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Personal Histories

Credit: Juhan Sonin

The Books

A couple’s decision to combine bookshelves supplies a series of revelations.

Five years ago, I moved in with my partner Dustin, joining him in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment in New York City. He, like me, had lived alone with his things just as he wanted them for some time, and I knew I was, despite being a beloved, invited guest, something of a crisis also. Dustin had lived in his apartment for 20 years, and had a great love of chairs, for example. I had arrived with approximately 30 boxes of books after having lived in perhaps 20 apartments within the same period—the life of a visiting writer.

We each carefully slimmed down our things. He brought some of those chairs to the charity shop down the street, and I brought some of those books to Housing Works Bookstore. And, as a love gift to me, he built me bookshelves that run from my lucky crystal chandelier in the kitchen to his candle chandelier in the living room, through every room. The apartment, at 450 square feet, is now something like a very nice if eccentric used bookstore, dotted with our bed, desks, kitchen, and couch, and of course, many excellent chairs.

We lived that way for five years, until last year, when for just a little more than the rent we pay, we bought a cabin in the Catskills, a communal arrangement with two of our closest friends, and a paradise for some of Dustin’s best chairs. While I can’t fill it with my books—these friends also have a home full of books, and we all have to show some restraint—some books, I knew, could and should go up there.

I began to think about my books differently. What would be the library for the cabin, and what for the city? It seemed like a simple question.

 

I once sublet a room, the guest room in a second home, that was filled entirely by books from writers the owner had no intention of reading but could not give away. I used to joke that it was a way of making his guests feel a little less at home—so they wouldn’t stay too long—as many were mediocre books by otherwise great writers. But I didn’t want that for my cabin.

This was, is, a place where I go to write as much to relax. Writing even could be said to relax me because when I don’t get writing done, I become very stressed out. But that aside, the cabin struck me as the place for those books you’ve always meant to read, or that you like to take time with. I began with the poetry of Eugenio Montale and James Merrill. Then I chose that one massive Icelandic novel, that other massive novel in verse. I began moving through our shelves, trying to make these decisions—what can go north, what can stay. And it was then I understood that Dustin’s books were still, more or less, all together, in a cell, in what we think of as my office, next to my desk. And my favorite books were one shelf back behind me. My fiction, A-Z, in the living room.

We had never combined our books.

One of the funniest questions you can ask a group of couples is whether or not they have combined their bookshelves.

His desk is in the living room. Mine is in what was at first our shared office. We had tried sharing the office, just off the kitchen, a room about the size of our bedroom, with built-in shelves. Dustin made room for me on the right side of the shelves, and he took the left. After many desk arrangements and re-arrangements, we found we could fit there only if we were seated back to back, and so there was inevitable crowding. Thus one desk went to the living room, the other stayed.

We had made a decision that my desk couldn’t be that living room desk—we’d have to see it too much. My life requires me to have at least two jobs—teaching and writing—so my desk usually looks like it was searched by thieves who left something behind instead of taking anything. This worked, but felt a little like an irony—some sort of literary Gift of the Magi: Dustin’s books near me, in my office, next to my desk, my fiction in the living room with him.

As I walked through the apartment, choosing books from the shelves for our new place, I thought about what felt like the riddle of our separate books. Our libraries struck me as something like Rilke’s ideal for love—two solitudes, side by side. Dustin loves being alone as much as he loves being with others. It is just who he is. I am also like this, it is who I am also, and so I accept this about him easily.

And yet, for the way his library had stayed more or less unchanged, I wondered if it was some small way for him to hold on. He had lived in this apartment without me for almost two decades before I arrived. So, yes, this was my desk now, but these were his books. I decided to move cautiously. Our books upstate would be combined—was it time to combine our books in the city?

I proposed a test first. “Do you want your books next to you when you are at your desk?” His desk is between a piano from his grandmother, and my fiction shelves, A-F. It seemed like an approximate swap.

“No,” he said. He was not interested in that. This made me a little cautious. “How about if we combine our fiction?” I asked next. There were gaps left by the books heading upstate—room enough for his novels and stories to fit in there.  

“Sure,” he said, and so I began.

 

Credit: Pietro Bellini

One of the funniest and most interesting questions you can ask a group of couples at a party is whether or not they have combined their bookshelves.

I discovered this once I began asking it, looking for advice from others who might have done this. Most often, thus far, in my highly selective, completely unscientific research, the answer is no. Reasons get thrown around, and one is common. “I told her,” a friend said, who had just completed this process, “‘That stack of doubles by the entrance, that you will not get rid of, that is your doubt about our long-term future.’” He laughed as he said this.

