To say that I have a lot of books is an understatement. Years ago when my wife and I left Canada to live in England we stored our joint library – the library you get when, as an adult, you start living with another adult and your book collection begins to merge, the duplicates getting sold off or given away – in her parents’ basement. There were probably about 3000 books there. Almost all of my philosophy texts were on those shelves – scores of books by or about Wittgenstein, and then another even larger though more varied collection of books centred on the theme of moral regret. There were novels, of course, and German texts (in those days I could read German passably). And there were also those books that come your way that you can’t fully categorize but can’t seem to part with either. My wife’s book collection was nearly as large as mine (pre-merger) but included a great many more art books, plays, and literature in translation. There were also many books there whose origin in one person’s collection or the other we could no longer recall. In any case we set all of these aside and left town, province, country, and continent with little more than a single suitcase each.
It is a challenging prospect to leave all your books behind, to start afresh.
The first few years that we lived in England I bought almost no books. First off, I had almost no money. And England, or at least Oxford and later London, is (or was) very expensive. Kathy and I would share a pint of ale (it’s cheaper to buy a pint than two halves). We never dined out. We would walk rather than take the bus. And of course we used the public library in Oxford extensively. And then there was always the Bodleian library, where I had managed to obtain a reader’s ticket, for philosophy books. I used to walk in to town each morning (about a 45 minute walk) and spend my day in the Philosophy reading room of the Bodleian. [Wow, that was a long time ago. I’d nearly forgotten how much time I used to spend reading, thinking, and writing philosophy. Anyway, books are my theme here not wistful reminiscences of earlier selves, and more specifically the books in one’s private collection.]
For about 3 or 4 years there we bought almost no new books. Nevertheless, a small collection of used books, library discards, and gifts from friends began to accumulate: the start of a new collection. By the time we were both earning real salaries we had reached the point where we knew we were not heading back to Canada any time soon. England was likely to be our home for the rest of our lives. So there was no longer any practical reason not to buy books. And with Oxford blessed with 3 mammoth bookstores there were temptations aplenty for our disposable income. So a new personal library began to form in earnest. This one did not have very many philosophy texts: Kathy kept hers in her office in her college and I, well, I had set my boat on a different tack. Mostly novels then. Mostly books that we shared, either reading them aloud to each other, or ones that one of us read and urged the other to read so that we could compare notes and talk about them. Is there any other reason to read?
Years passed and by the time we came to leave England we had accumulated approximately 3000 books. This time we left nothing behind. They all came with us back to Canada. This group of books forms the core of our current collection.
Now we have a house (for the first time) and so the time has come to gather together those books we left in parents’ basements or in the rooms we occupied growing up (I still have about 1000 books in my old bedroom in the house in which I grew up, books from high school and my days as an undergraduate – so a fair bit of poetry in that mix; well, I was someone else then). Acquisitions, or perhaps more accurately, re-acquisitions, such as these call for serious judgements. One’s personal collection of books, at least for me, says something about the person you think you are or wish to be. This is as much true for shared collections as for those of a single individual. Merging a whole collection of books, even if that is a collection you formed yourself in ages past, is inevitably as sensitive and anxiety ridden as that first adult merging of collections. The intimacies are real, and subject to the usual embarrassments. Did I really once own a copy of The Magus? One shudders to recall, so I decide that this book must be a rogue entry in our collection and it prompty gets culled.
Do I really want to live with a person who has so many books on Wittgenstein, even if that person used to be me? I realize that my general pattern in life has not been to synthesize; instead I have tended to compartmentalise. To pack an earlier self in to a box, label it, and then set it aside as I change continents and lives.
And so this post about books does in fact turn out to be a trigger for wistful reminiscences. The re-acquistioning, so to speak, is going slowly. Most of the books from all those years ago are still sitting in boxes. I’m working on it. But the re-integration will take some time.
Meanwhile there are new books which are being added to our library at a steady pace. We have a fabulous independent bookstore in Waterloo, Words Worth Books, that we both love. And Amazon is always tempting as well. So the collection grows and grows. And changes. Again.