We’re moving, and each time I move I end up reflecting on all the moving I’ve done over the course of my life. I’ve tallied up a total of 22 separate abodes in 36 years. I count as an “abode” any place I’ve lived for at least a month with no more permanent address to call home. To be clear, I’ve included places my father lived after our parents’ divorce, really just a succession of cheap apartments in which I was guaranteed a bed. A third of my “abodes” were in New York City, where I racked up a frightening four in one solar year.
Throughout it all I’ve managed to hang on to a few things — mostly books and records — thanks both to my mother’s basement and her goodwill. Now those things are in jeopardy; she’s moving to a small apartment and my ad hoc collection will have to find another home. The alternative is the dump.
Since I bought most of this stuff used, it would be perfectly natural to bid it all adieu in a similar fashion. I could sell the records and donate the books to a local library, in the spirit of the Greek adage panta rei (“everything flows”). What matters most to me is that they find owners who appreciate them. I know this sounds weird for a bunch of plastic and paper — and it’s purely sentimental — but it matters to me.
My collection isn’t worth much even by the standards of an armchair collector. Sure, I have a few choice albums: an original mono version of Blonde on Blonde, an unpeeled Velvet Underground and Nico, a vinyl copy of Metal Machine Music. It’s nothing any Dylan or Lou Reed fan wouldn’t have, and the records themselves aren’t in excellent shape. As for the books, I shipped a lot of them to Italy on my last visit. But what to do about my four-volume calfskin-bound set of Montaigne’s “Essays”? Throw it in my carry-on bag on my next trip? That’s a tough one.
“Forget about them,” my mother said. “Be glad you have your health. You have a family now. Stop obsessing.”
I know she’s right, but I can’t help obsessing. I’ve read the Stoic philosophers, but I’m not able to entirely repudiate material things. “Don’t preach,” I told her. It didn’t come out well, and I regretted having said it.
What she meant was this: “You’ve done perfectly well without these things for eight years. You’ve made a life for yourself in another country. Let them go. You’ll be happy when you don’t have to worry about them anymore.”
I’m not really attached to things in general; in fact, I don’t own much of anything worth keeping. Once you subtract my ballooning personal library, there’s not much left except furniture and underwear. So I think I should be permitted an occasional excess.
Happily, we’re moving to a place with more space than I’ve ever had in any previous arrangement, so there will actually be room for my things. It would cost an arm and a leg to ship them all here, and that’s a nagging detail, but wouldn’t it be worth it in order to restore the harmony of my collection?
That’s the meat hook beneath my skin right now. Should I heed the noble, philosophical angel on my left shoulder and separate past from future? Or should I listen to the neurotic bibliophile devil on my right shoulder and follow my impulses? The deadline is only a few weeks away and I can’t decide what to do.
Like all parents I entertain a fantasy of sharing my passions with my children. I want our daughter to grow up in a home swarming with books, records and cultural artifacts. Now that personal libraries tend evermore toward the electronic (hypothetically I could stuff every book I own into one wafer-thin Kindle) this seems particularly urgent. I dream of the day when Melissa pulls my copy of, say, “American Yiddish Poetry” off the bookshelf and I get to explain it to her.
Not long ago a columnist in The Guardian wrote ecstatically of getting rid of his “dead tree books.” I was mildly shocked reading what appeared to be a manifesto urging all decent people to toss out their weighty stockpiles in favor of a pared down selection of truly essential volumes. The author was positively gleeful, embracing the changing times. By contrast I am a melancholy, deeply torn 20th Century Man.
Which isn’t to say I’m not going to get an e-book reader someday. The problem is simply which one. Because, despite my 20th-centuriness, I recognize a Catch-22 when I’m in one. It’s simply impractical to keep accumulating books unless I develop a system of filtration. The records are a different matter. I would be happy with just a few of the really meaningful ones, and the bulk on CD or iTunes or whatever nascent technology is in store for us. I’ll miss the cover art, the skipping needle, and actually listening to sides of an album. But I’ll still be able to broadcast music through the house, prompting my daughter’s curiosity.
“Daddy,” I can hear her saying, “what’s a Ramone?”
From The American