Doubles, inside this world of library marriages, is the seemingly easy problem of when each member of the couple has one copy of the same book. But as I laughed at my friend’s remark, I remembered, uneasily, that I own doubles, sometimes triples, of some books, without even including Dustin’s books.

There was a period of two years in the ’90s when I moved pretty constantly between sublets here in New York. I put my books in storage so I wouldn’t have to move them every few months. When I missed them, I would go to my storage space and visit them. It felt a little like they were in jail, though it was me who’d done something wrong—I hadn’t found them a permanent home. Soon I found myself in used bookstores, buying what I called “reading copies” of favorites.

This won’t end well, I remember telling myself one day. And shortly after that, I earned the necessary amount for a deposit, broker fee, first and last month, and got my first apartment alone—a commitment to myself.

I used to tell myself the doubles and triples I own now dated to that time. But these weren’t those books, I came to understand. For no discernible reason, I have three copies of Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and Joan Didion’s The White Album. I don’t know why, and I can’t put any of them in the sell pile and I don’t know why I can’t do that either. Two of the Voyage in the Dark copies are even the same edition, but it’s as if I think I’ll need all of them, or as if I have separate relationships to each of them.

I suspect that everyone feels like this about their books. I would like to think so. A sense of ownership that won’t flinch in the face of what some would call redundancy. The only question still to me was why?

 

If you speak of combining your bookshelves in public, the essay people will refer you to is Anne Fadiman’s “Marrying Libraries”—a classic, I think, for acknowledging, perhaps for the first time, the problem two separate libraries in one house can become in the life of a couple. Fadiman tells the story of how she and her husband finally combined their books after many years together, two writers merging their libraries. She also tells in it a story of the importance of marginalia, and what differences in filing styles can tell you about the specific priorities of your partner.

Fadiman, for example, proposes ordering the works of American authors by name, but wants British authors arranged chronologically—and chronologically within an author’s work by when they were written. “George says that was one of the few times he has seriously contemplated divorce,” Fadiman writes. They also disagree about whether British or American literature should take the most public spot. She has always had British literature there, and he would like American literature there. It was her apartment first, and so she capitulates as a gesture of welcome, saying, “our entrance wall should represent my husband as well as myself,” but only after admitting she was no longer the kind of writer who should have British literature out front and center. They create a Books by Friends and Relatives section, something she admired in another friend’s library, and while her husband is dubious, he allows it—though, she writes, “One day I noticed that the Iliad and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had somehow found their way to the Friends and Relatives section. Confronted with the evidence, George crossed his fingers and said, ‘Well, Gibbon and I were like that.’”

As for those doubles, she says they were the hardest part: “I realized that we had both been hoarding redundant copies of our favorite books ‘just in case’ we ever split up.”

I was more of a George than an Anne, I understood, as I read along. But so maybe was Dustin. It was a funny essay, it was good food for thought. But there wasn’t much by way of advice in it.

We were what happened when a George married another George.

And if keeping separate copies of a book means that each half of the couple is prepared for their eventual parting, it seems I have kept my doubles against the day when I stop speaking to myself. My triples, then, for some day I can’t imagine.

 

It’s hard to explain how moving it was to me to sit down with Dustin’s books on the night I combined our fiction. It took me completely by surprise. I had truly thought it was an ordinary exercise. But it never is with books, I know now.

I began by carefully lifting them off the shelf, dusting them and taking them into the living room.

In some way that wasn’t apparent to me before they sat on the side table, waiting to be sorted, I could see these were the books that had kept him company in those years before he knew me, the books that had helped him turn into him. This hadn’t quite been apparent to me before I took them down to move them.

He had a drama section, something I didn’t have enough of to do, I’m embarrassed to say. A film section—again, something I didn’t have.

These were the books that had kept him company in those years before he knew me, the books that had helped him turn into him.

“Do you want me to put your name in them?” I asked.

“My initials,” he said. “In pencil.”

Dustin told me little stories I didn’t know about him as I did this. Sometimes as I flipped a book open, I found his name inside already. There was a time in his life when he’d put his name in his books in fountain pen. The bold signature made me smile. He didn’t remember signing his books when I showed him.  

These little ways we mark the things that mark us so deeply. They become a part of us. You write in a book in some tiny way like the way the book writes inside you.

