I’m in the process of moving or, more precisely, preparing to move. With that comes boxing up one’s life into two- and four-cubic foot cardboard boxes. This is my first move in a long while where all of my possessions are in one place and I am packing each one myself. By far the most common objects I have packed over the last three days have been my many shelves of books. I don’t have any particular way of organizing my bookshelves excepting my Penguin, Oxford, and Broadview editions, which make a handsome display when placed together. Other than that, my bookshelves are fairly organized chaos with plenty of shelves double parked for want of space.
My book collection–or, rather, personal library–spans almost the entirety of my life. I don’t have many of the books I read from before my late teens (these would, admittedly, not require a great deal of shelf real estate even if I did) so my library, and hence one of the most revealing stories of my life, begins sometime around the age of twenty until thirty four. In that time there have been significant life events (births, deaths, marriages, post-secondary degrees, jobs, various moves and travel, etc) and those are reflected to an extent in the books that I have chosen to keep on my shelves. As with anyone who has any kind of degree in English, there is a complete Norton Anthology of English Literature, displayed like a battle wound next to a smattering of authors from spanning Chaucer to Atwood. Curiously, I have significantly more Faulkner than I ever remember reading. I think I may buy Faulkner books and anthologies in my sleep at flea markets, since I don’t remember buying or being gifted ratty copies of anything by him. The only Faulkner I can account for is Go Down, Moses which I read for an American Lit class in the mid-naughties.
As I packed my library I wondered about some of the books that I had acquired over the years. Many on the shelf were purchased for some course or another at university. I smiled as I packed the textbook entitled Life in the Universe, which was also the name of the course it was for. That one was definitely an elective that I suspect is more popular today with the advent of shows like Ancient Aliens and the proliferation of conspiracy theorists. As I took it through distance education, I suspect that my movements are being tracked to this day. And who was the mysterious ‘professor’ who graded my assignments, anyway?
There were a number of other, much less interesting, textbooks that I barely gave much notice to. I was much more interested in the person who used to buy those cheapo Shakespeare or Wilde compendiums? You know the ones, they look like fancy leather-bound editions de luxe with gold lettering on the spine. The only difference is the covering is actually recycled from a 1975 Chevy station wagon and the paper that is roughly the thickness of the Higgs boson* contains, of course, the works as advertised on the spine and title page except it is in no discernible order. These tomes are almost completely useless as reading copies and, I believe, are meant to stand out on the shelf to guests who will compliment you on your taste in books. So, yeah, I have a couple of those that are moving with me.
It’s remarkable how drastic the shift is from undergraduate to graduate school books. The titles of the fiction become more obscure (to my mind, at least) and then there’s theory, theory, and more theory. Theory books kind of serve the same purpose as the Shakespeare or Wilde compendiums in that when people in the know see Foucault, Butler, and Derrida peeking out from your shelves they give you a different kind of complimentary acknowledgement. It’s just as empty as the aforementioned compliment, but this time it’s esoteric so it feels more real.
I don’t think people should be impressed by the titles in one’s personal library. Apart from the fact that what books you have or haven’t read is your filthy little secret, the books themselves actually prove nothing other than the fact that you bought them and have decided to keep them. For me, the books I have chosen to keep might remind me of a moment or a person. Maybe even a particularly engaging class or place. I definitely remember reading H.P. Lovecraft on a cold rainy night in the middle of the Tasmanian winter on a bunkbed. I mean, how the hell could I have forgotten that? But more than that, the books in my library show me what changes have taken place over the years: changes in my brain, situation, tastes, what have you. I’ll probably never go back to the being the guy who buys the Penguin Great Ideas edition of Why I Am So Wise (or the guy who reads Nietzsche for ‘fun’ for that matter) or who will ever again read Richard Dawkins.
These things are all okay. When packing my library I remembered just how important it is to disavow any past incarnations of yourself. This was reified to me when I dove into a box of papers I had written as an undergraduate. I’ll make a list of some of the titles for you all some day to show you just what I mean about the importance of disavowing former selves.
I’ll probably do another post once I’m settling into my new place. I think I’ll call it ‘Unpacking My Library.’ There’s probably nothing else of note with that title already.
*If any physics person wants to let me know if that joke works at all or simply falls flat, I’d greatly appreciate it.