Saturday, March 19, 2011


A tip of my hat (an old, battered Montreal Canadiens hat) to Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking my Library" for the title and concept.

I spent today doing some cleaning around my apartment. It was badly needed (somehow there's still a sinkload full of dishes to do) and as I've heard any number of people mention this as a favoured form of procrastination, I thought I'd give it a try.

I reserved extra time for rearranging my bookshelves. I should come right out and say that I love books. If you give me money, I will spend it on books before basically anything else. Part of it is the conspicuous consumption and cultural capital angle (yes, I'm not too proud to admit that I like the fact that there are a lot of heavy hitters peering down from my shelves), but given that I've had a grand total of two visitors to my apartment in the time that I've been living here (my parents), I'm not exactly taking full advantage of my books for that. As embarrassing as this is to admit, I've never had bookshelves before. When I moved in, before I had anything unpacked, I assembled a bookshelf I purchased from Target. It was hotter than it ever gets back home, and by the end of it there was a minor flood in my kitchen/living room area because of all the sweat, but I had a bookshelf. I spent the rest of the day ordering my books on the shelves. I ran out of room. I bought another bookshelf. I filled that one. Then I unpacked my clothes.

I did some pretty major reorganizing today. I have a long, short bookcase dedicated to fiction and creative nonfiction, arranged alphabetically by author's last name. For multiple books by the same author, they are arranged chronologically according to publishing date. My fairly small collection of poetry and drama used to be housed on this bookshelf as well, but I moved them over to unit #2, a tall, slim set of shelves. Unit #2 now starts at the top with literary theory/philosophy, and moves down to pedagogy, poetry/drama, history, and, on the bottom shelf, anthologies (mainly by Norton). I'm thinking of switching poetry/drama and history, though. As with the fiction/creative nonfiction bookshelf, books on unit #2 are arranged alphabetically by author's last name, and multiple books by the same author are arranged chronologically by publishing date.

The attention I pay to the order of books on my bookshelves might suggest that I'm a very organized person. This is not the case. I am messy and disorganized (I will pause for a moment to let the people who know me stop laughing at this understatement) [this is one of many reasons why I can't have nice things, like a girlfriend]. Nevertheless, I am quite organized when it comes to my bookshelves. I'm proud of them and hope to be prouder still some day. When I come home and I've had a particularly trying day, I'll often spend a few minutes just browsing over my shelves. I'll pull out a book that catches my eye and read a few pages before putting it back to rest with the others and moving on to a new book.

Rearranging the shelves was an incredibly relaxing activity this afternoon. It took me about two hours to do what should have taken ten minutes. I couldn't help myself, though. Every book seemed to ask for me to pick it up and look at it, even if it was just to look at its cover and flip through the pages. Some books I haven't read yet (projects for this summer) and it took everything in my power not to immediately retire to my bedroom and get started on them right away. While I'd love to do just that, I have dates with Toni Morrison, Stanley Fish, and Shirley Jackson for classes I'm taking or teaching. Other books on my shelf are begging to be reread in light of new experiences, new knowledge, and newly read books. Hopefully I'll get to them soon, too.

I love my books (even the ones I hated reading). I love flipping through their pages and catching an annotation in my hand or my telltale underlining (seriously, I know when I've underlined something and when someone else has. It's very obvious). I've given something to my books; I can't identify it, but I can feel it. I would suffer an irreparable loss were they to disappear. I know this for a fact: I lost some books in a break up and it pains me to think of them not sitting on my shelves with the others (Notable exception: Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent. If you would like my copy, let me know. I'd practically pay you to take it). Most of my books are cheap paperbacks (I'm not into the whole rare book thing), but to me they are valuable beyond measure.

We talked about Wolfgang Iser in class the other day, and his idea of the ways that books allow for limited conversation between work and reader frequently came to mind as I rearranged my shelves. My copy of The Professor's House, for example, has so many annotations by me that there is barely any white space left in the margins of the book. If I lost that book, it would mean more than losing the story and those notes, though. It would mean losing my memories of reading that book (conjured as they are as soon as I catch sight of the book). Part of myself would go missing. I can tell a lot about who I am (and remember a lot about who I've been) by rereading The Professor's House and reliving all my previous encounters with it through my notes in the margins and the passages I've underlined. That book is no longer just Willa Cather's narrative of Godfrey St. Peter and Tom Outland. It's as much (if not more) a narrative about me reading Willa Cather and what that means to me.

I suppose that might be why I spend so much time fussing over my bookshelves. In many ways, my voice is there, contained inside those books I know and love (or at least read once when forced to for class, cf. Crescent). New books mean new ideas and conversations, so I need to reflect the changes in my voice through the organization of my books. I guess that's why I like to keep my bookshelves tidy, even as my laundry and the dishes pile up.


  1. Nice post. As a writer, this sort of attachment to books makes me smile - I imagine any writer would thrill at the idea that someone has such memories and is so invested in the conversation he carries on with a work.

    I, too, underline haphazardly, despite attempts to the contrary. Why does it seem like everyone else is capable of a nicer job? Re: "why you can't have nice things, like a girlfriend": HAHAHAHA. And do your dishes!

  2. Really enjoyed reading this post. I think you said a true thing (at least for me and, I figure, for many others) quite well.