Finding balance in the second half of life

Step Away from the Shelves

In Family on August 9, 2014 at 8:43 pm

In the strongest possible language, I must caution you: If you happen to notice that your bookshelves look dusty, avert your eyes and step away. Find something else to do. Alphabetize your spices, or search for substitute mates for odd socks. Clean the globes on your light fixtures.

If you succumb, you’ll find that there’s no substitute for removing all the books from each shelf, using a combination of vacuum and dust cloth to restore your books and the shelves they occupy to respectable condition. If that were all, it would be fine. But it’s not. There are insidious side effects.

You will, for example, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide whether the collected works of Walt Whitman should be considered poetry or prose. You may be tempted to count the relative number of pages devoted to each; you may give in to temptation. You will no doubt find yourself gathering together all of the Whitman in one pile, just to affirm your decision to consider him a poet.

You’ll start another chain of unintended consequences by deciding that Austen really ought to have a shelf in your office. There’s a shelf that’s almost empty, but it’s not empty empty, which you’ll solve by adding the contents of the shelf to your in box, creating another project for another day. You’ll notice that this change puts Austen right next to the eleven volumes of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and you’ll spend more time than you should wondering if that’s unsettling or exactly right, since Austen’s events are generally so fortunate, at least by the last chapter.

You’ll try to find an excuse for putting Tina Fey in a section other than “post-1900” just because she doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in such close proximity to Faulkner, or even to Martha Gellhorn. You’ll ask yourself whether you can’t just send Tina to Goodwill, whether you really need to reread her; you’ll wonder just how many IQ points you’ve lost since college.

bookshelf 2014.08.09You will discover that there’s a shelf that you and your partner assumed had a different designation. What you thought was the introduction to the philosophy section, he has thought was “current reading.” “Current reading?” Who gets a shelf for that? What does that make the top of the dresser, the top of the desk? What’s the pile by the side of the bed? “Really current reading?” The good news is that you can stop trying to suss out exactly how that eclectic collection adds up, what angle on philosophical exploration it represents. You didn’t get it not because you couldn’t think deeply or broadly enough but because there was no it.

You’ll find, though, that you’ve forgotten things you used to know, which will cause you to reevaluate whether to shelve books entirely by author, without regard for time period or genre. This is hard on your self-esteem, and also on your relationship, because your partner would prefer to organize books thematically. If you can’t remember when people lived, you certainly can’t remember where or who knew whom or who studied whom. Putting any book away would require a full term-paper-like research project. Which might, of course, refresh your memory, but what would you not do to make time for all that refreshing?

You’ll wonder if the Russians really need their own section. Can’t they, after all this time, just get along with their contemporaries? And what about Strindberg and Ibsen? Are they more comfortable with Russians or Americans? Couldn’t they have been more prolific, so they could have their own section? Or were they, in fact, more prolific, and it’s just one more thing you’ve forgotten?

At about that time, you’ll discover that someone—certainly not you but far be it from you to assume it’s your partner, although he’s the only other person with ready access—has put a couple of story collections by single authors in the anthology section. Your partner confesses, when asked, but says there was no room where they really belonged. You’ll feel compelled to prove that it can be done, which requires shifting virtually every book on the shelves, because the author of one collection has a name that starts with W.

You’ll feel great satisfaction with having those books in exactly the right place, but it will be short-lived. Misplaced on the very last shelf you empty and clean you’ll find something by Richard Yates. You’ll at this point feel so dirty and dusty and tired of bending that you’ll be strongly tempted to pretend you consider Yates a nineteenth century writer. Or maybe a poet. Possibly even a cookbook author.

Seven hours after you thought you’d quickly dust the bookshelves, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing there’s not a single dust bunny (or stray cat toy) lurking behind the books on your shelves. You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you can locate any book within seconds—except for the ones about which you’ve lied to yourself for expediency.

But! Those seven hours were hours for which you had an entirely different agenda. In addition to being reminded of how much you don’t remember, you’ll be wistful, if not despairing, about how many books you’d like to read or reread. You’ll question whether any other agenda really matters, which will cost you when Monday morning rolls around. You’ll have a new list of resolutions, including to have more biography and more poetry in your own “current reading”—as if you needed more resolutions, since if there’s one thing you have more of than agendas it’s resolutions. Worst of all, you’ll be questioning your compatibility with the partner you were quite happy to wake up with only this morning.

Seven hours ago.

Before you noticed the dust.

So look away. Now.

–Lois Maassen

  1. Database. Number the books. Every book that comes into the house gets a number, Number determines where it goes on the shelf. Can go where it fits. So if it fits between two already numbered books, say book 2 and 3, it becomes book 2.5. Database records everything you and C. can think to think about book 2.5. All of your loves, hates, squirrelly correlates and dreamy thoughts. Who the authors slept with, ate with. Wars fought during that time, etc.. Whatever you like your database to say. Because it’s YOUR library. You don’t need to resort the books. Start where you are with a marker. Number them where they stand and start filling in that database… That’ll keep you busy enough… Forever…

    And then you publish the contents of the database, because that’ll make fantastic reading!!!

  2. Beautiful and funny as always… btw..

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