Somewhere in the middle of the long list of things I don't like about living in Texas is the postal service. If I remember correctly from my days growing up in the Northeast, mail would come every day except Sundays and certain holidays. In Texas, the mail only comes once or twice a week. You may argue that this is because Koch and I don't get a lot of mail. Wrong. Usually we have four or five dry days, during which the spider that lives in our mailbox builds a home, then suddenly all bills, coupons, magazines, journals and junk arrive and destroy it. Today happened to be such a day.
On this particular day of plenty, along with the usual bills, were the latest (for a Texan) New Yorker and New York Times Book Review. In the first I found an essay by James Wood called "Shelf Life: Packing up my father-in-law's library," which was illustrated with a photograph, "Agnon's Library," by Yuval Yairi. Underneath the picture was a caption, a quote from the piece, "Our libraries may say less about us than we imagine". Then I turned to the table of contents of the New York Times Book Review. The end-piece essay, "The Subconscious Shelf" by Leah Price, features a quote from the piece itself: "Our bookshelves reveal at once our most private selves and our most public personas [sic]".
Clearly my mail was sending me mixed messages, although when I returned to the pile, I didn't find an envelope telling me that I didn't actually have to pay my bills either. Damn.
I read both pieces back to back. I found Wood's essay appalling, a man airing his resentment towards his late father-in-law in published format, to be read by, well, a lot of people. (We should all be so lucky, right?) I found what he had to say about packing up and getting rid of a man's library of 4,000 volumes unreasonable and unfair, signaling that dying before ridding oneself of one's library is a contemptible act of selfishness.
In some ways, Leah Price's essay says a lot of the same things, about how personal libraries can often be a front or misleading. After all, who has read everything they own? As Wood argues, one's library is usually smarter than oneself.
[Usually. My library, and by library I mean the particle board bookcase I bought at Walmart that houses all the books I've read since moving to Texas, is decidedly NOT smarter than I. For one thing, it holds every volume I read for this blog. When people who don't know me well come by (that one time), I immediately have to explain to them why the hell I have George W. Bush's memoir and the latest Grisham, Koontz, Roberts, and those three damn Pattersons.]