I am a hoarder of books. Since I was a young girl, I have read, collected, organized, dusted and admired row upon row of books. Plays, poetry, novels, non-fiction; I have loved my books like people are supposed to love their children. Tables, desks, windowsills, toilets, kitchen counters-- all serve the same purpose in my home. They're all bookshelves. When I married my husband I imagined a commingling not of genes, but of libraries. His Shelby Foote next to my Thornton Wilder. My Alice Munro rubbing up against his Alan Furst. Our children would be as old as Homer and as young as next week's Book Review. I had met my match.
When you are a hoarder of books, you know that a day will come when your books will prompt an identity crisis, or a crisis of faith; a crisis of space, or at the very least a dust allergy.
Yesterday I restored the freshly-painted dining room, which is actually more of a library with dishes in it than a dining room. I moved heavy pieces of furniture using my little muscles and my enormous will. And then it was time to put the books back on the bookshelves. This was the last piece of the puzzle before going back upstairs to resume work on my own book.
Shouldn't be a big deal, right? You sort the books. You remove those books that are no longer needed. You put the giveaway books in a box. You live your life.
I've seen friends do this. They decimate their bookshelves! They put those books in a box. They put that box on the sidewalk, or in their car; they give it to the Mormons. The truly ambitious sell them to Twice Sold Tales or donate them to the library. My God, I thought, who are these people, and what antidepressants are they on?
At five o'clock I was distraught. Swimming in a lake of books. Drowning, I should say, in titles that no one needs to keep. The Da Vinci Code? There are two people living in this house, and one will never read it and the other didn't like it. Why on earth are we keeping it? Will I ever re-read Al Franken's books about Lies and Truths? If so, doesn't that mean I'm living in the past? Shouldn't I dust them off, thank my lucky stars that the Bush Administration is in the hands of history, and move the fuck on?
Then there are the books that friends have lent me over the years: they don't remember that I have them, and I haven't yet read them, and in some cases I never will, and does that make me a bad person? Shouldn't I be reading, like, a book a day? Shouldn't I have stopped reading Miranda July's short story collection three stories in, when I realized I didn't like it, in order to make time for books like The Year of Magical Thinking and Ulysses? And Proust! My God, Proust! How can I call myself a writer when I've yet to read Proust? I read all of those twee Miranda July stories and yet Proust sits there on my shelf like a Grandfather patiently waiting for his granddaughter to finish primping and remember he needs to use the loo.
My eye landed on one of my Grandpa Morrison's music books. I remembered that I missed him. I was certain I hadn't been a good enough granddaughter. A good granddaughter would have read that book and returned it to her grandpa before he died. What if he died wondering if he would ever hold Verdi's biography again? Cursing the day he lent it to his granddaughter!
Oh, I am a bad person. A bad, bad, bad, bad person.
An unhappy person.
Lazy. And bad. And unhappy.
It was five o'clock, if I may remind you, when the books attacked. The clock chimed and I had an epiphany: five o'clock is Happy Hour.
I left the books sprawling like a paper metropolis across the floor, and walked up the hill to meet my friend Erin for a bottle of wine. (Note the use of the word bottle and not glass.) Shortly after I got there, she told me the most amazing story.
A friend of hers worked for a sausage maker in Philadelphia for a number of years. The sausage maker was an old, grizzled man who loved to read. He was such a voracious reader, in fact, that he made Erin's friend-- we'll call him Tom-- drive the sausage truck to New York for deliveries so that he could sit on the passenger side and read all the way there.
I picture him a bit like my grandpa, actually: Tall, barrel-chested, with thick fingers like, um, sausages. Forgive me, but his hands are important, because while he read his books from Philly to NYC he did the most peculiar thing: he would read a page front and back and then, in one swift movement, he'd tear the page out of the book and throw it out the window.
I have seen some amazing things in my life. Ray Charles. Macchu Picchu. The Louvre. Pompeii. A Monster Truck Rally. But I have never gasped with baffled wonderment like I did at the end of this little anecdote.
When I got home Kurt and I found seats between stacks of books, our dinner plates resting on tables of John McPhee and Stephen King, and I told him the story. He was as baffled and impressed as I was. I said it was a philosophical difference; the sausage maker could accept that he had spent his allotted time with each page and then let it go. I, on the other hand, am too deeply attached to the past. I keep books I've already read and will never read again because they keep the past in my home, nearby, so that I can relive it any time I want. It's a fear of death, I said. The sausage maker is liberated from that fear. Page-ripping is his yoga.
Maybe, Kurt said. He looked sort of dazed as he surveyed the room. He stood up and started to move through the stacks. But The Moor's Last Sigh, he sighed. We need that in our home! Auden? You don't get rid of Auden. Every book H.L. Mencken ever wrote -- I need these! The Atlas of World History! The Once and Future King. Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette! Emily Post's . . . Wedding . . . Etiquette.
He only had to say the title once more before we spontaneously reduced our number of books by one. It was such a rush we added The Da Vinci Code to the collection. We dropped the two books by the front door with abandon, drunk with a wanton recklessness: You, children, must make your home elsewhere. We never liked the looks of you.
But soon enough we forgot about the donation box and the sausage maker. Surrounded by our books, we couldn't help reminding each other of our favorites, of the books that changed our lives. There are so many. Today they're all back on the shelves, where they belong.