In 2018 Wanda and I decide to install cherry-wood laminate flooring throughout the first floor of our house. That means ripping up hardwood in the kitchen along with carpet in the dining and living room, pantry, both bedrooms and every closet. Once we schedule a firm date with Home Depot’s contractor, all we have to do is empty the space for the installers.
Eight decades of experience have taught me that the words ‘all you have to do’ inevitably mean, before the task is done, an unexpected curve ball is headed my way.
‘All we have to do’ is pick up all the things we live with and haul them to the garage. Cans, bottles, and bags from the pantry. Clothes, shoes, and shelving units from the closets. Beds, lamps, tables, plants, chairs, pedestals, and every decorative object.
The real ass-kicker? My office—my man cave—must be stripped to the bare walls: move my desk, an ottoman, two chairs, two four-drawer file cabinets, and five floor-to-ceiling bookcases after stripping their shelves and packing a couple thousand books into twenty boxes.
Then ‘all we have to do’ is maneuver all of it through the doorway, around a corner into the hallway, a left turn through the living room, another left into the laundry room, and finally down two wooden steps into the garage.
Halfway along the hallway, hugging to my chest the fourteenth bulky box, that unexpected curve ball zips by with this thundering question:
What the fuck, Bill? Why keep so many books?
Didn’t I learn anything from walking the Camino across Spain in 2015 when I had to carry everything I needed on my back? Up and down mountains. Along trails. Through villages and cities. That pack was my daily burden. I thought I’d pared down to essentials, but after one week I shed more stuff: a Spanish phrase book, a shoulder bag, extra toilet paper, a fleece cap, pants with no side pockets and an extra notebook. Left them on my bunk in an albergue at Los Arcos.
Now, grunting down the hallway with a carton of books, I confront the same shit again. It’s never over. Lessons keep coming.
A Santiago nunca se llega, solo se va. (You never reach Santiago, you only set out for it.)
What do all these books represent to me? I tell myself they’re my ‘steady companions’ but, if I’m honest, they’re more like emblems of my intelligence. Dust-jacket photos of authors posed before walls of books always impress me. Wow, they’re really smart!
When I peel my onion to its core, it reveals the shame I felt after flunking out of Northwestern in 1958 and then from Ohio Wesleyan the next year. Looking back sixty years I’m not sure what was going on with me at the time. Maybe undiagnosed ADD. Maybe I was bone lazy. Or just adolescent noodle-ism.
I returned home in the summer of 1959 feeling stupid and feckless. And, to the quiet despair of my parents, hid from the world in my upstairs bedroom, my nose stuck into Tolstoy, Dickens, and Trollope – losing myself in fictional worlds, hiding from the demanding, confusing and frightening one beyond my dormer window.
To this day the presence of colorful spines arrayed on shelves comforts me somehow. A river of mute voices, bundles of inked marks on paper, signposts strung along the years that mark where my soul lit up.
Yeah, but why hold on to so many? Why lug them from house to house? What if I sold them or gave them all away? If my shelves were empty, would I still be me?
After dealing with the contents of my father’s house, I looked at my tendency to hoard books. But instead of doing anything, I wrote this:
Don’t Laugh at My Library
When you sift through my office after I die
you’ll confront a wall of poetry books.
I hope you won’t snicker like I did
when I dismantled my boyhood home
and found forty pairs of black socks
in a dresser drawer. Why so many, Dad?
If you wonder that about my books,
just know I couldn’t part with steady companions
summoned round my heart to hold at bay the howling roar
of the bullshit train that clanged past my door.
The wall studs buzzed with honeyed hives
of language stored on these shelves.
Before they go to Goodwill, riffle their pages,
glance at my underlines.
There’s where my soul snagged, where
shards of reflected majesty
sang their fierce clarity
through lines of inert ink.
These shelves bulge with poems
that gave me the gumption to pull up my socks
and stride through the turning world.
So, for pity’s sake, don’t scoff too harshly.
With each passing year and each passionate purchase
this library was the brightest utterance
I had at my disposal. When I read them,
I was their audience. When I didn’t,
they became mine.
To hang on or let go of my passionate purchases? That is the question for an old man grunting his way down a hallway with a leaden box of books.
During a visit to the bookmobile stopped in Port Ludlow, a title jumped off the shelf at me: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Margareta Magnusson— “aged between 80 and 100” (her own words)—urged me to clear out unnecessary belongings before my sons have to do it for me. She poses a question that’s become my mantra: Will anyone be happier if I save this?
On Margareta’s advice I did a book purge and sold two full shopping bags to William James Booksellers. And more to come.
Or I should say . . . to go.