauling up another large box, I pull one up the stairs, drop it in the living room and rummage through, skimming spines, unpeeling dust jackets, and studying inscriptions. There’s a name written inside every book— ​T. Turnbull​— along with the year it entered the collection. Sometimes it’s like browsing a used bookstore right in my own living room; other times it’s almost too much to bear.


We packed these books in haste, with whatever boxes the local grocery store had left. Most were large fruit crates too big to safely fill with heavy books. When I used to work at a bookstore in university, all the boxes were small enough to fit two paperbacks side-by-side. Spines out, of course. But we should have known by that point that nothing about this was ever going to be ideal. Trevor Turnbull was never one to plan ahead. When he died, it was nearing the end of the month. He hadn’t given his landlord the next month’s rent cheque. He didn’t have a will. He hadn’t told anyone his passwords to anything. And he certainly hadn’t warned us that he was about to die. IT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE to reduce his life to a few hundred words, but I’ve already done it once, for the funeral program. Now I can do it again. This time for me. Trevor was born in 1939 in South Yorkshire, son of a coal miner. He was a smarter kid than anyone expected— plus tall, handsome, and charming to boot. His father was adamant he did not end up “down the pit” like every other boy in the village and so he went to grammar school.


He had books in his collection still— books he kept; books that crossed an ocean— to testify to these years. He was learning French. He read history and poetry. He loved jazz. In a Britain that had yet to butcher the welfare state, he could have gone to university, donned a white collar, and kept his lungs free of coal dust. But then he married my grandmother. Trevor is brilliantly happy in his wedding photo, although Ann, his bride, looks a bit queasy. I suspect she was, being several weeks pregnant at the time. They were teenagers. We all know this story. He didn’t go to university. He didn’t study history or literature or jazz. But he did become an engineer. He joined the army. ONCE, I ASKED HIM why they, English Protestants, lived in Northern Ireland for a while— at the height of the Troubles, no less. He just answered, with an uncharacteristic lack of detail: “to build.”


I had heard through other family members that he checked under his car every morning and finally decided to go back to England when his local pub was bombed. Another time— and I can’t remember when or where— I found his old army ID. He was labelled a “Sapper.” All I knew of sappers at the time was from reading T ​ he English Patient in a 101 Literature class, but I doubt Trev was making his way through Italian monasteries defusing landmines. I know too that with the army he was in Thailand for a spell; West Germany for another. Ann flew back to England eight months pregnant to prevent my mother from being born a German. We found a small book of photos from Thailand that he’d kept all these years. The man in those photos was barely recognizable. In 1978, he moved his family to Canada. The eldest son stayed behind. My mum once told me the story of how they stepped off the plane into midsummer Calgary with their parkas on. THE STORY COULD PROCEED in anecdotes like these. But when I try to connect disparate memories to the books in his collection, I fall short.


The oft-seen refrain.

Ever the collector, he had guides for things like identifying first editions and other tricks of the trade.

6 Trev read plenty of biographies, but never fiction. He could tell you everything about fellow Yorkshire-borns, the Brontës, but nothing, say, of the plot of ​Jane Eyre​.

7 His collection included everything from Shakespeare to sailing. His small apartment was lined with bookshelves. Each shelf organized by subject. I never saw anything on Engineering. Or Thailand. Or Germany (except numerous books on WWII). And the only thing on Ireland I’ve since come across was a hardcover pocket book on the History of Ireland, dated to the 1940s. He didn’t read fiction, only ​non-​. Books to either mold his mind or reinforce it. Perhaps he fancied himself an autodidact. Trev had a whole bookcase of poetry. In burrowing through boxes, I’ve since found many editions with his favourite poems flagged with Post-its. He used to read poetry to Ann before they went to sleep. For years, it was part of their routine. He told me this around the time of her death. I can’t remember if it was before or after, but somewhere in a fog of either illness or grief. WE ALWAYS KNEW ​Trev was a collector, but we never knew too much about it. Gifts from him— if there were any— were books. When I was 14, Shakespeare’s Sonnets; when I graduated high school, T ​ he Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam​; and each Christmas, a Folio edition of one sort or another.

8 As more and more grandchildren appeared, these gifts tapered off. Diminishing rewards, I suppose. When my grandmother died, they stopped altogether. After Trev died, in going through his books and his photographs, I discovered that he was not only an archivist, but a sentimentalist. The endless albums of family photos I would have assumed had been curated by Ann, but no. They were kept by him alone. In retrospect, I should have known; my grandmother had no time for sentiment. Trevor was the passionate one, the curator of memories. IT’S LEFT TO ME ​to unpack his library now and I have no idea what to keep. The rest of the family went through the books before they went into the boxes and the rest were pushed onto me— possibly because I am the one who knows (a little) about books, and certainly because I volunteered to do it (presumably because no one else wanted to). The only other option was to drop the boxes at a thrift store without review. It hurts enough to disassemble someone’s painstakingly acquired collection, but to do so without an attempt to make order of the chaos of memories feels cruel. It would be like a death without a funeral.


