I remember the day Evan and I packed up our books.
We were recently married, moving to the New York City suburbs, and in the middle of a purge-induced adrenaline rush. We parted ways with dollar store kitchen utensils, tossed all 90s fashion, and left our yellowed white couch on the sidewalk for bulk trash. We saved the books for last, because there were hundreds, and needed to clear the floors to make space for the task.
It took longer than expected, because what began as packing with the occasional pause to reminisce about a favorite author, evolved into frantic searches for favorite passages and lengthy readings. I’d recite something from Philip K. Dick’s Valis, and Evan would offer something from Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. From there it escalated into some kind of Shakespearian Jeopardy:
“I’ll take ‘Princes Who Dodged the Bullet’ for $1000, Alex.”
Of course, Evan kicked my ass. While I had merely read Shakespeare in college, he had spent a lot of time playing princes at Juilliard. But though his knowledge and handle on the text was greater than mine, we were an equal match when it came to the passion we felt for literature.
It was midnight when we hoisted the last box onto the moving truck, and we still had to drive 30 minutes to Montclair, unpack, and return our crummy U-Haul by 8am. When we arrived, essentials were taken to the appropriate rooms, and non-essentials, like books, were stacked in storage.
We intended to purchase shelves and turn our guest room (oh yes! a guest room!), into a library. But before that happened, a baby happened, and the guest room became a nursery. And once our son arrived, I had no time to think about 17th century literature or shelves.
A few years later while packing for a move to Paris, we shuffled the books from our basement to a rented storage space. As we stood surveying the 10×10 room that would safeguard everything we still owned while we moved overseas, we laughed. The books we hadn’t seen in years took up more than half of the room. We had spent weeks ruthlessly editing our possessions, yet here were these 20 boxes of books. They were like one big middle finger to feng shui.
One year later, we moved the books again. We were back from Paris and settling in to our new home in Glen Ridge. For another year they collected dust in a closet on our top floor. During breakfast one day, I tried to recall a line from Matthew Arnold’s Sweetness and Light, and decided it was time to stop depriving myself of my favorite Norton Anthology. While Google is always good for a quick, cheap fix, I wanted more. I wanted my notes in the margins, I wanted all of my favorite words together in a beautifully bound book, I wanted to reconnect with the people who connected me to the person I wanted to be back then.
I went upstairs and edged my way into the back of our storage closet where we stored the books. What began as a focused expedition to find my Norton Anthology turned into a lengthy reunion and a great unpacking. I called Evan upstairs and we spent the afternoon reconnecting with favorite authors. We were shocked that it had been six years, that we had two kids, that we had built careers and started a business in the time we had last held those books in our hands. But what struck me more was that I had spent six years filling my thoughts with the banal logistics of daily life, preachy advice in parenting tomes, obtuse investing how-tos or social media noise. In figuring out and living my adult life, I had had little time to question what Simone de Beauvoir saw in Jean Paul Sartre or why Wordsworth was able to so eloquently convey the flapping of a bird’s wings.
While we unpacked our books, our two sons played in the adjacent room. I overheard bits and pieces of conversations about Egyptian kings, dinosaurs and a magic tree house. I had the sudden urge to go back downstairs and collect the parenting books. I tossed them all into a box, sealed it shut, walked back upstairs and put it in the back of the closet to collect dust.
We ended the day with fourteen piles of books divided by genre or period. We agreed our favorite pile was the books we planned to someday read with our kids.
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