Our Books

Renoir, Woman ReadingA couple of days ago I took on the enormous job of organizing my home library. It’s a task that, for various reasons I’ve been dreading, and therefore avoiding. Now it’s not that I’ve never organized my books. In fact, even in the days before computers I had indexed and cross-referenced my books, having created my own cataloguing system, of course, all of it neatly compiled in one giant binder. After I got my first computer, I created a database just for my books, and as soon as the technology was available, I had a program that would allow me to read the barcodes of the books, automatically entering them into my database. Since then I have always taken both great care and pleasure in organizing my library. That is, of course, until a few years ago.

As I’ve alluded to here before, three years ago I went through what was, without a doubt, the scariest and most difficult time in my life. Without rehashing the entire nightmare, suffice it to say that as tends to be the case in these situations, leaving was more difficult than staying, if nothing else because of the fear. I still remember the day that I physically moved out, knowing that I had just a few short hours to grab whatever I could and throw it into the back of a moving truck. Thankfully my friends and family were all there for both physical help and moral support, but it was the least organized and most stressful move of my nearly forty years.  I lost much in that move, but of out of everything that was left behind that day the most painful were many of my books.

Moving into our little apartment later that afternoon and unpacking the boxes of books, I realized that as many as a couple of hundred books were missing, but I couldn’t face the loss then. I’m not sure what they represented, but fully quantifying that loss would have been an unbearable addition to all that was already happening. So I shelved the books as haphazardly as possible, and left it that way. A year later my daughter and I moved again into our current home, and the books were shelved in much the same way. As I was telling a friend the other night, until I decided to take on the task of re-organizing my shelves it was a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat, the books weren’t “really” missing until I organized them and really saw that they were no longer there.

So with all of that in mind, that was that task I embarked on this spring break. I took my “big girl pill” and, with my daughter asleep, started pulling books of the shelves, carefully placing them into so many piles. I quickly started realizing that many, many books were not there, and as I started arranging them by author, subject, etc, the loss hit home. My signed Douglas Adams was gone, as was my first edition Foucault’s Pendulum. All my Huxley paperbacks were missing, as was my Lolita, and my I, Claudius. None of my Tolstoys could be found, neither could my single Grisham book, which I loved because it was one of the only books my grandfather ever gave me. Suddenly, sitting in the middle of the pile of books I started to cry. As I had expected, the loss of those books was pretty difficult to bear. I know that they were only material objects, nothing to become so attached to, and that most of the books were ultimately replaceable. But at the moment they represented something more, something ineffable; those books symbolized all that was lost then, all that was forever changed.

For those of us that are real bibliophiles, I suppose that our books will always be more than just books, they become a part of us as soon as we read them. Moreover, at least in my case, my annotations and other notes (I tend to use my books as notebooks sometimes), make those books holders of a great part of my own history, intellectual and otherwise.

I stopped with my fiction, the smallest part of my library, and reshelved the rest of my books, again with no order or reason. Maybe one of these days I’ll resume the task. But in the meantime, I’ll mourn the loss of those books that were truly irreplaceable, and begin to fill my already overflowing shelves with new books, and in them, start writing a new history.

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15 thoughts on “Our Books

  1. I won’t say I know how you feel, that would be a lie… but I too have lost treasured books and I can sympathise. Some people don’t understand the value of books and even though I have a Kindle now, I truly believe that physical books will always exist, partly for the very reasons you’ve mentioned above.

    You can’t replace those books but those memories and those emotions are still with you and nothing will change what they mean to you. I don’t know if any of this is making sense so I think I’ll stop now LOL I wish you well.

    Clear skies 🙂

  2. you wouldn’t happen to be a “follow” of a great blog/site/website/people who call her/themself/selves “the insatiable booksluts” are you? she/they posted about this today on twitter, about lending/not lending books to people.

    and that banner is brilliant!

    “big girl pill” that’s funny. when my daughter was too old for a bib, but not old enough to not spill food on herself, i’d tuck a kitchen towel in her collar and call it a “big girl bib.”

  3. My behavior towards books seems to constantly invoke a response that people think I am totally insane, but they don’t feel the way I do about books so they can’t understand. I can sympathize with your feelings about losing so many treasured volumes. I have several books on my shelves that were gifts from a deceased loved one and I can’t imagine them not being on my shelves.

  4. We might differ here, even though there are points of similarity.

    I have kept some version of a database for my books since I was in college. Of course they didn’t have computers then (except the Univac on Art Linkletter) so my database was all on 3×5 cards. I still keep the database separate from the lists on my site but if I was smarter I would have folded them in together and generated the list from the database long ago.

    However, I do not keep any books I have read unless I seriously want to reread them later. I have many copies of Ulysses, for instance, but guys like DeLillo, Zola and Simenon get recycled at the Book Exchange or mailed off to a friend as soon as possible. I believe in recycling and can see no good reason to house a book I probably will never read again. It might be a (lack of) ego thing but it also might be making room for new books.

