Friday, January 1, 2021
I rearranged my office back in mid-December. This is always tricky because we have more stuff (hand-me-down furniture, old computers, bins full of electronics) than we really have house to put it in. As per usual one thing led to another and I wound up moving all of my books.
I’ve finally got just enough room to shelve most of them again, thanks to secondhand bookshelves and a partner who went on a building spree for her own collection over the summer. It’s been a couple of houses since they were anything like organized, though. Half of them have been trapped behind a cat tree and an armchair for years.
I went for alpha-by-author ordering, with a handful of category exceptions: Poetry, reference works, religious texts, computer stuff, a bottom shelf for the oversized volumes. It’s a mess because I’m doubling up to fit everything and the books are wildly different sizes. I can see one of the flimsier sets of shelves coming apart under the load as I type this, and the U–Z stacks are still sitting on the bedroom floor because I ran out of space.
So it’s imperfect, but it’s also really the first comprehensive view I’ve had of this set of books since I was 6 or 7 years younger and it was a much smaller set. It’s kind of a strange experience.
From the time I started reading on my own until pretty far into college, I lived in books. As a kid I read and re-read my dad’s pile of genre paperbacks, thrived on trips to the library, spent hours arranging things on shelves, was always in the process of reading something. Once my friends and I could drive, it meant I could go to B. Dalton and Waldenbooks before we saw whatever the movie was that week. Eventually the internet started to tell me about writers and my personal canon expanded slowly outward, one novel-length trip at a time. It felt so weird to leave a book unfinished that until at least my early 20s I could remember everything I’d ever bailed on (a Hardy Boys mystery with a scene containing a skeleton that wigged me out, the copy of Cujo that my mom got banned from the school library after I accidentally left it where she could find it, …).
The books I have physically to hand in middle adulthood are a different kind of animal. There are, sure, beloved volumes from childhood, things that have changed how I think, the kinds of books I go to for solace and perspective. But looking at the whole spread, I’m honestly not sure I’ve even read more than half of this stuff.
Some of it I read but hated, or liked fine but never actually finished. There must be 30 lbs of assigned reading I’ve been lugging around since college. A dozen literary relics of relationships (romantic or otherwise) that have been defunct for many multiples of the brief time they existed. Detritus like the copy of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos that I bought used and hate-read for reasons that now escape me but must surely reflect poorly on my character. Books about math that I own because I liked the idea of being a person who would read them. Poets who just leave me with a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. Things that looked mildly interesting on the book swap shelf at a coffeeshop I frequented in 2003, but which are in fact bad. I have a copy of Battlefield Earth for some reason. (It was probably on the free table at SparkFun.)
There’s at least as much dross in this collection as there is gold waiting to be found, and then it’s funny how much of it belongs to some now-distant idea of who I was — or wanted to be — as a reader or a thinker or a person in general.
I suppose all of that’s pretty normal for a stack of books sitting around going into one’s 5th decade. If you hold still for very long in this culture, stuff accumulates around you, and plenty of it outlasts the parts of your life that it attached to in the first place. A library is a kind of memory and an index to memory, but what it remembers can often be strangely fractured and unevenly focused across time. Not unlike the way things actually go in a given life I guess.
Still and all: I haven’t let go of the idea of a personal library, and I doubt I will.
Putting this stuff on shelves makes me think of what it was like at 10 or 12 years of age, crouching on the floor halfway through reordering a stack of paperbacks, accidentally caught up in reading The Green Hills of Earth or The Call of the Wild over again. It also reminds me of what it was like at 21, wandering deep in the stacks of a big university research library: All those weird pathways and strange wonders. Outcroppings of the sublime or the sturdily useful in the most unexpected places, amidst treacherous pools of boredom and fossilized nonsense. All the times I intersected with some decades-old choice in curation and bounced off of it as a slightly different person.
I think a library should be a refuge, but it should also be something with the capacity to surprise and unsettle you. Maybe a personal one should serve as a reservoir of things you used to think and things you still might.