When I left my Chinatown apartment, I packed my books first and that was a huge mistake. For the past two weeks I felt bereft and last night when I pulled one from my new bookcase and began to read, I could feel a hole was being filled. The internet, as useful as it is, doesn’t replace what books do for me, and when I read from a screen before I made the final move to my new home, I felt as though I were satisfying a cramping hunger with Cheetos.
I have 140 books, every one of them kept only because I can reread each with pleasure. Although in everyday life, I usually look at them as a cabinet of mementos, and complain that there’s nothing in the house to read, that’s a distortion of truth, an addict’s excuse for going out and getting more. I realized that when I looked at my new bookcase filled with old books. Each one of them was enticing after our separation period and I began to read with a very real delight.
It’s a strange and lovely coincidence that my new bookcase holds every book I own with room for no more than that. It means that if I buy a new book, I either have to give it away after I read or give up one that I already own. In my room there is no space for another bookcase and that pleases me. I love ownership but I hate greed.
One of the most depressing places I’ve ever visited was a studio apartment furnished almost completely with bookcases. All of them were full. Books had been piled high on a little table and were stacked neatly on the floor. The smell of dying paper was palpable and sad. There were more books than any one person could ever hope to read in a lifetime, let alone reread. I could only spend a few minutes in that place without wanting to retch.
There will be other books that I’ll bring home, and I may fudge the issue of giving and keeping by deciding that the cookbooks will have to find a space somewhere in the kitchen. But overall I’ll stick to my buy-one-give-one policy. Claustrophobia will trump avarice every time and my room is extremely compact.
But even stronger than the issue of space is the memory of six paperback books on a shelf made from rough lumber in a room that was mine when I was fifteen. Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories by Salinger, East of Eden, China Court, a Louis Untermeyer anthology of 20th Century poetry, a copy of the Tao Te Ching: there were many other books in our house but these were mine, chosen and cherished, read and reread. Then there were my childhood books on another shelf, ones that I rarely opened at this stage of my life but were impossible for me to give away, Anderson’s Fairy Tales, the Brothers Grimm, Treasure Island, King Arthur retold by Sydney Lanier, worn-out copies of Little Women and An Old Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, An Episode of Sparrows.
All told I kept less than twenty books over the course of my life at home. When I finally went to New York to live with my grandmother, I wasn’t horrified to see that her collection was even smaller than my own. It was easy to understand that; she lived in a city with branch libraries in every neighborhood and soon I was a regular patron of four of them. I would come home with as many books as I could carry, gobble them up, and then go back for more. It was bliss.
The saddest thing for me in this new century is the state of library books, which are so disgusting that I can no longer borrow them. Nothing is more appalling than turning pages that are stained with mysterious fluids—or worse yet identifiable ones. Since the books belong to everybody, they belong to nobody, and the stern dragon-faced librarians of the past, whom I was certain examined every book I ever returned and would confiscate my library card if they found one that I’d besmirched, are dead and gone, replaced by social workers. The libraries themselves are filled with people who have nowhere to go, no place where they can take care of themselves or be cared for. In the 21st century we can pride ourselves that we have no workhouses, no lunatic asylums; we don’t need them. We’ve replaced them with libraries and we are all the poorer for that.
In Seattle we have built a library designed by Rem Koolhas, a building so innovative that it even filled pages in an architecture magazine published in Bangkok. I couldn’t wait to go there when I finally returned to the states but I don’t think I’ve visited it more than six times in the past four years. When I walk past it in the morning before it opens, a small crowd waits outside its doors. The emergency shelters close for the day, the occupants take to the streets, and then to the libraries. All over the city people surf the internet, sleep in corners, and often rave to themselves in public libraries.
When I visited my sister in a small South Carolina town a couple of years ago, we did a small tour of the local libraries. They were the refuges of my youth: quiet, with not an indigent to be seen within their walls. It was both soothing and terrifying—where did the street people go? But then come to think of it, I saw no street people. I don’t think they were allowed past the Mason-Dixon Line; I’m sure they haven’t all been sent to Seattle but there are days when it feels that way.