Home Is Where…

When I found out that I was going to change my job at the university, I assumed the rather luxurious rooms I’d been working in for the past few years would have to go. In keeping with the experimental nature of the job, I thought I’d be given some little cubbyhole up the top of a daylight-pierced wooden staircase with a view over the dustbins, and I’d have to give up my spacious quarters with their riverfront location. I thought I could come to terms with this; the more pressing problem was what to do with my books. I read somewhere once that a professor collects books the way a ship collects barnacles, and that’s certainly true for me. Put down anchor somewhere and the barnacle problem multiplies exponentially. So I got some new bookcases at home (on the very last available spare wall) and started transferring my books, two carrier bags at a time, every day I was in college. For a long while I didn’t make much of a dent in my collection, but traipsing down seven flights of step with as many books as I could physically carry did make me fear for my arms. I thought I might end up with the physique of a gibbon; very attractive on a gibbon, less so on me. I roped my husband and son into a weekend trip and we carted back the motherload. Soon all I had left were the bits and pieces that I didn’t absolutely have to have in comforting proximity, but which I didn’t really want to cull, either. Theorists like Judith Butler, Lacan, and slightly out of date feminist literary criticism which I’d traveled through and out the other side; odd French books, like Edith Wharton and Milan Kundera in translation; all my German undergraduate texts which, twenty years later, I could no longer read but remain dear to my heart. This was far from rational. I ought to have invited the German students round for a free for all, but then my eye would fall on a little volume by Goethe entitled West-Oestlicher Divan, which was colloquially known as East-West Sofa Bed among the students because we had absolutely no idea what the title meant (and to this day I am none the wiser). And the memory still makes me laugh. I couldn’t really give that away.

So there I was, waiting to transfer my ragbag collection of C-list books when the college authorities astounded me by offering me the same rooms for another year. Naturally I was very happy to stay in my penthouse suite, but I couldn’t face transferring all the books back again. After all, the question of rooms would come up again in a year’s time, and I didn’t really need them there for reference. But I can’t help thinking how odd my shelves look, every time I’m at work. The main bookcase is almost empty, the others contain collapsing stacks of books; in the English bookcase Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc and Naomi Wolf’s Fire with Fire prop up Claire Petulengro’s Love Signs (and I’m not even sure how she got there). When students sit down in the main armchairs, they are at eye level with a medium sized pile of French cinema books (which I researched a little without acquiring any kind of speciality) and on the top, the only book whose title is clearly visible, a Susan Suleiman volume on art appreciation called Risking Who One Is. And that is a fair comment on my book shelving situation, as I see the students peering at my ransacked collection and figuratively scratching their heads and I want to say ‘these aren’t my real books, you know’, and sometimes I do.

It always strikes me how curious it is that books become our intimates. How they reveal so much about us, it seems. How distressing it can sometimes be when a book you love has fallen flat with a person you love, or how piercing an attack on one’s reading tastes can feel. I can still remember an undergraduate friend of mine scanning my bookcase and hoiking out a novel by an author whose name I’ve forgotten, no one famous anyway, no one canonical, that concerned a missing portrait and an old love affair. ‘Oh honestly, Litlove, he said. ‘The things you read.’ I felt momentarily, briefly, cheap, like I’d been caught out making a ghastly social faux pas. I do wonder what it is about reading a story that reflects so acutely on one’s inner world. I’ve known people judge their friends far more harshly on whom they let into their minds than on whom they let into their beds. And it rose to a crescendo when I worked in the local bookstore, amongst a young, highly literate staff who were crashing book snobs. There were so many authors who weren’t even allowed near our precious shelves for fear they would lower the tone. I don’t appreciate this sort of behaviour, which amounts to a kind of book xenophobia. I think you should read what gives you pleasure and that’s an end to the matter. But even so, I feel oddly naked and exposed in my college rooms, with a ramshackle collection of just-about wanted books. My books were my friends and companions; they backed me up in discussions, they were a material reminder of why I was there at all, what it meant to me. They were my long-view history through the winding corridors of education, the stuff my dreams of teaching and writing were made of, the ideas and insights on which I had grown up and become a woman, a mother, a critic. I felt we were in this thing together. And so every time I’m in college I feel a sharp pang of longing for my books, quietly blanching their spines in the sunny conservatory at home. But not quite enough of a pang to carry them all back again, two bags at a time.

23 thoughts on “Home Is Where…

  1. I know that feeling of staring at the books on someone’s shelf while you’re supposed to be focusing on something else! I think you might want to restore at least one small shelf — actually, even if you don’t do it on purpose I don’t see how your shelves won’t be repopulated by the books you have in your bag and leave on the shelf and then forget to bring home again. I’m glad you get to keep those rooms one more year — I had such a lovely lunch with you last winter in those rooms and have a hard time imagining that anyone but you would occupy that place.

