Last month, my husband and I moved out of our New York City apartment and into our first house, in the suburbs of New Jersey. We both grew up in suburban households, and so in many ways this is a return to our roots.
The house we bought is approximately twice the square footage of our old apartment, which itself was large by NYC standards, and yet we seem not to be the primary occupants or even the owners of our new dwelling. Who is? Our books. You see, when a copyeditor and a philosopher get married, their union produces a massive library of books.
Fifty-two book boxes' worth of them. How many is that? Well, it takes up one of these, three of these, five of these, and a few others besides. With some spillover into piles on our desks or nightstands.
This past Sunday I saw this article in the NYT about the special kind of tyranny books can hold over our lives and I totally identified with it.
And like the author of the article, I find myself stymied as to how to solve this "problem."
Surely part of the dilemma is vanity and is not a practical consideration at all. We've done the math. There'd have to be some Kurzweil-level singularity soon for it to be feasible that we read or re-read all these things.
Should I really hold on to my many Graham Greene mint-green-spined Penguin paperbacks from college when I didn't even particularly enjoy reading them at the time? Will a dinner guest ooh and ahh over the fact I have so many Graham Greene novels? Probably not. But they do create an impression. That one of us is the kind of person who read, is reading, or would read them. Or that one of us endured an entire college course on Graham Greene. So they have to stay.
We can't get rid of one of the doubles, either. A guest surely will wonder why we have two copies of David Foster Wallace's Oblivion prominently displayed in our living room bookcase. But they're both autographed, and were from an event we attended together, so they both have to stay. And so it goes for nearly every book in our collection. It turns out there is some sentimental or aesthetic reason why none ever get kicked out of the gang. Except maybe the Camille Paglia books. We can't figure out why we still have those.
So our books are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, which we reinforce when we look at them. And also the story we tell visitors: We are the kind of people who have the books we have. Where some folks display artwork or objets (which we'd do more of if only we had the wall space), we display our books. And while we pay lip service to the idea that we'd like to have fewer books or that we'd like to streamline, we're always astonished and unnerved when we visit family or friends who don't have books around, so we keep all of our rectangular albatrosses and schlep them from place to place in fifty-two boxes. And so we will have to learn to live in their house. I hope they like it here. And I hope they let us stay.