On unpacking my library

Dedicated to the memory of Walter Benjamin. I moved from one office to another last week, which means I had to take down all my books, put them on carts, and unpack them in my new office. A simple enough task, but handling each book, picking a new location for it, tugs at the heartstrings and stirs old ideas from hibernation. You see, no one remembers all of the books that they have. This particular copy of “1984” was left on my desk in chemistry by someone–never knew who–in the spring of ’76. They had written my name it. My copy of “Ghost Story” came from the English book section of Casa de Libro in Madrid in 1979. Over the course of even a few years, one forgets individual volumes that were acquired in odd ways in dark, smelly, book shops off of equally dark and smelly streets deep inside a grimy urban setting. A copy of Borges’ short stories was a birthday gift from a beloved friend and still bears her dedication. I found a copy of Dante’s “Inferno” which was inscribed “To Helen, completely unforgettable, London, 1961.” I had completely forgotten several titles which I had never gotten around to reading, but I was warmly surprised to see old friends that I had indeed read, albeit decades ago. Having an analogue library, though quite superfluous today, appeals to my medieval sensibility of scribe. The physical presence of the books reminds me of how much there is to think about just being human. Flipping through familiar pages, reading familiar passages, gazing on forgotten book covers, I am often reminded of other periods, other times in my life when I lived in other towns and knew other people. My worries and concerns were different when I first read “Don Quixote” or “The Name of the Rose.” While I was unpacking I was assailed by both nostalgia and pathos, remembering a warm rainy afternoon in Madrid when I found that one book about Cervantes that I always wanted to read. Or perhaps it was a copy of “Cien años de soledad” that I found abandoned in a train station in Toledo (Spain). Some books had been gifts, and others had been borrowed by me, but never returned. I found an old, beat-up paperback of “Dr. Zhivago” that I bought for fifty pesetas from an outdoor vendor in the plaza of Alonso Martínez, which I read during the winter of ´84′-’85, one of the coldest winters in Madrid’s history. My copy of Shakespearean sonnets which was bought for less than a dollar out of a remainders bin at a mall in Mankato, Minnesota over thirty years ago which still bears my innocent marginalia of my youth. I had to throw away, with much regret, several books with broken spines and molding pages. At one time this would have horrified me, but these works are easily recovered given the digital nature of the internet. I noticed that I now have two copies of “The Lord of the Flies,” but that I still haven’t read it after all these years–I suspect I know what it’s about and don’t want to stare at the horror of humanity unleashed. I have dropped an ancient copy of “Beowulf” on my desk–a discard from my high school library. I first read this book when I was fifteen, so it will be a new read for me when I pick it up later this week. I will donate three boxes of books to the local library sale to make way for new titles because space is always finite for a book lover.