Wednesday, October 19, 2011

HARD WORK

We were over at our daughter’s house yesterday afternoon, helping her with the preparations for the arrival of the newcomer in our family, due to arrive in just a few days’ time. Because she and her boyfriend (not really an adequate word, but what else is there?) have only recently moved into a new home, there is much that still remains unpacked from the moving boxes—most of which had taken up temporary residence in what is to be the baby’s room. We were impressed with their progress in settling in—until we took a peek into this one room, and found it stacked pretty much floor to ceiling with everything for which they had not yet found a place…

First, then, it was a matter of clearing some space—a task that initially involved displacing all the crates and boxes and setting them all down in the middle of the living room. From there, we had hoped to shift everything down to the basement, a trek that would take us through the kitchen, out through the back door, down the steps into the garden, and around to the basement door. Turns out, the basement was already pretty much chock-a-block with the no longer needed accumulation of two lives, and not in the kind of order I myself—being of a mostly orderly inclination—would have liked to find. No easy task, then, to find space for more. Added to which, decisions about what to keep and what to consign to storage are never easy, and proved particularly hard to make under the pressure of imminent need. We settled for more sorting than storing, creating, particularly, new stacks of boxes filled with books and setting them to one side. Would it be possible—affordable?—to arrange for adequate bookshelves to accommodate them all before the baby’s arrival? And if so, where would the bookshelves go? The dining room? The living room? The baby’s room? But then, consider the possibility of an earthquake…

Imponderable questions. There must have been a dozen boxes of books at least when we were done, rather more neatly and compactly filled, but still needing a provisional destination; they could not simply sit there on the living room floor indefinitely. Final decision, after much anguish: the shelves would have to wait. Space would have to be carved out in the basement, and the boxes carried down there one by one. I volunteered for the following afternoon—but was relieved, immensely, for my back, when Sarah told me this morning that Ed had put in the hard work overnight.

It’s a funny thing with books. We hang on to them—I should speak for myself, but I do think it’s a common phenomenon—we hang on to them long after we have read them and allow them accumulate dust for years on our shelves as though there were some possibility that we might read them again one day. An unlikely prospect, for the most part. I sometimes get it into my head to delve back into the work of a writer who has meant a lot to me along the way—a Marcel Proust, say, currently, after reading Edmund De Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes; or Michel de Montaigne. But I can remember few occasions when I have actually done so. I hear of people so inspired that they keep returning to a favorite text, but it’s not something I do myself. The books just sit there, until they overfill the shelves and need absolutely to be culled. Then they go into storage, where they lie in boxes, awaiting who knows what purpose or occasion.

Books, simply, are hard to give away, even though they do gather dust. My rare shelf-cleaning efforts soon have me in fits of sneezes and leave me, often, with dreadful headaches. So why do we keep them? Why, I should ask, do I insist on keeping them? They do have, on the one hand, a kind of decorative value in a home, and there is also a certain vanity at stake in putting the substance of my interior life on display. My books declare a lot about who I am. By the same token, I confess to examining other people’s shelves and making certain judgments about who they are. But I think it’s also in part because a library is the material record of our intellectual history: to throw books out would somehow feel like erasing some part of my memory banks—not to mention the association with sacrilegious book-burning.

Then, too, books feel like friends and colleagues: to cast them aside would feel like an act of personal betrayal. They are richer with associations and meanings than most of their fellow objects in the material world. They have character and personality, fresh-faced or worn; thick as your fist, and weighty, or skinny and light; extroverted and assertive, with bright, attention-getting covers, or mousy, secretive, internal. Some of them have been through hard times with me; many of them have brought joy into my life, along with the insights that have contributed to such small wisdom as I have come to possess. So, yes, I understand my daughter’s reluctance to part with them. And it we have to cling to something, books are surely a relatively benign addiction. It’s just a lot of hard work, when the time comes, to cart them about.

3 comments:

CHI SPHERE said...

Books are the best sculptures for they contain far more than their content once we have read them. Like clouds they are fertile and grow memories once their content is received. They are a bit difficult to carve but are beautiful when reformed.

Diane said...

Your thoughts ring so true. I have been trying to reduce our books since we moved into our house. Two full unlovely book shelves remain in the garage with about 1/4 of our books.

I walk past the shelves when I park the car. No, not this book, no not that book. I'm sure I'll need it some day. I finally decided I could get rid of Madame Bovary, and did. Then I had a hankering to read it recently, and downloaded it on my Kindle.

For every book I buy I try to get rid of one. It doesn't work. I was done in when I bought two of your books Saturday at the Art Crowd. I enjoyed the first immensely,and will be on to the second soon. I will not be getting rid of them.

Diane Sagen

PeterAtLarge said...

I've always loved how you work with books, Gary...

Good to hear from you Diane. I'm happy to hear that my books are working well for you--and especially that they're "keepers"!