Since September 11, Americans have tried to get on with their lives in one fashion or another. I don't know how other people managed it, if they have, but speaking for myself, it hasn't been easy.
I make my living as a book reviewer. Normally, that means, as I often tell my children, getting paid to do what I'd be doing anyway: reading books. But that, I've discovered in the past few months, is not quite true. Book reviewing means reading new books, and since September, I haven't had much appetite for the shock of the new. I want consolation, and it's tough to be consoled by something you're encountering for the first time. Not impossible--I was genuinely moved by the late W. G. Sebald's melancholy novel "Austerlitz." (Sebald's death in a car crash in mid-December was somehow a horribly apt ending to a horrible year.) And Edmund Morris's biography of Theodore Roosevelt, "Theodore Rex," was a welcome reminder that greatness and politics are not always mutually exclusive. Mostly, though, I read old stuff, once I was able to pick up a book, that is.
For weeks, I read nothing except newspapers and magazines, until I fairly drowned in current events. I found that I could kill a morning easily just plowing through The New York Times. Then I read books about the Middle East and Islamic culture, since my learning curve in this area is so steep as to be almost no curve at all. (A friend of mine noticed that readers seemed to divide into two camps: one read nothing but books pertaining to current events, while the other camp read nothing but books that had nothing to do with anything contemporary. I ran into other people who could read nothing at all.)
On my days off, I went outside and worked in the yard. I'm not much of a gardener, so what this amounted to was pulling weeds and spreading mulch around the rose bushes. I edged my walk, something I've never done, or even had any interest in, but I kept at it until I'd barbered every inch along every scrap of sidewalk. I developed a mania for order, which, if it didn't keep me sane, certainly allowed me to work off a lot of anger. I fancifully called the yard my victory garden against Osama. Then I put my back out.
After that, I moved indoors and went to work rearranging the books in my library. Mostly this amounted to transporting to the basement the stacks of books that routinely pile up in every room of the house, including the kitchen, until someone nearly breaks a leg trying to get to the refrigerator. Some books got earmarked for the local library and made it as far as the trunk of the car, but a lot more just sat there in new stacks while I stood there staring at them with no notion of where to put them. Then I went back upstairs and stared some more at the books on the already crowded shelves. Maybe, I thought, I can get rid of some of this. Do I really need thousands of books? Books I could probably find in most libraries? Is this some sort of cultural merit badge, this business of owning a lot of books? I never answered the question, if answering it meant doing anything with those books. Maybe I need them more than I thought.
But thinking about them drew me back to thinking about life and death, which is what this fall has been about for me. A person's library, whether it's five books or 5,000, means a lot of things. It advertises our preferences and our taste. It can be cultural wallpaper or a source of reference or pleasure or consolation. And the more personal it is--no one has quite the same collection of books that I do--the more that home library means to its owner, and the less it means to anyone else. When I die, whoever disposes of my effects will surely start with those books. They may take a few, but most of them will go into boxes addressed to Goodwill or whoever is willing to come and cart them away. A mainstay of the used book business is the sale of personal libraries. Used book dealers buy these collections, sift them for valuable editions and sell off the rest as fast as they can. Almost nobody wants the books you've spent your life collecting. It's a tough lesson in transiency.
As long as we're alive, however, our libraries do have meaning, and not just for their owners. I don't just like owning books, I like lending them. I press my favorites on my wife, my kids, my friends. A lot of my favorites have gone missing as a result, but there's nothing better than turning a friend on to a novel he or she has never heard of. And because I've never read a lot of the books I own, I have a sense of the future: one day I'm going to get around to this memoir or that novel. And I do. Virgil's "The Aeneid" sat on the shelf for 10 years before I read it. This fall, I made it through Kipling's "Kim" for the first time, five years after it came in the house. If my current mood of preferring the old to the new keeps up much longer, I may even make it to Proust. Not too likely, though, because my taste for the old is not so much a matter of old books as old favorites.