The Dendrochronology of Packing Books

Posted by @ 11:00 am on July 5th, 2010

I’m moving in a couple days and this weekend I finally packed my books, a task which I put off for quite a long time because I was overwhelmed by the thought of transferring so many books into boxes in a stifling hot apartment with no air conditioning. I couldn’t delegate this task to my boyfriend because I wanted to go through my books and organize them in a certain way. I am a ridiculous control freak. Like most people who love to read I am a inveterate book buyer. I buy books because I read a review or because they have a pretty cover or because I like the way the paper feels. I’ll make a purchase based on a whim or a recommendation or out of spite to see if a writer really is as good as everyone says they are.

I bought Bright Shiny Morning because I love Los Angeles and James Frey intrigues me. The book did not disappoint—I loved it actually and have read it three times. I bought Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra because I loved A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and in my head that made sense even though the books have little in common. I bought The Dangerous Book for Boys because it sounded curiously specific and then I bought the Daring Book for Girls because I’m a Libra and the balance felt important. I bought The Book of Night Women because I’m from the Caribbean and Maud Newton said it was great, on her blog. I bought Then We Came to the End because I love writing from the collective point of view and I wanted to see if the book was as good as the hype. It was. I bought Revolutionary Road because the movie came out and I thought, “I bet the book is better.” It was.  I bought American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld because intensely disliked Prep, as in, I have a visceral reaction just thinking about the book and I wanted to see what kind of reaction I would have to American Wife. I quite enjoyed it. It’s a slow, subtle book but well worth the read. I bought Gotham Diaries because I read in Entertainment Weekly that Spike Lee’s wife had co-written the book and I wondered if it was any good. Not so much. I could go on. For almost every book in my collection, I remember why I bought it, what was going on in my life, who I was in that moment.

My stack of books to read is not a stack. It is stacks upon stacks. Some of these books I will read for pleasure, others I will read to review, some I will love, some I will hate, some won’t inspire any emotion at all. As I write this, I am staring at a stack of books on the coffee table that I am taking with me to a hotel in Chicago. They include Witz (I cannot resist an 800 page book), Less Shiny (I will read Mary Miler’s version of the phone book if it came to that because she’s so damn good), Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life (because I really enjoyed her reading on Live Giants), and How to Leave Hiealeah by Jennine Capo Crucet (she had a kickass story in a recent issue of Storyglossia). Then there are the books I will read using the Kindle app, all of which I also had specific reasons for buying and so many of which I will be able to take with me without breaking my back. I will get through all this reading eventually but where eventually used to be a week or two, it has now become months and it thrills me to know that I have amazing writing to look forward to—that I will never run out of reading material.

I was surprised by just how many of my books I actually have read. As I packed I also weeded but only ended up throwing out about fifteen books that were sad and weird and troubling to own like one on multiple personality disorder called You and Your Selves. I bought that when I was feeling crazy, I guess. For the most part, the books that interested me ten or fifteen years ago still hold interest for me now though I would like to think I’ve gotten more Catholic in my reading tastes. A lot of my older books are mass market paperbacks–John Sandford, Clive Cussler, early Dan Brown, VC Andrews, YA fiction (OH HAI SWEET VALLEY HIGH), random novels about serial killers and cops with issues and other such thrillers because the only bookstores I knew about growing up were Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers both of which could be found in malls or as we considered them in the suburbs, The Center of the Universe. I unearthed a ridiculous number of Harlequin romance novels from when I had a subscription (yes, really) to their Romance Book Club, which, by the way, now has an e-book club component if you’re interested. I often re-read these mass market books when I want to get into a really good story that won’t require anything intellectually taxing from me. I do not call this my guilty pleasure reading because I feel not an ounce of guilt about it. My favorite go to book is Requiem for a Glass Heart by David Lindsey. It blows my socks off every time I read it. Yes, I have written a story with that same title. Another favorite is Angel Eyes by Eric Van Lustbader.  Basically, I want to be a spy when I grow up. If you’re with the CIA and you’re reading this, hook me up.

There are the books I got into when I was feeling alternative and edgy (I enjoyed my early twenties by way of San Francisco) like everything Pat Califia has ever written and the books I got when I wanted to understand what it meant to write literary fiction (BASS, O’Henry, almost every issue of Tin House haha), and the books I got when I learned that good writing is not always what you can find in the most popular literary outlets (all the books/magazines I generally talk about here) and that good writing is sometimes challenging or strange and interesting or downright entrancing.  Going through my books felt like studying the rings around a tree, seeing where I’ve been, where I hope I’m going. In the end, it was not a chore at all.

Why do you buy the books you buy? Can you see a trajectory in your reading interests over the years? Where have you been? Where are you going?