In a recent New Yorker article called “Shelf Life: Packing up my father-in-law’s library,” James Wood writes, “In this strange way, our libraries are like certain paintings that, as you get closer to the canvas, become separate and unreadable blobs and daubs of paint.” He’s reflecting on the idea of a collection, what it — as a whole — means, what it stands for, and here he notes that, of course, when observed up close collections are singular items, be they books or brush strokes, that obscure the essence of the whole. Collections, built up over time, tell stories — perhaps of what we value; what interests us; maybe they say something about our personality, or allude to successes, failures, or attempts earnestly made. It’s a wonderful, brief piece, even though this singular quotation, taken out of context, doesn’t seem to make very much sense or sound very interesting.
It certainly doesn’t sound very inspirational. I think it appealed to me, however, in part because lately I have been thinking and trying to write about my grandmother’s house. One of the things I’ve been struggling with is how to capture, at once, both the quiet melancholy of a home that has turned into just an old empty house and the lively center of activity — of family — that it once was when everyone was still alive. There is a video recording of my mother and aunt walking through the house, telling stories about growing up there, about all the different antiques that my grandmother collected (and in many cases restored) over the years. I only recently rediscovered it and, to me, it is a priceless artifact with many layers — it is a catalog of my grandmother’s house and things, sure, but it is also an oral history as my mother and aunt recount their versions of where things came from and who was there and where they went and what they thought. It becomes not so much my grandmother’s story as my mom’s. And it brings back my own memories of (my particular take on) the years my mom and aunt spent cleaning out the house, going through everything, making decisions about what to discard but, what proved infinitely more complex, what to keep and who would get it.
Like James Wood’s father-in-law, my grandmother left behind a vast and vibrant collection without regard (or plan) for what would happen to it once she was gone. All together, the collection of antique tables and chests and chairs and rugs and light fixtures was cultivated and arranged to create a unique (normally a word I hate, but here appropriate I think) place, a space that once was and is no more. The house is still there, but it’s no longer her house. It’s no longer their house, our house. It no longer belongs to us. And in the video, shot three years after my grandmother died, the shift away from us has already begun. As they talk on screen, my mother and aunt, the common story fractures into what seems, at times, like a competition — with points awarded for each individual’s ability to remember as they rhetorically dismantle the space we all knew. Taken and discussed separately, each object in the house becomes just an object. Over the years of their removal each singular piece, chipped from the whole, inspired distinct and sometimes prickly emotions as it was remembered and bartered away.
As I re-watched the video recently what astonished me most was that, like the objects in it, the house was just a house. Up close, I could see the blobs and daubs of paint.
Wood’s article also made me remember my own downsizing several years ago when I moved from a three story row house to a small two bedroom shotgun. We got rid of furniture, clothes, shoes, and books. I was not a hoarder of books, but what I realized at the time, staring at all of them, was that somehow I did think I was building a collection. It had no theme and included things like gift and devotional books, self help manuals, and trade paperback copies of David Baldacci novels. When I moved from Memphis to Boston I left boxes and boxes of books in my parents’ attic. At no point was I happier than when I finally moved into a space (an attic itself, it turned out) that could accommodate all of my books, and I quickly tripped off to Memphis to retrieve them. My library included old high school and college text books, French novels and plays and histories, lots of American literature, particularly Southern writers, anthologies of poetry and short stories, and scores of paperback mysteries and thrillers. The problem with my library, I realized, was that I was privileging volume over substance, so much of it had to go.
I sold some of the books to a local second hand bookstore. Others I donated to Books for America. I’m sure some of them got recycled. The more books I got rid of, the better I felt. I was so surprised! I’m a librarian; we are in the business of collecting and preserving. But culling my personal library proved liberating. It felt good. We were deliberately downsizing, after all, and having a smaller library was actually, itself, empowering.
Which brings me to the final thing that Wood’s article brought to mind, which was limits. I think often about excess, but Wood’s article made me consider our own libraries (or other collections) in a different way, less in terms of their personal or cultural value and more in terms of them being part of the physical footprint each of us makes, and the impression it leaves behind. Reading Wood’s article happened to coincide with beginning to read Sallie McFague’s book, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. I studied McFague when I was at Boston University — her 2001 book Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril should be required reading. This is her new(er) book, and reading her again is like sitting down with a compassionate mentor, someone who is filled with fire and life who wants to pass it on — and what she is passing on, in one regard, is what my former professor James Nash called a “philosophy of enoughness.” There must be limits, and to live within those limits — to thrive within them, even — we must fundamentally shift the way we understand both the world and our role in it (and for Christians, she says, this includes a rethinking of what salvation means, but that’s another story). We must redefine the “good life” (a central argument of Life Abundant) and turn from patterns of idle consumption to ones of critical restriction (which is not the same as deprivation). It is a shift in ethical principles, where we move from an individualistic to a collectivist approach to not just how we perceive the world and our place in it, but how we relate to all other parts of creation, which requires us to abandon our natural, unexamined, and (especially since the Reformation, McFague argues) historically cultivated anthropocentrism.
I went for a long walk on Sunday afternoon. After our book purge two years ago we still have a store credit at Second Story Books, so I walked there and used the credit to acquire two new books. Life is not without its contradictions. Afterward I was sitting on a bench in Dupont Circle listening to someone play the clarinet, people watching, and reflecting on what an incredibly beautiful fall afternoon it was. I felt intimately connected to the swirl of activity and life that was happening around me. As I sat on the bench, breathing deeply, I thought about a passage from McFague’s book, when she quotes Tim Flannery (Weather Makers, 12-13), who writes, “It is in our lungs that we connect to our Earth’s great aerial bloodstream, and in this way the atmosphere inspires us from our first breath to our last. The time-honoured custom of slapping newborns on the bottom to elicit a drawing of breath, and the holding of a mirror to the lips of the dying are bookmarks of our existence. And it is the atmosphere’s oxygen that sparks our inner fire, permitting us to move, eat and reproduce — indeed to live. Clean, fresh air gulped straight from the great aerial ocean is not just an old-fashioned tonic for human health, it is life itself, and 13.5 kilograms of it are required by every adult, every day of their lives.”
I realize these threads don’t really seem to be connected, what with starting with a dead man’s brittle and cracking library of books and ending up paddling around in the great aerial ocean with a climate obsessed theologian. But hey. Not every line is straight. And this particular line, passing through stories of libraries and calling newfound quotes to mind, brings me back to words, and the idea that if there is anything in the universe that we could never have too much of, I’d like to think it’s words. But even words take up space.
Thinking of my personal library, or my grandmother’s house, or of any collection really, is to think about not just what it is that we are gathering around us, but what it is that we are leaving behind. Ecologically speaking, this is no small consideration. As I think about the things I collect and the collections that I build, I want to be mindful about the choices that I make, about what is enough. This may seem silly or foolish or misguided, but Wood’s article made me picture him sitting helplessly amid the overwhelming physical reality of 4,000 volumes. I couldn’t help remembering my mother and aunt in that big house full of furniture, struggling to discern how to make it fit in their own already overcrowded houses, not wanting to let go but at the same time recognizing that, at a certain point, there is simply no more room.