  5. People who don’t love books will think you’re crazy. I’ve gotten that certain look when I speak of my books in a fond, fatherly sort of tone. In a way, they’re like children, filling us with joy, giving us glimpses into different worlds and peoples. It’s sad when one gets lost.

    I lost many of my books in a ‘divorce’ too. He insisted that we split everything, 50/50, and, even though 90% of the books were mine, I agreed, because it kept it all simple. There was no having to negotiate about who gets what. And, we were both ready to get it over as quickly as possible. It’s been about 13 years since that relationship ended, and I still miss the books I lost. Some, I’ve replaced, because I couldn’t live without them (I, Claudius being one of them — I’ve read it about 10 times, I think!). I feel your pain.

    I’ve gotten to the place where I need to get rid of books, and, have slowly been getting rid of ones I know I’ll never reread, and getting rid of many of the books I picked up over the years working for Barnes & Noble. I’ve run out of space to keep them, and, though I will always love tangibleness of a physical book (it’s fell, smell, etc.), I really love my Kindle, because it gives me vast amounts of storage space, and it’s good for the planet. Working that long in the book industry teaches you that a HUGE amount of books end up in landfills. So, while I buy most of my new books as ebooks, and am replacing some physical copies with ecopies, I feel like I’m reducing my carbon footprint in some way. (Yes, the ebook industry has many issues to resolve — like being able to lend or give away books, but, I’m hopeful!) It makes them easier to organize too: they’re all listed right there, being able to be sorted by author, title, date bought; and, they reside on Amazon, so they’re always available, and, I don’t have to worry about losing any books in a move! 🙂

    Sounds like after you’re emotional day that you need to make a cup of tea and curl up with an old favorite book!

  6. I identify with what you say about the loss of books. I acknowledge that if any of my library is lost, I may not wiser. I do not I have already ordered and I forget titles. However, some very special, with annotations, are real treasures to me, and I’d hate to lose them.
    Love of books as physical support, it appears your post.
    But I also think that Kindle book are not incompatible. Can exist simultaneously, but with different functions.
    Greetings!

  7. What a hard thing! I can totally understand why you wouldn’t want to organize your books and find out what exactly was missing and also remind yourself of why they are missing. Your grief over their loss is only natural. Take care.

  8. They are indeed more than ‘just books’. They do become a part of us, a part of our memories that we find comfort in being able to tangibly verify by picking them up again. I suppose when his is no longer possible, it’s devastating. No, I don’t know what you’re going through but I can certainly sympathize.

  9. Some break-ups are like firestorms. Thank you for sharing that scene with your family and supporters salvaging as many of your books as possible at that moment. I hope that their love seeped into the volumes saved and assuages the grief over the books you lost. By comparison, the only consolation for literature lovers who lose their entire library to house fires comes if there is no arsonist behind the blaze. The malice of your ex plainly makes your real loss harder to bear. Losing him sounds like your greatest gain. And the books you can no longer hold in your hands are wonderfully present inside you. When you return to reclaiming the pleasure that an organized library provides you, I’ll bet you discover – once again – even greater strength.

    Your brave, intimate post deserves some kind of award, but WordPress may not have invented one yet. It brings to mind two recently savored novels: A Quiet Neighborhood (1947) by Anne Goodwin Winslow and Old School (2003) by Tobias Wolff. Books, and fresh thought about their contents, are alive to the characters in both, as they are to you. I imagine that many of your readers wish that they could replace some of your lost volumes. Since that’s not possible for us, words will have to do. They’re a poor substitute for warm hugs, so I hope you’re getting plenty of those as well.

  10. I’m on the verge of tears, Kris. But remember that the new books you’ll buy with your daughter will be as valuable as those you’ve lost. It’s the same as with memories: you never know how great are those to come 🙂

  11. I feel your pains so deeply. I know what it is like to have to leave a situation unexpectedly. I know what it’s like to have to leave cherished things behind. I know what it’s like to lose friends…for, undoubtedly, books are friends. They reflect things back to you as you read and re-read at different stages in our lives together…which is what I love most about them…constancy…in spite of my changingness…and yet…they still teach me. Two large book boxes…filled with my favorite books…were lost in the shipping process. They were insured, but I was told nothing could be done. That happened 10 years ago…and yet, not a day goes by when I don’t miss one of those books…some of which truly are irreplaceable. I don’t think that grief ever goes away…but, my ability to cope with the grief increases with time and emotional healing of other things. I admire your courage to face your fear…to allow yourself to feel some of the grief…then to allow yourself to set it aside for another day. It takes a strong person to do that…meaning, that when you do choose to face it, the strength will be there as well. Compassion and love to you.

  12. Pingback: Our Books, Revisited. |

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