My family and I recently moved. In fact, just before we recently moved, we recently moved. After about five years in one house, we moved back to Cape Ann, MA this past summer and then, six months later, we moved again. Looking back on our lives together, my wife and I have moved twelve times in almost seventeen years of marriage. We’ve packed, unpacked, and organized our possessions more times than I care to remember. While we’ve found ways to simplify the process over the years, there’s one area we’ve refused to downsize: our books.
I haven’t always loved books. Although I was, according to my parents, an early reader, I didn’t become an enthusiastic reader until finding my “just right” book in early high school. Visiting the Derby Square Bookstore in Salem, MA with my mother, she suggested I give Druids, by Morgan Llywelyn, a shot. Begrudgingly, I relented and brought the book home, where it sat untouched for a few days. While I don’t remember the moment I made the decision to crack the spine and dive in, I vividly remember being completely absorbed by the story of Ainvar, Vercingetorix, and Julius Caesar. Once finished, my life of books began.
If a heaven for me exists, I’ve often imagined it a used book store, stacked high with delicious volumes from all over the globe. The sun is poring in from the large bow windows where I sit with a bottomless cup of steaming black coffee. The clock face never changes, there is no “next thing” clamoring for my attention.
Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to downsize our collection many times; indeed, with each move we’ve considered the cost – both in dollars and in effort – of keeping and hauling dozens of boxes, which strangely become heavier with every passing year. Confronted with the possibility of parting with our friends, however, we’ve repeatedly opted to move them “one more time”, with the vision of one day being able to unpack them all and place them, with all due admiration, in a place of honor in our home. In fact, we had that exact scenario this afternoon.
After a morning spent hauling boxes, organizing our stuff, and deciding what to donate, we surveyed our stacks of boxed books. Sweaty and sore, we openly discussed whether it was time to start downsizing our collection, being “sensible” about it all. Once we opened up a box, however, and spotted those spined beauties, resplendent in their own right, but also weighted with the significance of our own histories and stories overlapping with their pages, we shared an appreciative grin and quickly closed the lid. We’re apparently not willing to be sensible about our books quite yet.
This evening, after dinner and homework help, I sat on the couch to read the latest copy of The New Yorker. Flipping through the pages to set my order of reading, I came upon a moving Personal History article by Kathryn Schulz called “The Stack” in which she lovingly recalls the remarkable pile of books in her parents’ room that stood as a growing monument to her father’s “expansive, exuberant mind”:
I can’t remember it in its early days, because in its early days it wasn’t memorable. I suppose back then it was just a modest little pile of stray books, the kind that many readers have lying around in the living room or next to the bed. But by the time I was in my early teens it was the case—and seemed by then to have always been the case—that my parents’ bedroom was home to the Mt. Kilimanjaro of books. Or perhaps more aptly the Mt. St. Helens of books, since it seemed possible that at any moment some subterranean shift in it might cause a cataclysm.
In reflecting how books are organized – or not – in different families and households, she remarks:
The difficulty is that anything that is perfectly ordered is always threatening to become imperfect and disorderly—especially books in a household of readers. You are forever acquiring new ones and going back to revisit the old, spotting some novel you’ve always intended to read and pulling it from its designated location, discovering never-categorized books in the office or the back seat or under the bed. You can put some of these strays away, of course, but, collectively, they will always spill out beyond your bookshelves, permanently unresolved, like the remainder in a long-division problem. This is a difficulty that goes well beyond libraries. No matter how beautifully your life is arranged, no matter how lovingly you tend to it, it will not stay that way forever.
We adore our local library, and are routinely hauling overflowing bags of books back and forth across town. But there’s something about owning a book, engaging it with pencil in hand, reading it over the course of months or years rather than two weeks, that resonates with me. So we’ll continue to add to our own Stack, and, if necessary, lug them with us in our travels, confident that our labor of love is worth the effort.