When I received the news that the house I rent and had been living in for the last 15 years had been sold to developers, I was publicly dismayed and secretly relieved. Fifteen years is a long time to stay in one (very beautiful) place, but I had known for awhile that we had outgrown the tiny house. Or rather, that my ever-expanding library had outgrown the house.
I have spent the last 20 years of my life as a bookseller. Not surprisingly, I tend to accumulate books. Eight thousand books to date. Finally, last winter, when the weight of the shelves caused the floor to sink about two inches below the wall, I reluctantly acknowledged the end was near. Though I temporarily remedied the situation by moving all the books to the other side of the room, I knew that was a short-term solution.
There is a definite “clean slate” feeling to moving to a new place –the idea that you can start anew and redo your life completely. Correctly. Get them organized. Get them dusted. What I thought, as I stood facing my book cases with cardboard boxes, packing tape and dust cloth in hand, was “This is your chance to get your books in order.”
I decided on a methodical approach. First, I would weed them out, then clean them, sort them into categories and pack them carefully by subject. My inner librarian (a frustrated little soul) was doing a little happy dance in the anticipation of all that alphabetizing.
This turned out to be completely wrong.
My good intentions lasted about half-way through the first shelf of the first book case. The moment I took out the top row of books and found a second row, hitherto buried, inaccessible and frankly, forgotten, behind them, I knew was sunk. There, behind that first row—novels, mostly, that I had been reading over the last year—was a collection of poetry by Sharon Olds and Amy Clampitt, all of them looking well read and quite dusty. “My god,” I thought “my Sharon Olds binge was at least four years ago.” I started to peer behind other rows of books, and sure enough hidden behind and beneath every one was evidence of earlier infatuations and interests.
I realized with a jolt that my books were in order after all—they were basically in order of acquisition—the most recently read ones stacked most closely to the surface, earlier ones buried further in the stacks. It was a stunning revelation to realize that those shelves held my entire intellectual life laid bare for anyone curious enough to look: my Edna St. Vincent Millay phase, my (thankfully brief) obsession with fractals, my apparent inability to resist pastiches featuring Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t need a librarian; I needed an archaeologist.
From that moment on, packing went much more slowly, and became much more fun. I allowed myself the time to page through the books as I took them down. It was like looking through a rarified and specialized photo album. And I knew I could no more “weed out” the shelves than I could excise the memories that flooded me as I ran my fingers along their dusty spines. (Have I mentioned that I never dust?) I abandoned the idea of trying to “organize” the books and let them instead be boxed with their neighbors—with whom they had at least this in common: they had all managed to catch my interest at the same point some time in my checkered life.
It may be that after I move 50 boxes of books from one house to another, I’ll feel differently and be inclined to impose an arbitrary order to the collection. But at least for now, I’ve decided to leave them as I find them, and let them take me back, shelf by shelf, into an earlier era and an earlier me. I was gratified to find that I still recognized that younger woman, that her favorite books were still my own, and still for the same reasons. Perhaps when I do my unpacking, I’ll put things back in reverse—so that the oldest, most beloved books will come most easily to hand.
It’s a brand new house, after all, and it might be a comfort to have those books visible to remind me that a new house doesn’t mean a whole new person. Luckily, this house has a very strong foundation. The walls are brick and the floor is solid. I am relieved to know it can handle another 15 years of accumulated reading and living without the bottom dropping out.