At 12:47 on Saturday afternoon, I cut the packing tape on a box marked “Early American.” We had moved into our new house eleven days earlier, and I had thus far unpacked about 73 boxes marked with inscrutable names like “Batman parts/cars/Halloween” and “Cookbooks Fragile.” We had been stacking the empty boxes in the basement. Periodically, someone responded to my Craigslist post about free boxes and showed up at my house to remove a few, but the pile of empty boxes kept replenishing itself, a monument to our efficiency and productivity.
We have an order to unpacking, perfected over the years and the moves. First, the kitchen, because we can only handle so many days of pizza eaten on the living room floor. Kids’ rooms are next. Toys should come third, but this time they came earlier because I couldn’t get to the kitchen and the bedrooms if the only entertainment the kids could find was systematically putting all the pots right back into the box I just took them out of.
We leave the books until almost the end. After the winter coats, the spring-form pans, the towels now badly frayed at the edges, and the wedding china that hasn’t been used in six years, although we have high hopes for this Thanksgiving. This time, the twelve boxes of children’s books jumped to the top of the unpacking list because of our three narcissistic little readers. But, the adult books are a discrete project, twenty-five or so boxes, all neatly labeled and stacked to one side, patiently waiting until the other bits and bobs have found their final – and usually arbitrary – resting spots. Only the pictures come after the books.
When we moved to Philadelphia eight years ago, there were no children or remote-control firetrucks to slow us down, and I was shelving my books three days after we arrived, eager to get back to studying for my qualifying exams. I set to work, separating out the Americans from the British from the poetry, everything chronological within its own category, although let’s be honest, who really cares about getting the Brits in perfect chronological order? I knew the publication dates on most of the texts, and only rarely did I need to flip the book open to confirm.
Two years later, we bought an eighty-nine-year-old house with the original wiring, a bewildering number of doors, and built-in bookshelves. I was eight months pregnant. I walked slowly, so I welcomed my mother-in-law when she came to help with the unpacking, only to discover that she had a tendency to shove things into drawers just to make them disappear. Now, I often agonize over whether Fates Worse Than Death should be shelved with the memoirs or with the other Vonnegut books, and should the one Williams novel I have go into fiction or be tucked between Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire? I was taking no chances by letting my mother-in-law shelve my books. Despite my giant abdomen, I unpacked the books myself. Within a week, I was hurrying to complete some revisions on my dissertation so that I could send it out to my committee before I went into labor.
I decided not to seek a tenure-track job when I graduated, instead working as a writer. I got steady work as a speech-writer and found some free-lance clients. Then, my husband was offered a two-year transfer to London. Who wouldn’t want to move to London? Of course we would move to London. When we boarded the plane, I was seven months pregnant with our second child.
It would be hard for me to work while we were abroad, so I would focus full-time on child rearing, for which I didn’t need a vast personal library. Most of the books went into storage in some deep warehouse in Delaware, where they would await our return. I set aside only those books I wanted to see every day. I wouldn’t need both editions of Sister Carrie while we were abroad; I could do without my Bible Concordance. The public library would fill my reading needs just fine.
I regretted this decision a year into our stay, when I began writing a book. Just two years out of graduate school, my mind was full of literary references. I wanted to be able to roll my chair over to a shelf, flip quickly to just the right page in just the right copy of just the right book, and pinpoint the quote that suited the mood. But most of those just right books were still in Delaware. I muddled along, awkwardly putting off finding the quote until I could strap the baby into the stroller, drop his brother at preschool, and then get to the library, by which time the mood had completely passed and the quote seemed stale and obvious.
Then my husband was transferred to Los Angeles, and we once again were rootless newcomers. The books sat in boxes for three more months while we moved a third of the way around the world and looked for a house in this strange new city. The books remained idle while I sought preschools and researched neighborhoods and took the boys to the pediatrician and settled in with my new obstetrician because I was three months pregnant. Six months pregnant by the time we finally moved in.
Now four years out of graduate school, I stood in the dining room of our Los Angeles bungalow and flipped open the cover of Barren Ground to see if Ellen Glasgow should come before or after William Faulkner.
My book didn’t find a publisher. The industry went up in flames the same month my agent started pitching it, and she kept telling me she couldn’t take it to editors until I built up something called a “platform,” which meant I needed to sell articles. I started reading magazines and websites, trying to figure out where my audience might be. The pile of books next to my nursing chair sat neglected.
We hated Los Angeles. All the flashy cars zooming past homeless schizophrenics gave us vertigo. Despite the economy, I told my husband it was time to find a new job someplace where most of the people had their original hair color and noses.
