When a writer refers to a book problem the assumption is she’s having trouble writing or revising. Writers have lots of those, but now I’ve got another problem with books: what to do with them when you move.
My wife and I just sold the small condo in Portland that we used as a pied a terre for 20 years and bought another in Yarmouth that we think is more suitable to our current (and likely future) way of life. Moves aren’t fun, but ours went smoothly. Except for the books. We had split our library between our two residences: current fiction and nonfiction in our house in Newry, and those from our academic lives in Portland. To accommodate the latter, we had floor-to-ceiling fitted bookcases constructed a number of years ago.
The move presented two problems: the books and shelving for them. It was far too easy to decide to take all the books to our new condo. It’s hard for anyone to dispose of books and certainly doubly hard for a writer to do so. Of course I don’t really need Selected Letters of Cotton Mather, William Byrd’s diary, or four copies of Walden. I don’t need what turned out to be 35 heavy cartons of books, but I dutifully packed them and paid movers to dutifully haul them to the new place and stack them along the walls of an empty room.
So the next step is shelving them. As we looked at various possible condos over the summer we were struck by the absence of book shelves. Only a couple of places had anything that could be called built-in bookcases, and aside from a couple of coffee-table volumes they were filled with knickknacks. The new place, grand though it is, has not a single place where a book might reside. We need a carpenter, but when I tracked down the excellent young man who built ours in the Portland condo I learned that he had recently gotten divorced and—in some related way I’m not quite clear about—had to sell his entire woodworking shop and equipment. (I wondered whether losing his tools was worse than the divorce but didn’t dare ask.) I’m now in pursuit of another carpenter but am beginning to wonder if the idea of building bookcases–for heaven’s sake–strikes potential carpenters as a bit perverse.
My books now sit in their cartons as a sort of silent rebuke and cause me to wonder why I bothered to pack and move them. The odds that I’ll re-read Cotton Mather’s correspondence are somewhere south of zero. I re-read Walden every year but don’t need multiple copies. And so on. But there’s just something about books that make them hard to leave behind, especially for a writer. They remind us of hours of pleasure, they trigger vivid memories, and of course as someone said they do furnish a room—but of course only with adequate shelving.
One reason I cling to the books is that I can’t imagine a way to dispose of them. Some years ago when my father in law moved to assisted living we helped clean out his house and had to face the question of how to dispose of his books. A Latin teacher, he had a large collection of classic texts. We called the local library. No thanks. We called some schools. No thanks. Pressured by time we finally decided that had to be recycled—i.e., sent to the local dump. But we didn’t have the heart to tell him that his beloved books were unwanted. So we told a lie. We invented the “Vassar College annual booksale” and explained that his collection would raise funds for a scholarship. He was pleased.
It’s one thing to lie, if gently, to your father in law. It’s another to lie to yourself. I just couldn’t invent a similar rouse, and so I moved the books, and they sit awaiting shelving. It cost me to move them, it will cost much more to have built-ins constructed, and it will cost me hours of time to paint the new shelves. As I eventually unpack and re-shelve them I’m sure I’ll dip in and out and set aside a few I want to re-read in full. But it’s a short-term solution since eventually all those books will end up somewhere. My son knows all about the fictional Vassar College annual booksale, and I suspect one day he will be assuring me as I lie in bed at an assisted-living facility that he donated the whole lot to a good cause. I will probably even believe him. In the meantime, I’m happy I made the decision to keep and move them. A writer needs books around, even if someone else wrote them.