My parents are going to move out of the house that I grew up in. It’s a strange thing to watch from a distance as they spend their weekends packing and selling and giving away. My dance costumes, childhood toys, and old clothes all must go, I’ve been told.
They have agreed to keep my books until I get home. I think this was before they realized exactly how many I have. A preliminary inventory revealed hundreds of books in dozens of boxes, tucked away upstairs in the attic. Too many books for one person, I know, and yet I can’t bring myself to get rid of any of them. These books that have followed me from childhood to adulthood, around the world and back again.
Last weekend I came across this article, which tries to convince book lovers to liberate themselves from the dead weight of the printed word.
I remain unconvinced.
Books are not just glue and macerated tree. They cannot be given away and replaced with a Kindle. I disagree. They are memories and fingerprints and dog-eared pages. They are characters I used to know and people I love and moments both remembered and forgotten. They remind me of the person I used to be and the places I want to go and they are a window into what I will become. Pieced together, these thousands of pages and millions of words are a map of my heart.
When I was a child my grandfather used to bring me dolls he had collected from his travels around the world. For many years I had figurines from Switzerland, Japan, and China on big white shelves on the wall above my bed. So many dolls from so many places with so many stories. The shelves sagged under the weight of it all.
And then we both grew older, my grandfather and I. He stopped traveling and I stopped playing with dolls. So he started buying me books. Every year for Christmas the winner of the Governor General’s Award. Also, best sellers, non-fiction, and a two-volume edition of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with a gold-embossed spine. And then, best of all, my own copy of a book that a biographer had written about my grandfather’s life. The inscription to me, in his messy cursive writing, reads “from your partner in adventures”. These are the books that are in the boxes in the attic of the house where I grew up.
I have an anthology of the collected works of Chaucer. A giant tome of a book written in Middle English. It weighs about ten pounds and can be slammed into the table with emphasis to win an argument. It reminds me of the fight I had with my professor, the one who tried unsuccessfully to discourage me from writing my term paper about the role of women in The Canterbury Tales. “Chaucer wasn’t a feminist and neither am I”, he told me disdainfully, “pick another topic”. I refused. I won the prize for the highest mark in The Study of Chaucer that year.
The Collected Works of Beatrix Potter is there too. These stories that I still love. I bought a second copy for my friend when she had her first baby.
I still have the travel book about North India that I carried with me the first time I went out traveling on my own, that strange summer before law school, right before I moved out of my parents’ house. It’s traveled by plane and train and bus, been to the home of the Dalai Lama, was almost stolen by monkeys in Shimla. The pages are stained and the spine is creased. I don’t care that the information is outdated.
My favourite bed time story was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. My father used to read it to my brother and I every night. The best story is a simple one, he used to tell us. These pages were turned by my father’s hands, these corners folded by him to mark the spots where we fell asleep and he stopped reading aloud.
I have books by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and Wendy Brown. By theorists with names that I can no longer remember. With titles like Sexing the Body. Books accumulated during a time in my life when every day was a discussion about politics, an argument about gender roles, a social justice campaign. They remind me of my three best friends, the ones I met in my introduction to women’s studies class, of the protest signs that we hand-painted in my garage one cold winter day, of the marches that we attended. These books and these women are part of who I am.
Last year, before I moved to Tanzania, I sold all of my belongings except for my mattress and my books. These are the only two things I will need when I come back home, I thought.
My collection of books isn’t shrinking, it’s growing. I’m not leaving Dar without a book called Street Level, which is set in my adopted city and has drawings of buildings I’ve visited and streets I’ve explored, side by side with my new friends. And this coming Thursday, at a celebration for International Women’s Day, I’m going to buy a collection of short stories written by Tanzanian women, the proceeds of which will be donated to the only women’s shelter in Tanzania. I will bring these two books home with me and they will remind me of the piece of my heart that still lives in Dar.
If, at the end of my life, I have boxes and boxes of books and nothing else, then I will consider that a sign of a life well lived.
So, no, I don’t want to give my books away. Not even one.