Thursday, August 31, 2006

On composing a library.

There is a chapter in How to Travel with a Salmon (the one titled How to Justify a Private Library), where Umberto Eco writes about two singularly banal comments that others persistently annoy him with: the first, when people try to make clever puns with his name (which always fails), and the second, when people visit, and upon seeing his vast collection of books, immediately exclaim, "What a lot of books! Have you read them all?" He mentions three different ripostes; "I haven't read any of them; otherwise why would I keep them here?," or what he believes is the most devastating answer; "And more, dear sir, many more." Finally, he falls back on "No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office."

It was not until I began packing up all my belongings that I realized how many books I had. Many had been hidden in the closet or in the bathroom or, my favorite place, under the bed. Boxes and boxes and boxes of them. As the shelves emptied of their burdens a canyon of heavy cartons grew higher and higher in the hall outside my bedroom. It became nearly impossible to get in and out, and on my way to bed I would inevitably trip over an open case of books and stumble over a pile I had left carelessly lying about. As the covers flew by my weary eyes, sneezing from dust and exhausted from hauling all those boxes around, I realized that, in fact, I had not read all of my books. Some weren't even mine. Others were brand new, spines uncreased, pages untouched by chocolate-smudged hands.

The truth, the terrible truth is, I cannot stop buying books yet I cannot bear to part with any of them. Therefore I have all these books from childhood, the Beverly Clearys, the Konigsburgs. There are poetry and fiction anthologies from high school English classes, dry volumes of past wars and invasions, Russian textbooks from college. Who knows when I might need to refresh my grammar? Even worse, I must have all the books by every author I love. Sometimes I collect them slowly, over time; sometimes I come across a whole lot of them in a used bookstore and scoop everything up in one fell swoop. Then I move onto another writer, and those earlier titles sit forlornly on the shelf, gathering dust.

This library of mine is some twenty years' work. Gifts from other people. Passing mentions from loved ones that sent me in a direction I never dreamed my heart could wander. Things I picked up in bookstores, thought, this looks interesting. Put away for a later time. It is as much about where I am heading as it is about where I have been. My whole life, past-present-future, lined up in boxes by author or publisher or size, sealed tightly with tape. I am already thinking of how I will arrange them in my new home, for my new life.

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