He had novels I’d always wanted to read, which had pleased me when I moved in. But I had never really let myself look at them or think of reading them, all this time, as if I couldn’t borrow his books, not even when he lent one to me. That time, it was a novel by a close friend, inscribed to him, and I didn’t dare, for fear of harming it. This won’t change, now that our books are combined—I’ll probably even buy a double of it, a reading copy to read for myself.

I didn’t, in the end, ask him to get rid of even one double, though I asked him what we should do with them. He thought of taking some of them up to the cabin, but we haven’t yet. I don’t push the issue in part because I don’t want to choose. And for having the multiple copies I have, I lack the authority to insist he choose also.

 

I once imagined selling many of my books, and buying them again as e-books, but I no longer believe e-books are the answer to this problem—I’m not interested in the lease arrangement an e-book is with this part of my intellectual life. Increasingly, I think of my digital books as my travel library. I can read them on my phone on the train, where I dread being without a book. When I spent six months recently in Germany on a fellowship, on more than a few nights I went shopping for the electronic versions of the books I missed most, much like I did with those books during my years of sublets.

More doubles I won’t get rid of.

Fadiman’s essay was much on my mind as this process went on. While it had no advice, it was food for thought, which was perhaps better. I alternately agreed and argued with it in my head. The books by friends and family, for example, we shelved among strangers’ books, side by side, but as a gesture of our respect for the friends, the family, and the strangers, all.

Yes, books are one of the ways new friends judge you, old ones also, and lovers.

Fadiman’s admission that the most public spot concerns her concedes that it is the most important spot also, in one way—where she knows guests will judge her and her George both. But in a small New York apartment like ours, any part of it might be the most public place. Guests enter the entire place. And as much as your library also represents an idea of yourself that you present to the world, it is also, I think, an idea of yourself for yourself, something private, perhaps not even articulated to yourself. And that is why it is so hard to combine them.

You write in a book in some tiny way like the way the book writes inside you.

As for those doubles? When each of you owns one copy of a book, it does seem particularly problematic, as if the two of you should only have one copy of it. On the surface that seems to make sense. But the thought of selling my copy makes me feel a phantom pain, but from a future phantom limb—the literary equivalent of a premonition of amputation. I can only conclude I want my own copy not because I don’t feel sufficiently attached to the person I live with, but because I want to feel sufficiently attached to myself. If anything, Dustin’s owning the same copy of a book that I love is like finding a place where the history of our inner lives meets in a way I approve of, from before we knew each other—but that might need to remain distinct. We have the same copies of Derek Jarman’s books, and David Wojnarowicz’s, for example, but I know his owning their books means something important to him, and the same to me—and so important I would never ask him to give up his copy. And this led me to understand one last thing about the doubles.

You don’t keep the doubles because you believe you may not stay together. You keep the doubles because the one you own, that’s your friend. The one he owns, that’s his. To only have one, it would be like sharing an email address.

Not everything can be shared. And that isn’t a crisis. It’s how it should be.

 

Your personal library isn’t like any of your things. It’s a travelogue through your ideas, a record of who you were, who you are, and who you’ll become. Promises made to the present and the future, promises made in the past. I’ve moved with these books so often, I know I’ve bought them many times over. Sometimes I am distraught to see the damage done, to this or that edition. But the more I’ve held onto them, the more I hold on, as if at the end, I can use them to have someone light my own pyre. Except I would never burn a book, not even in death.

They are, then, also a memento mori. I am thinking of going to a bookstore recently with a writer, a former mentor of mine. We came across a copy of the collected Joe Orton. She picked it up, turned it over, and set it down, and as she did, she said, “There comes a time when you realize you really won’t have the time to re-read the plays of Joe Orton.”

I think about that moment often, each time I have to cull the shelves for books to take away to the bookstore. These culls, when they are hard, and they can be hard, are confrontations with mortality. What am I really going to read in this life? What will I re-read? I can’t know. In the meantime, I remain haunted by some books I’ve sold, especially when I forget I’ve sold them, and I go looking for them, like Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. I noticed it was missing when I looked for it a few years ago. When I found a copy recently at a flea market, it was like finding a doll from childhood that I’d accidentally sold at a garage sale. It wasn’t the exact same book but I brought it home almost as if it was.

It is on a shelf over my desk at the cabin.

biopic

Alexander Chee is the author of Edinburgh (Picador, 2002) and The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, an NEA in Fiction, and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and has written for Out, Granta.com, n+1, Paris Review Daily, and NPR. He lives in New York City and blogs at Koreanish. More by Alexander Chee