"Another damned, thick, square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?" --William Henry, First Duke of Gloucester
In the late spring of 2001, the boxes began arriving.
Buoyant gentlemen in brown uniforms brought them four afternoons in a row,
stacking them on the old wooden porch in the Church Hill neighborhood of
Richmond, Virginia, where I then lived, though I would not be living there for
long. Inside the house, other boxes were accruing, because we were
preparing to move.
In particular, I had just finished packing up all my books. In the dining room, there was a virtual levee of boxes identical to the ones that were arriving on the porch: one hundred (more or less) cartons bought at the U-Haul store full of the tools of my vocation. It would have been easy, if I’d had the corpse of an author on hand, to make a funeral cairn of books, to contain the body of a poet entirely within a tomb of boxes marked Poetry in appropriately black Sharpie to prevent confusion; likely I had enough Fiction boxes to encompass a trio of novelists; and the Criticism could have stashed the cremains of a panel of deconstructionists in a tidy mausoleum.
I was, in short, myself entombed inside my own collection of books. And yet, on the front porch, more boxes were arriving. And, perverse as it may appear, as I packed box after box with household goods, the incoming boxes were unpacked, their contents scrutinized.
Writers are apt to be all too well acquainted with the weight of paper. Those sheets that flutter so lightly in the wind when we don’t want them to, that crumble so easily into balls under the force of our writerly frustration, have a way of accruing into groupings—packets, bundles, parcels, walls, mountains—of enormous density. I was told a story once that the library at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale got around a cut in their book acquisition budget by claiming—and in fact proving—that books are an efficient insulating material. That slim volume of poems that almost levitates off your desk can, when joined with sufficient others of its ilk, crush the child who tries to climb a freestanding bookshelf. The cousins of those buoyant gentlemen and -women of UPS--I mean professional movers—quickly lose their cheerfulness when confronted by a personal library, especially one packed in cartons deemed by the movers “too big,” i.e. too heavy. Weight has consequences. Mass accrues. A spine, not to say a heart, can only bear so much. I could, as easily as that clambering monkey-child alluded to above, be killed by my books. So could a mover. So could a moving van.