We moved to New Jersey just four weeks after my husband found a job there. We grabbed a small rental in a good school district, certain that we’d find a house in just a few months. As four months turned into five, I finished unpacking the books, which went on the shelves in a slipshod manner – Joyce next to Chaucer with no regard for genre or period. The children pulled them off the shelves, then shoved them back in, so that feminist theory was mercilessly mixed in with travel guides and The Best Short Stories. The books were in the living room, which was also where the children played; there was no way I could have stopped the mayhem. It didn’t matter – this was only temporary, and I didn’t need to access the books.
It took ten months for us to find a house. Meanwhile, I was writing at the kitchen table while my youngest crawled across it and a mouse scampered across the floor. I was trying to build a platform, but I was also trying to define myself as a writer with little pieces I wrote while the kids used my books as bridges across flaming moats. Then I would press “Command-S,” snap the laptop shut, and holler to the boys to get in the car because we had to get to tae kwon do.
The house we finally found was spacious, with a room for each child and another just for the toys, not to mention a family room plus a living room. We were lucky – I was lucky. My husband made a good living and we could afford a good house and my kids were in a good school district. I drove a minivan that got regular checkups to soccer practice behind other minivans that got regular checkups.
While we waited to close on the house, my agent emailed me. The industry was in crisis, she said, and she’d been criticized too much lately for trying to sell authors who had no platform. In short, she was dumping me, but we could still be friends. So, I sat at the dining room table and researched independent publishers. I’d have looked to see who published some of my favorite recent books, but those books were already in boxes, awaiting removal to our nice big house with a giant tree in the front yard.
A month later, the books ended up in my brand-new study, piles of boxes awaiting my attention, as soon as I finished putting away the Nambe platters we had gotten as wedding presents. Except I was also in the middle of looking for a job. We moved in September, which is the time that academics search for teaching jobs. I was no longer an academic, but I was a writer with a Ph.D., and I wanted to teach writing. Those who cannot publish teach, except without publishing you can’t really teach. I sidestepped the boxes of books as I hurried to complete my job letter, which would have been easier to do if four-year-old Benjamin hadn’t insisted upon parading through my study every ten minutes.
My study. I hadn’t had a workspace in years, but here I had a study. With a desk and windows and bookshelves. I’ve always wanted a room just for the books.
So, at 12:47 on a Saturday afternoon, eleven days after moving, I had finally gotten Lilah down for her nap, sent off one more job application, and pitched my book to a new agent. My husband was reading to the boys books dug out of yet another box of children’s books. And I cut open a box labeled “Early American.”
And I couldn’t remember if Stowe came before or after Thoreau. Awkwardly, I opened the books, trying to get each author chronologically situated. I opened another box, and there were Faulkner and Hurston, somehow boxed with Tennyson and Nehru, which just shows how confused things had gotten. When I finally found Djuna Barnes, I had no idea when Nightwood had been published, even though I once had taught the book. I was astonished to realize Nightwood had come out the same year as Gone With the Wind, even though I am sure I knew both publication dates once upon a time.
Every book I picked up seemed clumsy, as though it had no place in the chronology of authors until I opened the book and checked. I was not the confident scholar, fluidly dancing from box to shelf, slipping the books right in where they belonged. I was a slightly lumpy stay-at-home-mom with a sputtering writing career and a four-year-old who was likely to burst into the room at any moment, insisting that he had to use my bathroom, even though there were certainly other toilets in the house.
I pulled out Franny and Zoey. The last time I read Salinger, I was still in high school. I have no idea what Franny and Zoey is about. I moved to check the publication date, then stopped. I walked into the next room, a large master bedroom, and placed the book on my nightstand. It had just jumped to the top of my TBR list.
I have a whole To Be Read shelf, of course, a shelf I had barely touched in a year. I had read one book in six months. The shelf was populated by the books I bought in spurts, when I thought that perhaps I would suddenly be able to carve out reading time. As I found those books in the boxes, I put them on their new TBR shelf, where they would likely languish as they had done in our last house.
Putting away a box of Brits, tragically mixed in with a lot of books on parenting and some book my husband once bought on how to win at Blackjack, I came across Forster. Without thinking, I reached over and put A Room With a View on the TBR shelf, even though I’ve read it many times before. Moments later, Giovanni’s Room and Pride and Prejudice followed, with The Plague not far behind.
I was shoving books on that shelf, as if the intention to read them would restore something that was lost, crumpled under The Madwoman’s Underclothes and The Complete Plays of Henry James. I reached into the box again and pulled out a book, just as my husband called out, “Can you get the boys to the bathroom so we can get ready to go?”
“In a minute,” I replied. I stood there, holding the book, looking at it, wondering if it needed a special place. After a moment, unable to shelve it next to the rest of Woolf’s books, I stood A Room of One’s Own up in front of the row of books.
My books now have a room of their own. It remains to be seen whether I do.