A Life in Books


It occurred to me recently that one’s personal library truly does tell a story all its own.

While cleaning out two storage units I rent and consolidating them into one, I ended up throwing out a lot of junk.  What I didn’t get rid of was books–hundreds of them, stored in cardboard boxes and stacked three-high against the corrugated aluminum walls.

Before my wife and I had our son, we used our third bedroom as a library.  It was wall to wall books, the combined collections of two people who spent most of their lives to that point reading.  The catalog was eclectic, including everything from Tolkien to Judaism for Dummies.  There were shelves of crumbling paperbacks and long runs of pricey, leather-bound special editions.  Every book I had purchased from middle school onward was represented in there, somewhere.  Together we amassed an impressive collection of non-fiction on the Middle Ages, which still fills up two shelves in our living room, next to a beautiful set of the Harvard Classics bound in crimson leather.

Guests would often come to our house and remark on the titles they’d read on the spines: Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, or The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson.  The entirety of the Harry Potter series and A Song of Ice and Fire, in hardcover.  An ancient, used set of the works of Plato.  Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis.

We had to put the bulk of it in storage to make room for the baby, which I certainly don’t regret; the trade-off was more than worth it.  But there is still, in the back of my mind, the lingering desire to put them all together again someday, to have a true, permanent library, organized as I like it.  I would spend days organizing it by subject and author, then police its stacks with fascist vigilance.

Seeing all those old books in their boxes in storage, however, brought to life old memories in an almost Proustian way.  There was the French paperback copy of La Philosophie Dans Le Boudoir that I borrowed from a French Literature professor in college and never returned; there, the flaking, yellowed original copy of The Dragonbone Chair that had helped me fall in love with epic fantasy as a middle schooler.  Or the tattered paperback loaned to me by a former acquaintance that I never read and refused to search for after we had a falling out, his name and phone number still written on the inside cover.  (Never loan books, they say.)

The point is, a book you own tells a story of where you were in your life when you bought it, or borrowed it, or stole it, as it were.  And of course, when you read it.  It’s like that scene from the film High Fidelity, based on the excellent Nick Hornby novel of the same name (ironically, I can’t remember whether this scene is in the book).

The main character, Rob, is reorganizing his record collection autobiographically, which he illustrates with this example:

“I can tell you how I got from Deep Purple to Howlin’ Wolf in just 25 moves.  And if I want to find the song “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.”

It’s that, exactly, that I’m talking about: looking at these objects, these individual collections of thoughts and feelings and ideas, and remembering how they made you think, and feel, and ideate.  And if you have enough of them, it tells you the story of your life.

Having a massive collection of books is really the worst kind of egotism, if you think about it.  It’s saying, here is my life.  Look at it.  Appreciate it.  Read its headings and titles.  See how I represent myself to myself, and to those I invite into my tangible memory palace.