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Not Unpacking My Library

Boxes of books are a reminder of a lifelong, sometimes turbulent love for the written word

Jake Marmer
May 25, 2022
Original photo: Flickr Commons
Original photo: Flickr Commons
Original photo: Flickr Commons
Original photo: Flickr Commons

I am not unpacking my library. No, I’m not. I pace around the living room of our newly rented apartment, which isn’t even so new anymore, but it still doesn’t feel like home. In Russian, we say: “Why are you standing there like an impoverished relative?” In Yiddish it’s something about standing around like a golem. I say both of those admonitions to myself, almost out loud, but all of our new things here—couch, bookcases, built-in shelves, fake fireplace—continue to feel foreign to me, and even our old things, the very few we could bring here with us, feel out of context. My doumbek drum functions as a miniature coffee table with a tall stack of magazines and books, and a cup of coffee tilting ominously.

I have moved a lot in my life, too much, and in the chaos that every move entails, in the churning and trashing of possessions, in the reckoning with everything unfinished and forgotten that inevitably rises to the surface, it is the unpacking of books that always served as a kind of a ritual act, an alignment of physical and mental: I’d look at them and feel that I finally landed, that I’m back in the familiar. Even in my parents’ home across the ocean, where I visit a few times a decade—a home where I did not grow up but where they moved shortly after I immigrated in my teens, a home that provokes an oddly sidewise-pointing nostalgia—I feel more grounded as I look at the familiar shelves, the books I grew up reading.

This time around, though, our books are not making me feel content or at home, and that’s why there are still 15 or so hefty boxes stacked atop of each other. There are the Russian books I’ve brought during overseas visits throughout the years, which I never put out on the shelves because out of the four members of my immediate family, I’m the only one who can read these books, and it seems wrong to take up space like that—it’s like sprawling my least comprehensible self across all over the house. In the same box, among other things, there are innumerable volumes of Turgenev from my grandmother’s home, my only physical possession I inherited from her, aside from the pink-gold wedding band, which she gave me the very last time we saw each other, and which I now wear on my pinky when it isn’t too hot outside and it can fit without cutting off my circulation. She had very thin fingers. There is a two-volume memoir of Viktor Shklovsky, which I’ve been wanting to reread since before our move, because this year I am obsessed, as he was, with skaz, a kind of oral storytelling with a book’s binding for a tongue. But Shkolvsky is deep inside a heavy box, and I have not opened it in years, since before our second child was born.

A few of the boxes are filled with Torah commentary and essays on Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jonathan Sacks, and others. It’s not that they feel dated or irrelevant to me. I know they’re timeless, but I’m not timeless, and I’ve gotten what I wanted from them, and have no interest in seeing them again, not even as book spines. If anything, they just remind me that for two decades, I’ve secretly wanted to go to rabbinical school, and now is the time to pay, or not pay, for my kids’ schooling, not mine.

For the past seven years we lived in a graduate housing unit on a university campus. The university demanded we get rid of all of our furniture and use their minimal setup instead. Shedding our possessions felt like an eerie purification act. Aside from kids’ drawings, our library was our only house décor in those days, our most visible possession, and it continued to grow with the years. My partner is a literary scholar who also runs a book review section; I am a poet who teaches and often writes about books. People send us books like mad: I ask for one, they send three. Sometimes a publisher sends a half-dozen titles at a time, and the decision of what to do with each one gets postponed as the stacks continue to grow. The fact that each of these books is its own advertising, asking to be reviewed not read, that it is both a work of art and an act of self-promotion, feels—it feels a lot like everything else in my life. We’re not connoisseurs or collectors: Our love has been tested by motives of acquisition. We’re bookworms but we’re worn out. The obsession with owning books is its own kind of materialism that is no longer nourishing to me.

Besides, in the recent few years, most of the books I’ve read (or “read”) were actually on audio, or on screen of my device. And so, the disparity between what I’ve actually read or want to read and what is sitting on my shelves has only grown wider. Plus, having experienced a massive university library, where anything is available, anything at all—the desire for ownership suddenly feels crass. “I’ve read it, so I should own it”—is that a reason for owning anything? There are books here that my partner read, and I should have read by now, but wasted my time instead. They stare at me accusingly. There are books I was once inspired by and feel ashamed facing my younger self inside the pages—the embarrassment about the fire that burned in me when I read these books, the hopes I held as a reader and writer, the fire that at this point, is nothing but a self-reference.

