The very last step of getting moved in was to unpack the books: 20 boxes in my office; 35 boxes at home. It is a process both cumbersome and rewarding—and an occasion for reflecting on a lifetime of reading and on the book as an artifact.
In the era of the e-book, it is striking how inefficient traditional books are. I held in my hand a paperback I bought in a used book store while in graduate school and saw the price marked in pencil: $2.50. This will be the twelfth time that book has been moved: packed into a box and labeled, carried by me (when younger) or by movers, unpacked and re-sorted onto a shelf. In my younger years, those shelves would be made from bricks and boards. In Atlanta, we had beautiful shelves built into our living room. When we moved again and had to leave them behind, we decided to build shelving that looked built-in but could move with us. That tiny volume of Shakespeare criticism bears its share of those costs and is perhaps not the bargain it seemed at the time.
So why hold onto these dusty volumes when electronic access would dramatically save paper, shelving and moving costs? I’ve read e-books; they’re fine. But I like the feel of a book and the ease of writing a note in the margin and flipping back and forth. I also like having it on my shelf: for future reference or to lend to a friend.
But, if I were honest with myself, I’d have to admit that most of the books on my shelves I won’t open again. Jorge Luis Borges has a wonderful poem about mortality called “Limits.” It begins:
Of all the streets that blur into the sunset
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time. . . .
And later muses:
Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.
I similarly know that my library has many books I will never read again.
And yet they serve my memory much the way photographs do. Indeed, unpacking the books and sorting them on the shelves rekindles many memories (intentional Amazon pun). I put together my English poetry shelf with volumes of Chaucer, Donne, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne and Yeats. To be honest, Keats, Wordsworth and Yeats are the only ones I go back to with any frequency. Some of the others have been closed since grad school. But I remember the courses in which I studied them, my teachers and fellow students, those years of discovery as I found a vocation and experienced that crucial step in learning: that there was a field of knowledge I was responsible for, whether I had a class assignment or not. That they sit together—six hundred years of poetry—on a single shelf continues to amaze me, as it did Virginia Woolf. In her fanciful book, Orlando, the hero, who lives three centuries, encounters (in the nineteenth century) for the first time in her very literary life, an actual “bookstore”:
These innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper, surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. . . . ‘Works,” the works of every writer she had known or heard of and many more stretched from end to end of the long shelves. . . . She gave an astounding order to the bookseller to send her everything of importance in the shop and left.
Another wall of books reflects my good fortune to work in a field that brings me in close contact with writers: inscribed books from various authors. Some of those authors I worked with over a literary festival weekend, others are close friends. The memories there range from talking with John Updike about our mutual admiration for largely forgotten English novelist Henry Green to accepting from James Dickey the last few cans of Schlitz Malt Liquor that he had failed to finish in the Alumnae House.
As a teacher of literature, of course, books are also tools of the trade. Some of the volumes are worn from years of teaching them to different generations of students who, in their turn, changed the way I read and remember those books. My tattered copy of Ulysses reminds me of reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy with a class of students at a women’s college whose honest responses shed new light on one of the most famous moments of a male author writing from a female perspective. My collected Wallace Stevens reminds me of teaching “The Emperor of Ice Cream” to a particularly sharp group of undergraduates who somehow transformed my “ice cream as universal good” into an “ice cream as death” reading of the poem.
The shelves remind me of my particular fondness for books that talk to each other. If I want, I can shelve them side by side. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea that re-tells Jane Eyre from the point of view of Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic”; Margaret Atwood’s Hag Seed that reinvents The Tempest as a performance in a contemporary Canadian prison; Jane Smiley’s Ten Days in the Hills that turns the Decameron into a Hollywood novel; and my favorite writer, Zadie Smith, whose On Beauty reimagines E. M. Forster’s great Howards End in contemporary New England.
My personal library is just a tiny slice of the comprehensive world library, what Borges apotheosized in “The Library of Babel.” And reading is just a slice of my overall experience and memory. So it is with us all. But as individual and distinct as our slices of experience are, books call us to come together. We read in solitary but become a part of a community of fellow travelers. The renewed popularity of book clubs testifies to this, as do our classrooms where one of the most fundamental premises is a roomful of inquiring minds who have read the same thing but responded to it differently.
And now, at last, we are moved in.