As usual, I am working from sunup to long past sundown, taking full advantage of my son not being here for the week. The current project? While it was to have been my office, which is sorely backed up with its ‘to file’ boxes busting at the seams and my inbox untouched (along with 60 entries from kids wanting to be in the talent show and with whom I need to communicate), I have instead turned to the organizing of the bookshelves in my living room. Just two of them. Plus those in Elihu’s room, plus the many stacks of books in my room (all in varying stages of being read.) Ok. I have more books than I’d like to think I do.
A friend once came over and remarked “you’ve got a lot of books”. I was surprised that it was his first observation about my living room – cuz it just doesn’t look like a lot of books to me. I’ve had a lot more books on the walls in my day, lemme tell you. Immediately I flashed on a scene in my last home, shortly after Fareed told me he was leaving. Of the many difficult tasks I had before me in the splitting of a household shared for over twenty years was the division of the books. We’d taken them all and layed them out, piled them up, sorted them across every surface of Fareed’s home office, in order that we might begin to make some decisions.
Nearly every other title had me weeping, as I’d be reminded of a time in our own personal history when we two had read that particular book together, when it had for a short time become a touchstone in our lives. I remember one particular moment, tears streaming down my cheeks, turning to look at Fareed. Never before had I seen less emotion registered on his face. Til that moment I hadn’t realized how truly changed he had become. Faced with a room filled with hundreds of books, so many of which had once played an important role in our life – he stood unmoved and stone-faced. Save a book or two mentioning guitar player John Williams – he told me he didn’t really care what I took. I couldn’t understand whether he was trying to make a break from this life with me, and that he actually might have liked to take a few books himself but couldn’t – in order to make a strong, clean break – or was he just done? Over it all? Ready for new books, new subjects? Maybe he needed to lighten his load of all things physical. Maybe behind that stone face was a determination to get this divorce moving, to get all this household crap behind us. Move forward. Big, heavy boxes of books can sure slow things down. ‘Screw it! Ditch the books, man! I got a cute, blonde, pregnant girlfriend nearly half my age… (I’m not exactly reading a whole lot these days anyway – you know?)’ Sorry. Too dark? I wouldn’t usually be like this – but it’s just all this crap. All these memories. All these old books wafting off great clouds of dust like so many emotionally-charged allergens.
I revisit Elihu’s small years in the tender, vintage volumes on trains, birds, Santa. Then I find the modern, paperback versions of the Tomten, with its gentle watercolors of the countryside at night, blanketed by snow… I find the first book I ever read to Elihu (Little Bird, Bittle Bird) and laugh to myself at the thought that perhaps this is where his bird obsession came from. Probably not. But a cute idea. I find so very many books, each with its own importance, and although they each have a place on the shelf, it’s going to require quite a bit more organizing than it looked at first to put them back neatly. Same with the whole bloody project. No time to slow down and get sentimental – I gotta get these damned books back up on the shelves. It takes me a bag of Salt and Vinegar potato chips, one Tabasco flavored Slim Jim and a Cadbury egg to motivate me through the final two hours of my workday.
I stand back. About the best that can be said for my day’s work is that I’ve sanded and oiled each shelf, dusted everywhere and vacuumed every last mouse turd. A great improvement right there. These shelves haven’t been touched in the three years since I got here and slapped them up on the wall. I’d recklessly added books til the planks bowed in the middle (now they’ve been turned upside down to hopefully push them back down again). This is the first time I’ve taken any time at all to categorize them, tidy them, remember them.
I come across a fair number of books that Jill has given to Elihu over the past three years of Christmases and birthdays. I know that she has chosen them, not Fareed, and in spite the unresolved feelings of plain hurt that slumber deep within me, I’m able to see how much thought she has put into these choices. The books she’s given him are worth keeping in his collection. I wonder, if it weren’t for the kinda creepy situation we all find ourselves in, would she have written an inscription in these books to him? They are the kinds of gifts in which one normally would. But they are strangely empty. I wish I could throw them angrily into the ‘toss’ pile, but that would simply be spite. These are books Elihu loves, and she gave them with love. Hm. I wonder if she gives as much thought to these little gifts and situations as I do? Do I dwell on it because I’m left alone to dwell? I wonder. I know she must feel some trepidation to know that her gifts ultimately pass through my hands, my judgment, my house. Weird. There is a silent communication that takes place between us, and it both unsettling and yet has also a quiet feeling of resolution, peace even.
I should have known Fareed had emotionally checked out of our marriage when he gave me this romantic little ditty for Christmas in 2006: Music Clubs, Festivals & Concerts and How to Organise Them. Published in 1981 and retired from the West Kent College library in the UK, he said he’d thought it might come in handy with both running our own nightclub there in Dekalb as well as running my father’s Festival of Baroque Music in New York. Yeah. Right. I might have understood the gift better if it had been old enough to be ironic or truly vintage. But he sold his intentions as genuine; he said he thought it would be of some use to me. That dusty little volume, plus a pair of fuzzy black socks were it for me that Christmas. The following year, after he’d told me about Jill, he gave me an IPod. Guilt, Love – and the Absence of Love, each motivates in its own way.
I cringe when I think of just a couple of things I’d given away – hefty, beautifully bound books on design. The kind of books that would cost way too much to replace. I admit I’ve laid in bed remembering their contents longingly. Ah well. There is only so much one can keep. And despite the three heavy boxes of outbound books – I’m still short on shelf space. I may need to relegate a section to the basement bookshelf. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve read most or all of every book I have – and those I haven’t I’ve at least perused – I’d think the collection a mite extreme. But really, it isn’t. I lend books, hell, I give books. I use and re-use books. I learn from them. See, my main problem is that I don’t retain what it is that I learned from reading a book the first time. Seriously, I don’t. (I’m a great audience for jokes; while I remember having heard the setup once-upon-a-time, usually I have completely forgotten the punch line. You can tell me the same silly joke a half a dozen times and I’ll enjoy it as much each time.) Hence the professional-level re-reading that goes on. Not to mention the quick referencing. Cuz the internet still cannot provide a substitute for a dog-eared page and favorite passage in hand.
The nice thing about having sections clearly delineated by topic, and in knowing where everything is, is that I no longer feel I have to have this wall of books by my bed. If there’s a book I want to get back to – I will not simply leave it, bookmarked, along with half a dozen others alongside my bed on the floor. Instead, I will return it to its place. Because now, every single book has its own, proper place. The project isn’t quite finished, as much still needs to be nipped and tucked, and some larger volumes may ultimately need to live elsewhere, but essentially the main job is done.
Remember when people thought videos would make movie theaters obsolete? But no. Turns out there’s no substitute for that theater experience. Some may think the Kindle thing might make books obsolete too. But really? I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong; I myself think it would be damn fine to have one of those virtual readie thingies of my own, but I’m just fine for now without one. Besides, I think a wall of books looks quite nice. Cozy. Interesting and inviting. For now, I’m going old-school.
OK. I’m emotionally purged and ready to crawl into bed with a good book. The trick now is not where to find such a book, but instead – just which book should it be?