“Is shedding all these books synonymous with retirement?” I asked Alex Hammond. I was talking about the rows he had heaped in the Avery Hall Bundy Reading Room kitchen one day last spring. I walked by and saw the hundreds of paperback books stacked on the cafeteria-like tables. Everything from Philip Roth novels to Norton Anthologies to dated collections of feminist criticism. Attached to the door was a sign saying, simply, “FREE BOOKS.” Anyone walking by was welcome, even encouraged, to take them.
These were Alex Hammond’s books, mingled with those from the office of Dick Law, another retiring colleague. Alex was in the midst of cleaning out his office upon his retirement from 34 years in the WSU English Department where he has been a teacher and scholar of American Literature, editor (along with Jana Argersinger) of the scholarly journal Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism, Undergraduate Studies Director, Vice Chair and Scheduler, Interim Chair, frequent commentator in the Faculty Senate, and a role model for how to be one of those people whom no one wants to see retire.
One day last spring, I sat down with Alex and asked him about his books. As usual, Alex answered my question by taking me on a journey.
One of the things the US Government hated about Northwest tribal groups was the potlatch, he told me, a ceremony in which members would give up all their worldly possessions. When the US was trying to get post-Civil War control of the country, one thing they tried to do is outlaw the potlatch, which they saw as very anti-capitalist. Alex likened his book purging to the potlatch. “But I’m not giving away anything that’s worth much on the used book market. It feels great, if people will take them,” he said.