The Great Sigh of Relief That Is Books

It is not a great time in the United States to say you believe in writing, reading, and books, but let me be a brave little culture warrior and proclaim that, along with having rich experiences in the world, they are just the best.

I have always been a reader, but keeping books in the home is a special commitment, a belief, a hope, a view. My home library has varied in size over time (it is hard to keep many books in a barracks or dorm room), but by at least the mid-’90s it had stabilized to 2,000 to 3,000 books, which I would cull and replenish.

There was a stretch in the middle of this decade when the books went into boxes, while we waited for the next big thing in our family’s life. Oddly, the lack of books on shelves coincided with a spacious home and a professional teaching-writing-reading-editorial life. I got my fix in other ways, checking out books from libraries—which grew into overdue stacks next to the bed—and becoming a news junkie, and reading online. But something always felt off, truncated, amputated, and whether it was cause or effect, that situation turned out to be untenable. (The English Department secretary in the university where I taught, on seeing me carrying a stack of books: “What, have you been to the li-berry again?!”) Beware the accounting that does not consider book-keeping vital.

Having a library at home allows for browsing. This is not the same kind of reading as books for research, or even browsing the internet. I suspected myself those two or three years when my home library was closed to me. I had lost my privileges and felt guilty, diminished. So I convinced myself I was living more directly, without intermediate views, and that that would be good for my writing and other work in unexpected ways.

This month, I was watching myself closely as I opened all the boxes and put my books on their rightful shelves. They (and I?) were a little mustier and lacked order. To my surprise, my first feeling was mild revulsion. That mass of books looked alien, foreign to me. All that money, I thought, even if many of them cost only a quarter at Friends of the Library sales. All that real estate: to my neighbors, looking in the window, and to the cable guy pausing his work in my living room floor, the wall of shelves looked almost demented. There was also the hidden labor and cost of preserving, retaining, and moving them. (I once needed hernia surgery after one such move—of someone else’s bookshelves and books.)

All the little art objects packed in the boxes felt the same: A postcard of a Russian painting, the artist obsessed with cats wearing Imperial Russian court uniforms, elicited the negative effects of gauzy Romanticism. It made me want to shut the door on my shelves and go roll in the dirt. Only then did I realize how far I had moved from who I am since packing my books away. I wondered, briefly, if I would ever feel their homecoming again.

About two minutes later I returned to my senses. Now I sit alongside the bookcases crammed to overflowing, as the morning light pours in, and a cool breeze blows through the pines. I feel more relaxed, refreshed, safe, and content than I have in years.

Recently I have been thinking of how liminal most of my life has been, often occupying one state while still belonging to another. I remember the first time and place that I articulated that as a life goal: in the “Reagan-Bush era,” on an LCM steaming filthily up the coast of Panama. I turned to my mate and said that I wanted to make a life for myself where I went out in the world and had adventures, fell back to a comfortable domestic space to recover and think about the experience, then ventured out again.

It is not that my books have been made available to me again, or that I returned to them, but that I have come back to myself.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.