The worst mistake I made was not when I forced my husband to spend all weekend painting the kitchen trim a sickly robin's egg blue. The worst mistake was not the $149 "deal" I got online on a wobbly, rusted end table. It was not the Mary Poppins floral carpet or the horseshoe shaped velvet couch. These things were regrettable, but not indelible. No, I have made only one mistake that cannot be undone, and I will spend the rest of my life trying to undo it:
I got rid of all my books. Go ahead and read that again, while you imagine the insanity of the moment: me joining the Cult of Non-Clutter. All you had to do to be a member was get rid of every possession that you had ever loved. In return, you got serenity and the sort of inner peace that comes from knowing exactly where you put the car keys, since they were the only thing left lying on a flat surface in the whole house. Who wouldn't want that?
One day, I smugly packed up about 200 cardboard boxes of books—books I'd read, books I'd written, books I'd bought with my babysitting money when I was thirteen, books with my graduate student epiphanies scrawled in the margin, even the books I'd insisted on taking to the hospital when I was in labor—and then I said goodbye.
Like most people who join cults or are easily brainwashed, I was going through one of the Six Most Stressful Moments in Life. I was getting ready to move. But it was more than just a move—it was selling one house, buying a second one nearby and outfitting it to rent furnished, while moving across the country with my family to a third location. With two of three daughters away in college, I thought it was time to be unsentimental about all the stuff I'd accumulated since 1980 (when I went off to college). Especially the books. When I first moved to California, I had so many books I had to build an entire room of bookshelves to house them and found myself having more shelf space than books. Briefly. Then the books took over.
At first getting rid of them felt good. I arrived in Manhattan and was so relieved not to have to unpack 200 boxes of books. Black soot was general all over the city, falling like a nightly snow on every surface; thank God I did not have bookshelves to keep clean. I went to my friends' apartments—with their book-lined living rooms and their book-lined dining rooms and their tiny, claustrophobic hallways filled with books and books and books, and I thought: how can these people breathe?
Above: The Penguin English Library edition of Emma is available for $5.59 from Amazon.
Then I started to dream about my books. Not every night, and not about every book, and not always a sad dream—but disturbing, none the less. In one dream I was on my green Schwinn banana-seat bike, riding home in the 1970s from the bookstore with The Chronicles of Narnia—my first boxed set!—but I couldn't find my house. In another dream I was pregnant again, in labor and insisting, as I had in 1991, that we find my copy of Emma right now ("so I'll have something to read at the hospital after the baby is born"). But in the dream the book had gone missing, and so it was with a great sense of helplessness that I realized I never would be able to go to the hospital or have the baby or stop wearing the single pair of wide-width sandals that still fit my swollen feet.
Above: The Coralie Bickford-Smith designed Oxford City Press edition of The Great Gatsby is available for $35.75 from Amazon.
All the places I loved, as a girl, were full of books. My grandmother's house, for instance, where I was equally devoted to a novel called A Peaceable Kingdom (featuring a happy family of polygamists) and to Love Story, which my mother wouldn't have let me read if she'd known. At home, we had: a big leather reading chair, Harold Robbins, a complete set of Leon Uris novels, and the odd John Updike. In my first apartment at college, I built the requisite cinder-block bookcase and kept The Crying of Lot 49 next to my bed in case I suddenly awoke to find myself able to understand it.
But this is not about losing the words—after all, these days anything I want to read I can instantly download and carry around on my phone to read when I find myself in line at the post office. It is about the loss of physical objects, the talismans you carry from place to place, arranging so carefully each time. The landscape may change but you are the same person, defined by all these books you've read. Lined up on shelves in the living room, they also define you to visitors. Other people may have the same sofa as you, or the same floor lamp or rug. But nobody else will have the same library.
Above: The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry is £40 from Penguin UK.
Last summer when we moved back to Northern California, my husband and I went out to the garage to take inventory of the things—old photos, a coffee percolator, a pair of twin beds with cane headboards—that we'd left behind. The movers were expected, at any minute, with the stuff from our New York apartment.
"What's that?" he asked, pointing.
"Spider webs," I said.
"No, those boxes." There were a dozen or so stacked on a high shelf. He pulled one down, opened it, and said, "Books."
Something inside my chest tightened and then let loose in the loveliest possible way. I ripped open the box and found our complete set of S.J. Perelman and a first edition of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Jean Kerr—so much Jean Kerr!—and The Forsyte Saga and Willkie Collins. And, in dusty blue gray cover with pale green lettering, a copy of The Peaceable Kingdom.
I carried them inside—twelve boxes in all—and filled the house with my books and a miracle occurred: once again I had more books than places to put them. So we're building shelves.
For more of Michelle's Domestic Dispatches, see "My Dirty Secret: How I Learned to Live With a Marble Backsplash." Visit our image gallery to see pictures of rooms where books are used as decor.