Packing up the Books: What Does Your Personal Library Say About You?

It’s a month from my 40th birthday, and I’m packing up my books. Again. I’ve packed and unpacked these books countless times. Some of them have lived with me in five states and twice as many homes. They’ve occupied prominent places in my living room and languished in attics. I haven’t even looked at a lot of them—except, of course, to pack and unpack them—in 10 or 20 years. Some I’ve never read at all. But I keep packing them and unpacking them every time I move.

It’s an ugly process, packing up the books. Books are much more agreeable when they’re sitting on their shelves, like the chummy books Ann Fadiman writes about in Ex Libris. She and her books pass pleasant evenings together over glasses of wine and herbal tea, reminiscing about the wonderful moments they’ve shared over the years. But when you have to move books—pick each one up, dust it off, and wedge it, spine up, into a box—the relationship inevitably changes.

All but the most devoted bibliophiles must start to question at some point whether they really need all these books. As I get older, I have more doubts about whether it’s worth risking a herniated disk to move the acid-yellowed paperbacks from my high school English Lit classes. And I wonder if I’ll ever find the time to immerse myself in Middle Eastern history or revisit Thucydides to pick up the stuff I didn’t get the first time around.

The books, once they sense the tenuousness of their situation, start to get spiteful. They unleash the silent reproaches they’ve accumulated since the last packing and unpacking: “Another move and you still haven’t gotten around to reading me,” Gravity’s Rainbow sulks.

“You wrote us off on your taxes two years ago,” scolds a phalanx of books on German pottery. “When are you ever going to finish that project?”
“You’ve hung onto me so you’d have a reference book,” History of World Religions hisses. “But I know you’re using Wikipedia instead!”

When I was in graduate school, my landlord—a smart, well-educated guy who only kept as many books around his house as he could comfortably read at one time—accused me and my similarly book-laden roommates of vanity. He said that academic types like us hang onto books so that we can broadcast to the world how smart and accomplished we are. I suppose there’s a grain of truth in this. There’s a reason why professors and pundits are always photographed in front of bookshelves. But it’s not quite vanity that leads me to cling to my books. It’s more like a need for security. Without my books, I’m just not sure who I am.

Over the years, I’ve stepped into and out of a score of vocations and avocations—flutist, financial analyst, political science professor, Pilates enthusiast—and collected passels of books every step of the way. Sometimes they are the only tangible record of various phases of my life that are now beginning to recede from memory, and I just can’t bring myself to let go of them. I couldn’t integrate a mathematical function today if my life depended on it, but if I get rid of Calculus and Analytic Geometry, I fear that some day I’ll forget that I ever could.

While the books that I’ve read provide a sense of connection with the past, the books that I haven’t read (and, honestly, may never read) hold the possibility of a thousand futures. They are the physical embodiment of all the things I want to do or think I should do, and getting rid of them makes me uncomfortably aware of the aspirations, however large or small, that may never be realized. Some day, I tell myself, I’ll be the kind of person who isn’t bored by The Satanic Verses. For almost 20 years, it has waited patiently for my transformation, a hopeful dog-ear on page 101 providing mute encouragement. How could I cast it aside now?

Until not too long ago, I thought that people had their lives all sorted out by the time they turned 40. I didn’t expect to be wrestling with these “Who am I?” and “What am I doing with my life?” questions. Now, surrounded by a Stonehenge of book piles, I find myself dreaming about a figured-out future with a much smaller library, one that reflects the deliberate choices of a woman who knows exactly who she is.

But I’ve been around long enough—and read enough books—to know that this moment of absolute clarity may never arrive. I just may have to come to terms with my books and suffer their occasional recriminations. In their quieter moments, when I leave them in peace on their shelves, they reassure me.

“Don’t worry,” they say. “We’ll be here whenever you need us.”

Denise V. Powers, a freelance writer, lived with her books in Iowa City until 2005. Since then, she has circulated between Los Angeles, Rome, and Washington, DC, where she now resides.