  2. Oh how I loved this! My books are not only my friends, they are also usually tied to my memories of people. I still feel a pang when I recall lending Helter Skelter to one of the lawyers at the firm I worked at in Hawaii – thirty years ago! When I asked for it back several months later, he said he didn’t have it anymore! Aaargh! It’s not that it was my favorite book or anything. I simply wanted it back – it belonged with its friends on my bookshelf. After that I made a pact with myself. I never lend a book; but, I will give one to a good home. That way, I don’t expect it to return. I still have the first book that was ever given to me, The Tall Book of Make-Believe. Ripped? Yes. Battered? Certainly. Precious beyond price? You bet. I don’t think I could trade them for a Kindle.

  3. When i first heard i was divorcing…and leaving my house of 15 years, i immediately ordered moving boxes the right size for books. I packed all my books (1000+) and schlepped them a car full at a time to a rent-a-storage place 2 blocks from the house.

    The last precious possessions I took away were my son and my cats.

    Really all the packing in between could have happened or not…

    All these old friends are still boxed (their new home since my house is small.) But it doesn’t matter really — i know where they are when I need them.

    [are you tempted to take a book a day…the book of the day, and leave it on the corner of your desk?]

  4. Love this post. Laughed in recognition, particularly at ‘these aren’t my real books, you know.’ I’ve muttered many a disclaimer in my time (my favourite: “Oh, I have to review this, can you believe it?”), and there are still books (well, covers even more so, really) that I won’t be caught reading in public. You want to talk crashing book snob? I know one rather too well…by the way, your office sounds smashing. Dig in and let the barnacles grow.

  5. I do envision you carrying in NEW books, one or two at a time, to populate those shelves and keep you company and win you over in some wonderful way …

  6. “East-West Sofa Bed” — oh my God, that’s so funny.

    The first thing I do when I enter someone’s home is to examine their bookshelves, with unabashed avidity. I can tell so many things about people by their books. And if they don’t have any books around, then I have to hate them. No, really. People who don’t own books are not people whose moral fiber I can rely upon.

  7. Had we not moved to Switzerland when I finished grad school, my most likely course would have been to hunt out a teaching position at one of the colleges in New England – which I suspect I would have enjoyed, although I’m quite happy the way things turned out – but I often had this strange premonition about what it would be like to work in academia and have an office. I was worried about how to manage my books, how many would I get to bring with me to work (hoping of course, that I would have even been given an office at some point) and how would I decide which ones I needed with me during the day and which ones I needed to keep in the house for evening research or days off. I felt pretty silly about this fear, since it was all speculative. But reading your post shows me I wasn’t all that crazy. I’ve now decided that working from home suits me perfectly, I have my books with me at all times and never have to worry about dropping one on the commute or lending to a student and never seeing it again…this is all to say I completely understand your feeling right now. I hope you’ll sort something out soon!

  8. Dear Bloglily – I have such wonderful memories of you in my rooms! I was delighted when I could stay put for another year. Maybe one shelf is the way to go, built up gradually to reflect some of the things I’m working on now – that could work, it really could.

    Grad – oh I couldn’t agree more! How could a kindle possibly contain the memories of a much-loved book? I don’t lend books either, particularly not to students who with the best will in the world, just forget they have them. You did well not to punch the lawyer in the arm (or sue him). I feel exactly the same – a read book is a piece of life, an archive, an artifact, and to be cherished.

    Emily – I loved Butler for a while (not literally, of course), but she hasn’t lasted into my middle age the way some theorists did. I think Gilles Deleuze is the campus craze these days, over here at least. Now he really is impenetrable.

    Openpalm – you have me sussed – I do always take the book of the day into college with me and have it by my side. It’s some consolation! I love what you say about the stuff in between books and children and cats being irrelevant. Yup, I could agree with that wholeheartedly.

    Boxofbooks – sympathy welcomed and gladly received!

    Doctordi – perhaps I should bring the books back and use them to barricade the doorway when they come to get me out?😉 I book plate all my books, except for some of the ones that come for review – isn’t that foolish? Sometimes I can’r bring myself to love them quite like the others.

    Oh – now that is good thinking. I should see the shelves as scope for a whole new collection. Perhaps I won’t mention that thought to my husband just yet.😉

    David – so glad you appreciated the Goethe moment. It does make me laugh. I do exactly the same with other people’s books and feel panicky in book-free zones. But do try not to hate me for Claire Petulengro. I have some very nice books you might find interesting – just elsewhere.

    Verbivore – this is not a crazy fear but what I could call a pressing concern. And on a purely practical level I have occasionally been stumped by missing a book in one location or the other. Having my work books at home is lovely – perhaps I should have a hologram of them at work! That might do.

  9. I believe that empty book shelves have some sort of attractive gravity thing going on, and soon they will begin to amass books upon them, one way or another. The bad thing about this is if you ever have to move to a smaller office and remove the books, you will find that you no longer have enough room at home for them! Better that you start bringing them back to your office, one at a time if need be. The other thing about books is that they breed in corners. Every time we acquire new book shelves, it turns out that we have just managed to provide a home for the books that are stacked on other books, in corners, or in boxes, and the new shelves are miraculously full as soon as they are erected. I’m running out of room for books, and yet I can’t seem to stop collecting them. Is this an addiction?

