All Those Books
By Matthew Cheney
25 June 2007
Recently, I have been asked one question again and again: "What are you going to do with all those books?"
You see, I am moving. I have lived in the same apartment for six years now, and despite the fact that it is a crumbling, tattered old place with cracked plaster walls, electrical wiring from the 1920s, no insulation to protect against the razor-edged cold of New Hampshire winters, and floorboards so warped and bent they might have been designed by a perpetually drunken engineer—despite all this, it has been a fine home for me, because it contains much more room than I have ever had before, and so I have been able to fill its many spare spaces with books.
But now I am moving. I am moving to a smaller apartment three hundred miles away from my current one. And so everyone who has seen where I live now asks, "What are you going to do with all those books?"
Of course, I could bring them with me. I could somehow find a few hundred boxes, put the books in them, load the boxes into a big truck, and drive the truck to my new home, where I would then pile the books up to the ceiling in each little room. Or I could be practical—since I don't own much furniture, I could form couches and chairs and tables from the books. What would happen, though, if I wanted the book in the exact middle of the pile?
Even if I could come up with an excellent way to store them and survive with them, I don't want to take all the books with me. Moving is a good time to get rid of things, and though many of these books are dear to me for one reason or another, I will live a less anxious life without them, because to be honest I have often asked myself, even before I started preparing to move, "What are you going to do with all those books?"
Mostly, I'm going to give them away. I could sell them, I suppose, but the effort of selling them isn't worth the minimal reward. The few books I own that are worth more than a few dollars are not books I would ever part with, unless I was starving. Probably not even then, because I'm the sort of person much happier to spend my last bits of change on a book than on food.
Which, of course, is part of the problem. Food doesn't tend to accumulate. It's too bad I'm indifferent to it. If I had squandered all of the meager earnings of my life on food, I might be a bit overweight, but I wouldn't be trying to figure out what to do with all these books.
As I pack and sort them, as I choose which ones I'll offer to whom and which ones I'll leave in strange places for unsuspecting passers-by and which ones I'll bring with me to my new home, I wonder: Where did they all come from?
Each book to me is not just the words within its pages, but the story of its provenance. For instance, I just came across a battered paperback of Robert Heinlein's The Past Through Tomorrow, a book I bought when I was in grade school after saving money for weeks and weeks to be able to afford it. I remember the little basement bookstore where I bought it, a store long since disappeared. And though Heinlein is not a writer I have any desire to read much anymore, that book will be coming with me.
There are piles of books saved from sales by libraries and schools and Elks clubs and societies for the prevention of everything under the sun—the sorts of sales where you can get a box of books for a dollar and, by the end of the day, any leftovers are up for grabs. For a person like me, such sales are intoxicating calls to gluttony.
There are the various books I bought while a college student in New York in the 1990s. One year, I lived a few blocks away from The Strand, where bargains are, or were then, plentiful for the patient browser. I got into a terrible habit that year—whenever I felt anxious or frustrated or angry or depressed, I would go to The Strand and see what I could find for $5 or less. Whenever I felt happy or excited or proud or just better-than-average, I would go to The Strand and see what I could find for $5 or less. Really, for any reason whatsoever, I would go to The Strand and see what I could find for $5 or less. There was always something — a translation of Chekhov that I didn't have, a battered script for a long-forgotten play, a history of a country that I didn't know anything about, a book on physics for people who don't understand physics. Soon, I stopped spending money for subway tokens or occasional cups of coffee or breakfast or new shoes because all those good or bad days of $5 or less were adding up, and the evidence was in my tiny dorm room, where books filled every corner and covered every surface, a proliferation of pages, a menagerie memorializing all my changing moods.
Eventually, I stopped acquiring books so randomly, and most of what I got had to do with one project or another, something I wanted to research for my writing or teaching, or books recommended by friends and colleagues. Then I started writing book reviews, and things got out of hand again, as publishers and editors and authors sent far more for me to look at than I could ever keep up with.
As I sort through the books and choose which ones will go where—which ones will remain with me, which ones will be given to which friends, which will be given to libraries or scholarship funds, which I will donate to the Books for Africa program, etc.—I am forced to determine what each book means to me. Even the books I least value, the ones that have remained with me more because of inertia than care, have some sort of meaning. They were something I once thought I might like to read, or were a gift from a friend, or were acquired at a particular moment in my life, making them a kind of physical memory, a memento.
There has been much speculation about the future of books, about the possibilities for electronic books and the disappearance of every kind of bound and printed matter. As I try to decide how many different dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias (of science fiction, fantasy, American literature, language, etc.) I really and truly need, I find the decision to let go of some of my reference books much easier now that so much is available online. When I want to know various facts, when I want to find the definition or etymology of a particular word, I'm perfectly happy to use the Internet.
But I can't imagine any website or computer program that would make me want to part with my 1946 edition of Roget's International Thesaurus. I keep it not only because it's my favorite thesaurus, but also because I love the feel of its pages, which have been thumbed by many people over the course of many years. It is a book I value not only for the words it contains, but for the actual pages that contain them, the binding that holds the pages together, the rough and faded orange covers that have been beside my desk for a decade now.
The books that will go with me to my new home are books that are useful and books that are more than useful. The useful books serve various practical purposes; the more-than-useful books are the treasures, the real heart of my collection, the companions that sustain whatever it is I might identify as my soul. They are books I could not give away, because they will not convey to someone else quite what they convey to me: moments lost, moments lived, moments still to come. Some of the books I save are vessels of nostalgia, some owe their preservation to sentimentality, but most are more than that, a mix of looking back and looking forward, as I try to make room for the future amidst the cherished rubble of my past.
What are you going to do with all those books? I will scatter as many as I possibly can to as many places as I can find, hoping they will spark for other readers and other caretakers the sorts of pleasures and excitements they have sparked for me. The books I would not want to live without, I will bring with me to my new home and new life the way I will bring essential items and vivid memories, welcoming new friends while staying in touch with the old, holding on to the past while braving uncertain tomorrows.