As cruel fate would have it, I’ve never had enough room for books. When I lived with my parents in Ohio, I was a mad collector of dust: my bookshelves were filled with, yes, books, and model horses, and knicknacks of every stripe. Under the bed, I had boxes of bones: owl pellets, scavenged rodent jaws, a whole and entire deer skull. Crammed in my closet were scrapbooks full of clippings, stamps, bottlecaps. If it could be held, captured, or scavenged, I found a way to collect it. And if it had pages that could be turned, I wanted to read it, own it, hoard it.
Book hoarding, along with stamp and model horse collecting, became my means of escape. Growing up in a neighborhood without children my own age, I spent hours in my room reading, daydreaming, or writing. I was preternaturally precocious, wanting to know the name of every flower and the habits of every bird. Even when I myself was a child, I never got along well with children; my mind was filled with adult thoughts and concerns, my interests lying on the shelves of the grown-up section of the library. I read Lolita before I was old enough to be one of Humbert Humbert’s nymphets, and I read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf not long after most of my classmates had moved past the Big Bad Wolf. In a word, I was a wildly weird child, and books were one expression of that weirdness. When other pubescent girls were panting after the latest teen heart-throb, I was fretting over which avian field guide was the best.
I’ve recently been sorting through my books. When Chris and I sold our house in Hillsborough and moved to Keene a little more than a year ago, my library went through a massive downsizing. Previously, my books filled two full-size (floor to ceiling) bookshelves along with a shorter chest-high shelf; I had extra books tucked above, behind, and before the ones that fit on shelves. By the time we packed to move, I’d sold over half of my books, some online, others in a massive garage sale in which we nearly gave away possessions. Although I’d resigned myself to the relinquishment involved in consciously downsizing from a 3-bedroom house to a 2-bedroom apartment, there were two garage-sale transactions that broke my heart: the sale of the overstuffed chair where the dog and I would curl up to read, and the sale (to a used book dealer) of the complete set of Thomas Merton’s journals. “Try to keep them together,” I pleaded. “Other folks have wanted to buy a single volume or two, and asked which one was the best,” I explained. “But journals should be read from beginning to end, and I never had the time…” The used book dealer nodded, sympathetic, as if we were discussing a litter of kittens looking for a good home, but we both knew the truth: good homes for esoteric books are hard to find anywhere, and Thomas Merton might struggle to find a home here in New Hampshire.
When we moved to Keene, Chris and I shared a single bookshelf, with some of my books spilling over into a living room curio cabinet and others being stashed in my office at school. Slowly, though, the collecting bug crept in again: one innocent purchase there, another here. Although I’ve acquired with practice the discipline of checking the library for a book before I buy it, there’s always the allure of ownership: if it’s mine, I can keep it, and write in it, and always refer to it. If I own it, I can have it at hand at any hour when I need it or want to refer to it or need to cite it: a scholar’s occupational hazard.
Even more difficult than downsizing a library, though, is the seemingly simple act of splitting one: there’s something heartbreaking about sorting previously shared books into stacks labeled “his” and “hers,” each destined to their own separate place. When Chris and I married, we’d both recently graduated with Bachelor’s degrees in English; having taken many of the same classes, we owned many of the same books. Back then we decided whose book to keep based upon the notes therein: my copy of the Walt Whitman Handbook stayed as did his copy of the Riverside Shakespeare. Now nearly 13 years later, we’ve gone through the same process in reverse: having continued to study American Literature first as an avocation and now as a career, I got custody of our jointly-purchased first edition Leaves of Grass facsimile whereas Chris claimed the copy of the Blue Cliff Record he’d bought for me some years back. Many of the books we split are filled with notes from happier, more innocent days, but these notes don’t necessarily correspond with who got what: my copy of the Gospel Parallels contains Chris’s neo-pagan scrawl whereas his copy of the Diamond Sutra has margins crammed with my scribblings.
One book that both Chris and I had owned before we married is The Cloud of Unknowing, a primer on prayer by an anonymous fourteenth-century English monk. It seemed obvious that I’d end up with this book: over the years Chris and I have danced on every conceivable side of the Christian/Buddhist divide, but I always naturally found myself on Christian ground, my longing for a personal God leading me smack-dab back into the arms of Christ crucified. So the other day when I checked to see whose copy of The Cloud I’d inherited in the split, it was like reuniting with an old friend to discover my maiden name signed inside its cover, my multicolored notes and underlinings covering its oft-read pages. (Click here for an enlarged view.) Who was it, I wonder, who wrote these notes: who was this 13-years-younger version of myself? I’ve had this book so long, its cracked spine lightly gives up its yellowed pages, a book I literally read to pieces. So who was that Lorianne DiSabato who thought she knew a thing or two about prayer and the God those prayers are directed to? What Cloud of Unknowing did she labor under when she thought “’til death do us part” was an attainable task?
Whoever Miss DiSabato thought she was, Dr. Schaub now tries to carry on, rearranging remaining books on lightened shelves and retrieving those that hid out for a year in an office at Keene State. Whether we have enough places for our books, they presumably have places for us, holding in their leaves old hopes crushed like dried flowers. Opening an old book, who hasn’t been surprised to find an old photograph, note, or dollar bill long forgotten, a bookmark from a long-ago, hurried moment? The books we choose to own also often choose to own us, preserving in their pages a snapshot of days gone by, the youthful dreams of selves we’d forgotten, shelved.
This post in my contribution to the Ecotone biweekly topic, Places for Books. And after you’ve perused the other postings to this topic, be sure to click on over to The Coffee Sutras to wish Kurt a happy birthday. Kurt is one of the bloggers I read before I myself started blogging, so in one sense “Hoarded Ordinaries” would not exist without “The Coffee Sutras.” So even though I’m a committed tea-drinker myself, Kurt, here’s wishing you many caffeinated refills.