A year ago, I moved from Vermont to Maine. The neighbor boy counted my boxes of books as he helped load them from the house to the moving van. Fifty-one. His father asked me, “Do you actually read all these books?” I answered, “I either do, or maybe I will.” I flew off to organize the people upstairs, who asked more simple questions. “Should we mop the floors?”
A visitor to my new house commented, “You have more books than a person could ever possibly read. No, I mean it. It’s not even possible to read all of these books, one person, in one lifetime.”
So I thought about it. If I read two or three books per week (which happens only some of the weeks) that’s approximately eight to twelve books per month, so let’s say ten, which averages 120 books per year. I began to count my books. I looked around. One hundred and twenty books take up eight or nine linear feet on my shelves….
It doesn’t matter how many books. Books are not just for reading. They’re for viewing, touching, dusting, sorting, stacking, arranging, re-sorting, shelving, un-shelving. They’re a source of pleasure.
My husband has twenty-two screwdrivers, thirteen wrenches, and sixteen wood files.
My goat cheese-making friend keeps a couple of bucks around for kicks and, out of compassion, nurtures elder chickens that are all done laying eggs.
My daughter has 2,178 songs on her iPod.
That we are a species of excess is another topic. My point here is to say that we pay attention (and dollars) to what sparks passion, nourishes obsession, furnishes joy, soothes.
The other night, I climbed into bed with four books. I curled on my left side and spread them out, side by side, on top of the blanket where my husband sleeps: a book of poems with cover art that staggered me, two novels I was considering whether or not to finish, and a natural history book on corvids. I read the blurbs on the back of one of the novels. I read the acknowledgments inside the other. I admired the pen and ink drawings of crows and ravens on branches and in flight. I considered, once again, the book of poems. I picked it up, felt it, flipped through. I noticed the sound of quality paper between forefinger and thumb.
The cover of The Clock Flower by Adrian Rice, designed by Press 53’s editor, Kevin Morgan Watson, is thick and waxy. The art, by Jon Turner, depicts a pen and ink drawing: a dandelion seed and, standing to the right of it, a series of six human figures, lined up shoulder to shoulder, each wearing a suit––males, let’s assume––a boy growing into a youth, an adult, and eventually the drawing of a body stooping into an old man. Each head is represented by the life stages of a dandelion. The child’s head is the telltale toothed-leaf, the youth a bud, and so forth. The figure transforms–––the flower opening, the flower full, the seed-fluff, and finally the fluff scattering to the wind. There’s so much to think about what this image communicates. So, that night, I lay there thinking. Is this about how a person’s ideas change over time? Will the poems collected inside be about aging, grief, transformation? If the figures were female, would the flower have been placed to represent her heart, her hands, her womb? I set down the book of poems. I opened to my place in one of the novels and read the second chapter. After, I decided to let the novel go.
During this time, all over the world, people were watching television, painting, milking cows, texting, waking up in a ditch, driving to shops and offices, defending their country, having sex, dancing ballet, eating a calzone. My husband was in his shop turning a bowl from the burl of a maple tree. I could hear my daughter laughing, Skyping with a friend who lives in Virginia.
We’re fortunate to have some choice in the design of our time. We do the work we love, get our educations, and collect. I collect books. I also collect heart-shaped stones, clouded apothecary bottles, snail shells, small ceramic pitchers, and tiny used artifacts of whimsy that I arrange on a wooden shelf. I collect beautiful paper. I could collect antique tools, bicycles, CDs, vintage coffee pots, Frye boots, Victorian-era floor lamps (well, I do have a few of these), buoys, tea cups, paintings, orchids, Farmers Almanacs, beads, earrings, car parts, skiffs, license plates, baskets, matchbooks, military memorabilia, wooden birds, Breyer horses, iron hooks, or cheese graters. I collect books.
Many objects are pretty, touchable, stackable, arrange-able. Those fifty-one cartons of books (plus, the ones that I’d already moved in the car on an earlier trip) contained anywhere from 20-30 books. Add the new books I’ve acquired this year. I never did finish counting, but we’re talking about thousands. Books on nature, ecology, art, cottage décor, tiny houses and caravans, spirituality, gardening, and writing. My husband and I merge our collections of poetry and essays. We own a couple of dozen field guides between us. But, mostly, my books are works of fiction, and over half of those are short story collections.
I can open up any one of any kind of books from my shelves, begin to examine and read, and something outside of my current state of awareness immediately shifts. I am “the self” found suddenly in juxtaposition with “the other.” Whether encountering the drawing of a rare moth, a journal entry from a woman sitting by the sea, or a description of a fictional town, I am catapulted into a world similar to or disparate from my own. I am made suddenly alert, brought up short by a line, an image, an idea, a whole nation of ideas. I shut the book in order to pursue a tangent. I sit down to read. What I like about books is their capacity for the boundless, the infinite, when caught in hands attached to an imagination.
There exists a well-forged ideology that books are art, and that art is a necessity for a sane society. That books keep me sane is a personal truth I can defend. But I’d prefer to engage with the ingenuity of the artist, the writer, the aesthetics of the artifact, the design, the narrative, the mediation, the facts, the lyricism, the feet, the teeth, the wing on the page. I’d rather wage war, not in defending my need or want of fifty-plus boxes of books, but within the conflicted borders of my imaginary worlds. I want the conversation between the experience of the book and my way of understanding that experience to compel me into the next day and the next and the next, to do my work of writing books, editing books, making art, cooking dinner, taking the dog for a walk on the beach, all with a clearer vision than what I may have had without the book.
Not all books stay. I am sensible enough to know that when I cull, donate, trade, sell, recycle, I am opening space for more books to come in, and for old books to find new readers. Which brings me back to that one night in bed, that one book of poems, that compelling cover art.
Over time, I’ve come to understand what kinds of books have stood the test of time. The books that are memorable, or seem as though they one day might be, the ones that stay on my shelves, have taught me something worthy in a character’s choice, given me insight into the life of a non-human and still sentient being, or shown me the artful line of a building, the curve of a garden trellis, the shape of a sculpture. They’ve left some patterned mark on the page against a creamy space, the blankness having caught my eye. They’ve made me laugh, or cry, or shake with a powerful understanding.
I’d place myself on the cover of that book of poems, The Clock Flower, five flower heads from the left, still flowering, but with some poignant shape-shifting in near-view. I still need these books. Yet by letting a few of them go, it’s as if I’m beginning to see the beauty of flinging tiny-hooked fluffed seeds to the wind.
This essay was originally posted on March 27, 2016.
Jodi Paloni is the author of the debut linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, a runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Her stories have appeared in a number of print and on-line literary journals: Green Mountains Review, Carve Magazine, upstreet, Whitefish Review, Contrary Magazine, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. Her website is www.jodipaloni.com.