If you want to endear yourself to me when you come over to my house for the first time, notice and peruse my living room bookcase. My real bookcases are downstairs in my basement, but the two you see as you enter my door are a convocation of carefully chosen books designed to reveal things about me. Not that many people care but it is offered as initial hint about where my interests lie. Few do more than glance at it in passing, but these selected books and realia are camped there purposely, ready to disclose much about me. I sigh every time I invite someone over and they pass it by.
If we move downstairs to my real bookcases one can do a proper archeology of my life. Upstairs, is akin to a museum display in which shards from my past have been chosen to rough out a light sketch of my self through a careful gleaning of representative textual artifacts. But downstairs, like the dusty cabinets that hold the real treasures of any museum, one can suss out much more about me. A depth psychologist could see those shelves as holding a kind of paper and ink unconscious, one hosting many of the archetypes and motifs that structure, condition, and formulate whatever it is I’ve become. This is possible because books have so infused my life and so guided and nurtured everything about me that in a very real way I am these books.
Shall we excavate a bit? Of course digging through my reading past won’t be properly structured as currently arraigned on the shelves, so I imaginatively order the books in chronological order, not by publication date, but by date they came into my life (note that I was careful not to say ‘reading’ date, as at least half of the books I own were never read).
The first thing you’ll notice as a library archaeologist is that the differing strata of related books appear in clusters—bundles of avocations and interests that span months, years or even decades. There is the Nibley phase. Books like Lehi in the Desert and the World of Jaredites are folded in with books on Near Eastern civilization and archeology. This transitions into a new layer of pursuits into New Testament studies. If one presses on you can follow this trajectory into my interests in alchemy, Medieval esoteric studies as books by and about John Dee, Paracelsus, Bruno, start to dominate as my interest vis-à-vis in that moment when science began to emerge from magic and takes center stage in the transformational figure of Roger Bacon. But in addition to the historical flow that seems to typify this stratigraphy, there are other minor themes and variations in philosophy of biology, existentialism with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche suddenly appearing—shuffled together like two very different decks of playing cards.
Many of the layers seem worrisome to me now. They seem indicative of a lack of follow-though and commitment. A kind of starts-things-but-never-finishes-them personality flaw. They were supposed to turn into projects, papers, novels even. Something tangible. A contribution to the world. What happened that so many of the strata end so suddenly without flowering into some physical artifact that would endure beyond my toying with it? Is it just a fact that, like civilizations, most of my reading interests just fizzle out in the end? Is every project of mine doomed to follow the Etruscans into obscurity? But no. Not completely. Scattered in the many layers are a few minor contributions. But I wonder: Why have so many of these movements in my life produced so few successes? Is it a numbers game like the milky eggs of a echinoderm that are scattered in the seas by the hundreds of millions in hopes for just a couple of successful offspring? Or am I just too fragmented to focus long enough to find some depth?
Distributed in the thick layers of major strata and concurrent with these major themes and movements are the husks of seeds that sustain and nourish me. Fiction. Would I have survived graduate school and the despair and depression that looked to destroy me in my fifth year without Tad Williams’ Memory and Thorn series to rescue me? Without George Eliot would the ‘I’ I’ve become even be possible? My time with Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Romola, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, Middlemarch, Scenes of a Clerical Life, are among my life’s favorite moments. These have not only provided meaning, but richness and grace. These undergird the substrate of my life and add depth and meaning. I see Science Fiction and Fantasy scattered all over the place. Most important, Tolkien (I read him long before his current cachet. When I read him, he was mentioned in the same breath as favorite authors Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, as odd as that sounds now). Magic realism is another undercurrent that becomes obvious. And poetry! How would I have lived without poetry? There, on the top shelf, are arraigned rows upon rows of poetry. Collections—the annual Best American Poetry from 1991 on, and Mary Oliver. Oh, yes. Mary Oliver is indispensable. Comic books? Of course! Spiderman mostly and more recently Buffy (I just got my hands on all of the season 8 issues, you may drool if you feel it appropriate). Children’s literature is scattered on these shelves in rich abundance. Some, I read to my children and became part of my family’s shared culture, but much of it was just read and enjoyed for its own sake. My favorite book in the world is Abel’s Island by William Steig.
I notice on the shelf that there are many books I know I’ve read, but I have absolute no memory their content. Perhaps a few images remain. The outline of a plot, perhaps. Or, I might recall a now fuzzy scene with an affective aura hovering about it that invokes a furtive approach to the book’s original emotional encounter. But nothing distinct. More like the fragments of a dream grasped at, but largely forgotten as one emerges from sleep (for extra credit, who was I imitating there?). I wonder why I should bother to read at all when the memories of the books I read seem to fade so quickly. What was the point beyond some entertainment or a few moments of pleasure? But if I consider not the content of the book, but its meaning to my life, I am forced to admit that these books have helped form and shape who I am. Even though the specific effects of a particular book are lost, at one time this book put me on new courses, pointed me towards new trajectories, and unlocked new untapped futures—if just to encourage or discourage reading other books like it. Had the book not stood in that place, at that time in my life and diverted or directed the channels of my thought and action, I would have become a very different person than I am. Many of these books have acted as bifurcations splitting my life into one future rather than another. So while now I can hardly remember a thing about some of the books I’ve read, because I read them, things have emerged that otherwise would not. Or so I suppose. One mustn’t be too dogmatic about destiny’s playground.
And the scriptures? Are they a strata? Or are they scattered randomly like fiction? No they are the matrix in which all these things are imbedded. The rock that gives stability and structure to the other layers.
I could stand to loose many things in this world. Books are not one of them. Everything from the colors of their covers, to the smell of a Ballantine fantasy book, I adore. Books have added to the richness and variety of my life. I am the books I’ve read.
So, if you ever come over. Please take a moment to look at my books. If you ask to go downstairs and see my other books I am yours forever.