My twelve year old favors my husband’s side, appearance-wise, the long legs, straight back, and Brad-Pitt eyes, but she’s very much her own person. Confronted by one of her unique inclinations, my husband and I will sometimes marvel, “Who’d she get that from?” In one respect, however, she’s all mine: She doesn’t part with stuff, at least not easily. Her messy bedroom pains my husband, the neatest person I know, but she can’t seem to toss, donate, or recycle much of anything. “It’s too special,” she says. (Our ten year old couldn’t be more different. Case in point: He used to tidy his kindergarten teacher’s desk for her during recess. For fun.)
I see my younger self in my packrat kid. Fortunately, over the years, I’ve gotten a little better at giving things up…just not books. With the exception of those borrowed from friends or the library (and eek, sometimes not even then), books that have made their way into this house have taken up permanent residence, resulting in double rows of books on sagging bookshelves, mountains of books in closets, tabletop towers of books, and drawers of books.
But my husband’s orderly instincts must be rubbing off on me because this entire week, I’ve been a woman on a mission, tackling those towers and mountains. I admit, rather than giving the books away, I’m mostly reshelving and organizing them, a feat that’s possible, thanks to our recent purchase of a big bookcase. I am, however, donating the diet books, exercise books, and low-fat, low-carb, and low-calorie cookbooks, as well as the parenting books I never bought for myself, never asked for, and frankly never read, those how-to-get-kids-to-sleep-on-their-own, how-to-wean-your-babies-and-start-them-on-a-perfect-foods-diet, and how-to-handle-the-headstrong-child manuals. For far too long, they occupied my bookcases, like the parenting version of guilt-inducing elves on the shelf. The hardbound scolds and paperback pontificators were the first to get packed up, and that night, after a rich supper followed by a decadent dessert, I slept peacefully beside my husband and dog, with my door left open, in case my kids decided to come sleep with us, too.
The organizing’s been satisfying. I’ve filled my office bookcase with my “magic books,” the novels and collections of essays, poems, short stories, and flashes I revisit regularly because they inspire and move me. Only slightly less special are the books in the rest of the house. In my living room, the poetry anthologies have their own shelf; the story anthologies, too. Books by the same author or poet have found one another at last. My dining room bookcase teems with excellent novels. My tried-and-true cookbooks line the shelves closest to the kitchen. The bookcases in the basement playroom: kid lit heaven!
This has been an emotional undertaking, like wading through picture albums, and slow going. While marshaling my childhood favorites with their cracked spines and ragged covers, the first poetry anthologies I purchased as a teenager, the works I studied in college, the treasured lovelies from trusted friends, the popular “buzz” books I eagerly read, the not-buzzy-at-all tales I discovered by accident, and the many novels, memoirs, and collections by my Twitter lit-community pals, I have paused, again and again, to flip through pages and search for once-admired passages and poems.
Now, side by side on a shelf, sit the novels I wrote, The Beloved Wild and Unleaving, like close siblings among good friends—or, perhaps more aptly, schoolmates among teachers. Plot construction, characterization, dialogue, pacing, diction, style: What little I know about the art of prose and the mysteries of poetry I gleaned from excellent books. I don’t have an MFA, but I have Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ethan Frome, Love Medicine, My Ántonia, Like Water for Chocolate, The Shawl, Pride and Prejudice, The Woman Warrior, Bluets, What Work Is, On the Road, The Shipping News, Wuthering Heights, Housekeeping, The Bluest Eye, Written on the Body, The Master and Margarita, The Lover, Frankenstein, Madness, Rack, and Honey, and many others. These marvels gave me so much pleasure, I hardly noticed them instructing me.
My books bookmark me, the eras of my life. They stir memories, inform my writing, illuminate the trajectory of my interests, hopes, goals, and passions, and remind me of dear others. And I, having spent hours dreaming in their depths, somehow bookmark them, like a pansy pressed between especially fine pages. That’s the neatest thing about reading. We plant ourselves in the stories. And then we grow.