Packing Up My Library: A Love Story

The books that have surrounded me in this room for six years now go into boxes to make space for our tenants. The books – mine and my husband’s – are all mixed together. Our collection includes books of theory from our student days, Lithuanian novels, linguistic studies of Sanskrit, Chinese literary anthologies, memoirs of Soviet politicians, Latin dictionaries, Greek histories, atlases, grammars, English poetry collections, academic journals, and entire shelves of bound photocopies whereby we reproduced the rare and out-of-print books that our respective research required.

The books are heavy. They are dusty. I’ve only managed to get a third of them packed, and already the hallway is full of boxes. And though I pride myself on my habit of discarding and donating things we no longer need – clothes, dishes, toys – I can’t get rid of books. So far I’ve only put five or six aside to discard, donate, or recycle. As I take our books from their shelves, I note with slight shame how many of them I’ve never read. But even stronger is the pleasure of coming across much-loved yet forgotten books, books that have changed me, and volumes that made me want to be a writer.

These books all around my desk provide a kind of record of my life, and of my husband’s, whom I met in a graduate seminar on the language of poetry. We fell in love in the chaotic, sometimes grungy but wonderful Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. Even now I love that place, with its concrete walls and dim stacks, because it’s where our life together began.

Considering how oppressed and harassed (by bureaucratic tasks, thankless editorial work, and this heavy summer heat) I’ve been feeling lately, I’m surprised to find how much packing books lightens my mood. This dusty and tiring work has reminded me of how much beauty and pleasure words, writers, and quiet hours of reading have given me.

It has also reminded me of love.

At our wedding, my husband said to me, “Julija, you are the book I read, and the light I read by.” I think it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever said.

I used to have a fat cat, obsessed by food, to whom I would say: “Food is not love. Only love is love.” Packing my library reminds me that, for us, books too are love.

Happy summer reading. If the heat gets to be too much, invite your bookshelves to tell you a love story.

(NB: For a really good essay on packing and unpacking books, of course, see Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library.”)

[Photo: F.B. (pg 155), No 3061, page 11 Originally uploaded by Digital Sextant]

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10 Replies to “Packing Up My Library: A Love Story”

  1. I just had to get rid of 400 books. I have been collecting for a very long time and it has always been very comforting to know that I could go to my bookshelf and find a treasured quote. Since I’ve had to move a lot in the last decade…to smaller and smaller places…I’ve had to give up my prized possessions. It was a sad day, but I know others will enjoy them as much as I. As for your husband’s comment on your wedding…”Julija, you are the book I read, and the light I read by.” That would have melted me right on that altar of love!

  2. Like Annie and so many of us, who love writing and reading and for whom the books we bought or were gifted marked the events of our lives, I had shelves and shelves and shelves of books, the volume only increasing when I worked in publishing and had access to free books constantly. I’m now down to precious few, but I’m fine with that, it’s all part of the stages of my life and this one is one of simplifying, “sifting the grain.”

    I must say, though, that reading your description of packing them up made me wistful. How wonderful it always was to revisit all the treasures I had hidden on those shelves and then rediscovering them once again when I unpacked and reshelved. I miss that. Sadly, many will never know that sensation in this age of ebooks.

  3. Great post! I packed up my books before we moved to Sydney and got rid of a lot of them and I’ve regretted it ever since. Now when I look at my bookshelf I feel something is missing. So I think you are doing the right thing….you can never have too many books:)

  4. Love this post! Anne Fadiman has a fabulous essay about books, love, and her experience of merging libraries with her husband’s books — it’s in _Ex Libris_ and I think it’s called Marrying Libraries. I think you’ll like her essay!

  5. Christine, Years ago my husband and I made a move to Sydney too. We thought it would be permanent, so we got rid of many, many things, including books. I think I still carry a scar from all that. Isn’t it funny, this relationship to books. I only know one person who gets rid of books willingly.

  6. A friend shared your blog on FB: Lovely post. I’ve just moved library for the first time in six bullish years, and though the rest of the house remains in disarray, the peace of my study is palpable. Shelves organized by project, with novels and poetry and analytic philosophy and histories and Shakespeare and feminism framing projects above and below: promises to future selves secured by the past. Thanks for writing!

  7. Thanks to you all for reading and for your comments. The other aspect of this story of packing up books is that both my husband and I have just bought e-readers. I hope to reflect back in year or so and think about how our reading has changed as a result.

  8. While catching up on my SheWrites groups I found your link to this. Thanks for this love song to books. My husband and I have many doubles of books on our shelves, also. These are the books from our college days, and even though we grew up and lived in different parts of the country, we were taking the same courses and reading the same books. We kept the doubles because they had the separate scribbles of our young lives, different late night coffee stains, etc. I would get rid of furniture before I got rid of books.

    As for the e-reader, I bought one for travel purposes. But it will never replace the feel and smell of a book, or chewing on that pencil in between talking back to the author in the margins. And the collage of colors and scripts and shapes that fill my bookshelves can be as beautiful as the art on my walls.

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