My View

Robert Wallace: Ourselves among books

August 20, 2013 

Robert Wallace


Recently I moved some 1,500 books to an upstairs study. My daughter, having graduated from college, was moving back home, and she wanted the downstairs bedroom with its adjoining private bath. So while I was at work, my wife and daughter took more boxes than they could count and planted them all over the floor of my new study.

I consider my books to be part of the family. They mean that much to me. Each time I move them – and there have been many times – I do so with much thought, care, and a significant amount of nostalgia. My first major move, for instance, was nearly 800 miles, nearly 35 years ago, when I stuffed a couple hundred paperbacks, and a hardback Harvard Classics’ collection that included works by Greek philosophers into a two-toned, lime-green Maverick.

This most recent relocation was the first move in about 17 years, but, as in years past, it meant moving more books than ever before. In moving my books, it allows me to inventory what I have and don’t have, and, most importantly, gives me time to reflect on what I want to keep, which, I must say, is most.

There is the placing of the books, but before this can happen, before even the first book can earnestly be shelved, one must develop a system. Moving allows one the opportunity to place books differently. It’s like discovering your library all over again.

The actual physical act of selecting and placing the books upon the shelf, recently, allowed me to take stock of my own life; it was a window into where I was when I read the volume, or where I purchased it. As I put Joseph Heller’s “Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man” on the shelf, I was reminded of my family’s trip to Saugatuck, Mich., in 2000. The book brought a smile to my face; not only because of the fun we had there, in Saugatuck, in the town and on the beach, but the farcical story itself, a meta-fictional account of Heller himself, and the illusory notion of success.

And then there are the ephemera – the found objects in the books. These are things the previous book owners have left in the books – stories within the stories – that I have allowed to remain for my own enjoyment to rediscover in years to come, for I do read my books again. Bookmarks are the most common objects, such as homemade ones created by my daughter. For example, in this recent moving, when I put a multi-cultural anthology on the shelf, I pulled the tassel from a bookmark and saw the handwriting of my daughter when she was probably 7 or 8. “Happy Times with Me!” the bookmark read, and she had drawn a picture of a heart.

Over the years I have found many objects in books, including drawings, grocery lists, To-Do lists, parts of stories, poems. I have even found money from North Vietnam, dated 1987. Then there are the love notes, a secret world of passion and heartache. One note read, “This is it for me. I can’t go on without you any longer. Please come back.”

Lastly, there are the books where the reader has decided to underline sentences or write in the margins. In my volume of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” one reader wrote, “Like Schopenhauer, pleasure through pain.” And, “I’m underground too,” underlining “underground.”

It took me several days to re-shelve my books. And when I was done, as I do now, I like to be in the room with them. Even when I don’t have a volume in my hands, which is rarely, I like to be among my books. Someday I will pass them on to my daughter. But for now I have them where I want. They’re things that are necessary.

Robert Wallace can be reached at

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