Perhaps it seems callous to reduce a person to the artifacts of their life, but at the end, what else tangible is there? We’d been through his before. My family met once in the garage of my grandma’s house, sorting through her things like a ramshackle auction house. I spent a whole weekend once going through my great-aunt’s photo albums. Our lives are cluttered with artifacts of the deceased. Pragmatism enters at some point. I can’t keep them all; I can’t even keep that many of these books. I’m privileged in that I even have a garage to store these— and in that I have a family to bear such artifacts in in the first place. If I kept his whole collection without question, the same circumstances would simply repeat in a generation. My niece or nephews would have to choose between making sense of m ​ y chaos or taking it all to Goodwill. THERE ARE “BOOK PEOPLE” in the same way there are “cat people,” “outdoorsy types,” “muscleheads,” or “grease monkeys.” It’s one of those things that firmly becomes a part of your identity. I wonder often if books were the only thing my grandfather and I had in common. We disagreed about most things, Trev and I. He voted Tory; I was liberal. We argued frequently.

10 I was never quite sure if he was disappointed in me or not. There were certainly many times I was disappointed in him. I knew I loved him; I suspect he might have loved me. My grief for him was unlike any other grief. It was complicated. It had layers. Anger, frustration. It was incomplete and unresolved. It lacked peace. It left only questions. Maybe then this is why I turn to his books for answers. But I don’t know if what drew him towards books was the same for him as it was for me. He didn’t even read fiction. I used to think the magic of books was that they held a perception of permanence which somehow made them feel more real than anything other literature. But all they are is a series of words; the meaning doesn’t change when they’ve been digitized. So why doesn’t the internet, for instance, hold the same sense of excitement that a book does? A book is a physical artifact; it survives after death. Subsequent generations won’t be able to rifle through hoards of Kindles and iPads. Well, perhaps they will, but it won’t carry with it the same experience of archaeology. It would lack the physical reminders of humanity: cracked spines, marginalia, Post-its, inscriptions, lost receipts tucked inside, and even the smell of yellowed paper. Or perhaps future generations will just pulp them.


In 1959, when he would have been 19, he subscribed to a Jazz Book Club. Not only did he keep every edition with him for the rest of his life, but he kept all the inserts that came in the mail with the books.


He purchased this edition of ​The love Poems of John Donne​ in 2017 and used his receipt as a bookmark.


Many of his books, I can tell Trev didn’t read. But as I look at them and turn them over in my hands, I imagine ​him picking them up in a bookshop, turning them over as the title along the spine or the illustration on the cover piques his interest. If he was at all like me, a fear might have struck him that if he put it down and walked again, he might regret it. That book would forever be an unclosed parentheses. A book becomes another small piece of your mind. Another door you can open. If you set the book down and walk away, you might never see it again and that door will never be opened. You will never step into the room inside. Perhaps you still never will, but it’s not walking into the room that holds the intrigue, it’s the sheer possibility of what you may find in there. Even a book unread is a memory of the excitement of that possibility. IF ALL WE ARE in the end is stories, then who gets to tell that story? H ​ ow c​ an you tell that story? Along with English Literature, in university I also majored in Archaeology. I always had difficulty explaining to people (and myself) the connection between the two.


I finally know. They are both just telling stories. Literature is the written word of a culture; Archaeology is crafting untold stories from the artifacts they left behind. And so this is the story I have told myself, as incomplete as it is, to interpret a person who— for better or worse— helped shaped who I am. But I cannot approach this objectively. Beyond the mere ethnographer’s dilemma, I cannot be without bias or intent. I am not a disinterested biographer; I have an agenda. My interests are purely selfish. I want to understand this person that was so frustratingly enigmatic. I don’t know if unpacking Trev’s library has given me any answers or any peace, but it at least has done for me what perhaps the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii has done for others. It has reminded me that here was once a person, full of passion and chaos and memories. If it is only the chaos that remains, then perhaps I should just let it be. ❥

Ashleigh Rajala

Ashleigh Rajala has lived previous incarnations as bookseller, filmmaker, zinester and wayward traveller. She is currently an award-winning writer living in Surrey, BC, Canada with a very fluffy cat and not-so-fluffy husband. Find her online at Copyright © 2019 Ashleigh Rajala

Cover Image: “Old Man and Books” by j4P4n, Open Clip Art Library. April 11, 2014. Via