  10. You know what you need to do? Start browsing the used bookstores for books with really weird titles. Put those on the shelves that the students will see when they come visit you and then watch their reactions. You, of course, will have to play it straight so you don’t give away the joke. You will have to change them up now and then to keep the students on their toes, you don’t want them to get complaisant, have to keep them wondering. Before you know it, word will get out and you will have hoards of students making appointments to see you just so they can gaze at you bookshelves and wonder about you.😀

    Oh, and I love “East-West Sofa Bed.” That made me laugh.

  11. Healingmagichands – oh never worry about addiction, no, no, it’s perfectly normal. Happens all the time round here.🙂 I’m rather hoping my books might breed in my absence – that would certainly solve my empty shelf problem. But I do know what you mean about the difficulty of moving in the future if they’ve all come back…

    Stefanie – what a cunning plan! I love it. I will have to see what I can find in the market and let you know how this one pans out. And so glad to give you a laugh – I did chuckle when I saw that book and the memory returned.

  12. I made it! And look, I brought another couple of carrier bags of books to help refill your denuded shelves. Fill ’em up, quick. I decided you should have more of the stuff which will fox any student whose mind and eyes are wandering in your tutorials, so here they are:

    “Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World” by Niall Ferguson (the illustrated hardback edition)
    “Sylvester” and “Arabella” by Georgette Heyer
    “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius
    “Where The Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak
    “This Thing of Darkness” by Harry Thompson
    “Rainforest” by Thomas Marent (just for the glorious photos)
    “A Life On Air” By Sir David Attenborough (you must curtsey before reading every page)
    🙂

  13. I love reading your posts! I would hate to think what a few of the snobs here would say about my lack of bookshelves. but I’ve moved too much and expect to move again. I have become detached to ‘stuff’ and try to think of books as friends that must go out and be appreciated on and on – I let them all go. However, the stack of books I hope to read someday SOON are piling about on the floor!

  14. Litlove, fill up those shelves, as someone said, and with new books that you like. You can break this news to your husband gradually over the year.

    A professor of psychology at my old university went to a bookstore and asked for 100 red- and 100 blue-spined books. He didn’t care what they were about, he just wanted his bookcase to look a certain way.

    For what it’s worth, I second woo’s suggestion of Suetonius. I’d add Plutarch’s Noble Lives, too.

  15. Woo – hello and thank you for coming over! I have never been brought virtual books before but I love it. That is a fabulous selection there, perfectly designed to baffle the student population, particularly when I curtsey.🙂

    Care – Aww you are so sweet. I admire you for your ability to let your books go. It’s a lovely idea to pass them on to other people, who can then get enjoyment from them. So long as you keep that big pile on the floor by you, then you have all the comfort-blanket feel of books around you that a person needs.🙂

    JB – good point, well made. Love the story about the professor – a perfect care-in-the-community academic there🙂 And Suetonius it is, and/or Plutarch. It’s well out of my comfort zone (which ends, or starts, around 1830) but everyone should try something new every now and again, right?

  16. Nice that you could keep the rooms, although perhaps they could have told you sooner! I’m a little troubled by the fact that all my favorite books are up in my study where visitors don’t often go look around, and so they see the random fiction we keep downstairs, and yet I want all my favorite books upstairs, as that’s where I spend most of my time. A similar dilemma on a slightly smaller scale🙂

  17. Living away from home for the past six months with a further ten months to run on the contract, I find I am missing my books. Being able to read Kahlil Gibran on the net is not the same as holding a book in my hands. Omah Kayyam is not the same without the gold edging to the pages of my own volume. My quotes and poetry and even the delightful Terry Pratchett were all far from me.

    I just had a week at home. Guess what made up over two thirds of my excess baggage for my return flight [grin] Now I feel a need for dictionaries and thesaurii – – –

  18. Dorothy – I sympathise! That’s a serious dilemma. Perhaps you have a small table downstairs, just ready for a small pile of the favourites of the moment..? And it was very nice to keep my room. It makes me think I must do something soon to figure out what happens next year!

    Archie – Oh my heart goes out to you! I couldn’t manage for all that length of time without my books. There must surely be a case for arguing that your luggage was by no means excessive, but in fact purely necessary.🙂

  19. What a lovely post–especially the last paragraph, which I can completely relate to. It is sort of sad when a book you love is demeaned by someone. Reading is really very intimate–the way it can get into your mind and heart like very few other things. At least you get a view of the riverfront rather than dustbins. A nice view can really make a difference–this coming from someone who faced a concrete wall for a good nine years (and we couldn’t put up anything artistic to ‘ruin the integrity of the architecture’). Now I get a row of clerstory windows at least. A turn to the right (from my cubicle) and there’s the sky and trees!🙂 Maybe this is an excuse to buy some new books to fill the shelves.

  20. Danielle – I am so glad to hear the concrete wall has gone! How unreasonable to expect anyone to work well without a view of some kind – yay for the sky and the trees! And you’re right, reading is intimate and special and something that feels like it needs to be protected. As you know, the thinnest of excuses will suffice for me to go book buying!🙂

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