On the floor next to my bed and on the night table are piles of my books mixed with others from the library. The overflow has migrated to the closet shelves, sharing space with sweaters, CDs and my shoeshine kit. If my room were buried in a lava flow and entombed for centuries, archeologists, if any were interested, could reconstruct sizeable swathes of my sensibility, if not a detailed biography. Books are evidence of the trail we blaze through life, the cul-de-sacs and way stations. In “Voluminous,” an essay prompted by the need to move his library, Leon Wieseltier writes:
“This is the other variety of significance that attaches to books, the subjective sort, which transforms them into talismans. Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography.”
We might assemble a small anthology of essays devoted to moving books and culling them. Pieces by Walter Benjamin and Joseph Epstein come to mind, and are evidence of the centrality of books to the identities of dedicated readers. The earliest book in my room – that is, the first I acquired – is a Bible and dates from 1961. My Pensées is a faded, much annotated Penguin from ten years later, as is one of my copies of The City of God. A paperback King Lear and a collection of Melville’s short fiction, too brittle to read, I picked up in France in 1973.
Wieseltier’s choice of “talismans” is good. None of the books I’ve cited is valuable. Without longtime familiarity they would be throwaways. Instead, they are suffused with memory. More accurately than my résumé, they trace the subterranean course of life, the embarrassments only I know. Gone and in some cases forgotten are all the books I’ve read and given away, or sold, or otherwise lost, though they hover around the over-stocked shelves. As Wieseltier puts it:
“We are regularly sustained by what is gone.”