Repacking my Library – Thoughts on Books and Memory

National Library of Norway. (blds_06083)

I am moving, and so my books are going back into their boxes. Facing a reduction in space and determined to use the opportunity to clear some of the detritus from my life, the question which confronts me is for which books that storage will be a brief matter of transit, and for which it will be a long, perhaps permanent relegation.

As I shuffle down the shelves picking up one book or another here and there it quickly becomes apparent that the answer is not straightforward. At first glance it’s a question of utility, albeit of an idiosyncratic sort, which will decide which books I take. When, I ask myself, will it next be necessary to sit down and remind myself of the history of the English reformation, or look up the definition of an obscure Shakespearean word? When will I need to borrow an idea about the limitations of memory or check the name of a minor figure in the history of photography?

However the value attached to a particular volume is defined by much more than content. Anyone with an interest in acquiring books will know that they are more than just containers for knowledge and information. All physical possessions seem to themselves possess something of the experiences that they have passed through, the chain of events which have brought them here to their current owner.

Books do this most intensely, perhaps in part because of their physical fragility, and also their intimacy. The creased pages and battered covers are markers of former residences, specific events, past readers. Cumulatively this damage starts to feel as significant and unique as the marks of a human hand or face, marks which we might not be able to fully interpret, but which are regardless burdened with a lifetime of meaning. Often on encountering an old book, the first thing I feel drawn to do is establish the date of its publication, and then imagine the owners, the lives, and the things which it has survived through.

Books gifted by family and friends hold it most powerfully of all for me, perhaps because so much of that life is retraceable. My grandmother’s small volume of Othello, printed 1895, signed and dated by her in 1943, held together with copious amounts of yellowing cello tape. A copy of Labyrinths, gifted by a university friend, its contents page is scrawled with her suggestions and instructions for the chapters which must be read and in what order, an esoteric schema of which Borges would probably have approved.

This often overpowering sense of a book’s past attachments and entanglements must in part explain why I so often find myself leafing through volumes in second hand shops which contain absolutely no information of use to me, indeed sometimes which contain knowledge now obsolete even to those specialists who might once have required it. And still knowing I will never have a use for these books, I almost always feel drawn to possess them. Packing up my library, it is these books, the ones with some sense of history, that most easily secure safe transit to their new home.