In truth, though, it isn’t a literary jadedness that’s at the heart of all this: It’s our lower-middle-class-living-far-above-our-means train wreck of a life. We’re into our middle age, and still renting, still barely making the bills, owning nothing, with nothing anchoring us but these piles of books. Sometimes, looking at them, I feel I am looking at a mistake, my own life’s choice that will not offer security but only weight and bulk, and an obligation to be shlepped along wherever I go. One day, instead of passing on a home, or a savings account, I will pass on these books, which my children will donate, somewhere, unwanted.

So why hold on to them? Why unpack anything at all and not just donate the whole lot?

For one, there are more than a few books here written by people I’ve known, poets who are no longer with us, and their names, and inscriptions make me feel things. Here is the stodgy, dignified line from poet Samuel Menashe—“to Jacob, from strength to strength.” A crooked alef with a mysterious wish from Beat legend David Meltzer. More stab than a signature inside a book by a poet I met in Israel, whose home and hospitality I enjoyed one Shabbat in the mystical city of Tzfat. He was a tortured soul whose life took a severe downturn after a tumultuous divorce, and he died much too young, much too alone. I have a half-dozen books by poet and jazz afficionado Steve Dalachinsky—which he never signed for me—why didn’t I ever think to ask? I just couldn’t imagine he’d ever be gone.

Yet, somehow, books written by those friends who are alive irritate me. I’m glad they’re alive! Till 120! But do they need to be so prolific? Don’t they have troubles, depression, children, distractions, work? Why do some of my prolific poet friends insist on publishing so much of what they write, and send me every single book of theirs? I love to imagine their voice as I read them, but the pleasure is muffled by my own petty grumbles cutting through: While they’re publishing and writing, how is my catalog going? Once, I went out to have a drink with a poet, who brought along, to our first meeting, his whole oeuvre for me to take home. Did he expect me to take off a few months to study him thoroughly, or was this just a a “read every autumn, spread over next decade” sort of a thing? Our first meeting ended up being our last, and I don’t think any of his books are in these boxes.

There is, of course, the “I might need it someday” factor, which is not entirely a delusion: I teach, I put together syllabi and source sheets, and to hang around the bookshelf for ideas is a pleasant way to put together a course. It’s certainly nicer to sit with a book, preparing for a class than to do that on a laptop. In the age of Zoom, to flash that same physical book in front of the screen, sift through its pages, take out the handwritten notes feels far better than reading text from the screen while also facing an audience through that same screen. I know it’s more convenient, of course, but that’s why I take the books out—ritual has many uses, and convenience is not one of them.

I love best the books I’ve used for teaching, repeatedly and over the years. Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations is the most worn out, note-ridden, and “well-loved” book I own. I may not ever teach or read Lion Feuchtwanger’s Jew Suss again but I remember the day I finished reading it, alone in my bachelor apartment, late in the night, laying on the floor for some reason, and when, closing the book, I sat up, in the darkened room, and cried the kind of a cry that made me want to teach literature to begin with. Even if my notes inside these books make me cringe, the fact, and the Talmudic density, of their existence, reminds me of the pleasure of reading. It’s a symbol of the romance with bookishness I’ve nursed for years—even when I am angry and disappointed at what it brought me.

Now, preparing to teach, I’m busy figuring out where to situate my desk—in relation to the books, of course. I can’t just not have any books behind me. Must have those shelves: A crass background like china or a marital bed, or an all-too-existential blur, or the blank nothingness of an empty wall feels not only boring but utterly inauthentic. With a background like that, the face I project over Zoom just would not be my real, deeply true self.

Seriously: Is there another way for me to construct an outward-facing identity? As Walter Benjamin admitted, pacing around his own still-in-crates library, “what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” The sacred Jewish books; the obligatory shelf of modern and contemporary Jewish literature; the forever-unfinished dissertation work and literary theory; a bursting bookshelf of poetry. To let go is to let go of the self that took so many years to cultivate as a kind of acceptable order. To let go is to pack that self in the box, in preparation for the final packing. But to continue unpacking is to remember, with each next book, the disorder that underlies my life’s trajectory, a chaos that gradually swallows me. So I continue to pace and dodge stacks of boxes. You might say, it’s not that I haven’t fully unpacked—but that I’m already halfway packed out. Weeks keep going by, and out of this in-between, paralyzed moment, the real stares back at me.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).