Before we left for Botswana, a former Fulbright scholar and his wife – the only other people at UM who had been in sub-Saharan Africa – invited us over for supper. Jesse and Julie were full of advice about daily life in Namibia, our neighbor to the west. Among their many excellent tips was this: bring things that are important and/or comforting to you on a daily basis. Don’t worry about clothes and shoes and toiletries – pack a good set of kitchen knives.
It was great advice. We didn’t pack the knives but we did pack the down blanket from our bed which, despite the weight and bulk in the limited suitcase space we were allotted and the fact that we’re mostly sleeping on top of it, I haven’t once regretted.
Steve and I both love the challenge and adventure of daily living far from home. I especially love the minimalism of it. But there are a few objects that I really miss. I woke up one morning deeply, unaccountably sad because I had been dreaming of a particular coffee cup I have, one of a set belonging to my Nonna. I’m attached to that cup – but I didn’t realize that that attachment ran so deep that my subconscious mind would lament not drinking out of it every day. There are a handful of objects like that: my bed, the braided rug in the dining room, my rocking chair, framed artwork from when the boys were little, a pink bowl from my paternal grandmother, a small sculpture I bought a few years ago.
It’s the books, though. If I could have anything here, it would be the books.
Our house in Missoula is a shade under 850sf. Two of the rooms are wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, the shelves so deep that some of them hold two rows of paperbacks. They tell the story of our lives since we met in college – my poetry and novels and religion generally haphazard against Steve’s meticulously organized philosophy and history and anthropology. The shelves in between are filled with maps and travel guides and shared nonfiction about the American West. They’re supplemented with books that belonged to our parents and grandparents – treasures all. I have my father’s Mark Twain. Steve has his paternal grandfather’s mountaineering books and maternal grandfather’s coffee-table books on Russian art. My parents’ college yearbook is in there, as is the little picture Bible I’ve had since I was about 3 years old.
Those books have been schlepped from Massachusetts to Wyoming, from Wyoming to Montana, from Montana to Connecticut, from Connecticut back to Wyoming, from Wyoming back to Massachusetts, and from Massachusetts back to Montana, where they’ve been moved between four different houses in Missoula. Dusty, musty, and precious, they make up the bulk of what we own, easily. There are thousands of them by now, and they have been stoically hauled (thanks friends, and sorry) in and out of moving trucks and apartments for over 20 years. The shelves are the first thing you see when you come into our house. Neighbors walking by often comment on them because the huge window in the living room looks in on this magic wall. Despite the occasional grousing from someone who has helped us move, we’ve kept them all these years because the sheer physical bulk of so many books steadies us. They are the first house Steve and I made together.
It isn’t just the shelves. The stool by the front door is a handy place to keep library books. We pile them up on the piano and the headboard (which is, conveniently, also a bookcase). There is usually a tower of ten or twelve on the end table next to the couch. I keep a smaller stack on the mini-card catalog I bought from the library surplus sale. The laundry room holds a row of our most-loved cookbooks. They’re everywhere.
They make our house our home.
There are books in Gaborone, though I’ve come to even more deeply appreciate the excellent fiction collection at the Mansfield Library. There’s a bookstore here, but it has nothing on Shakespeare & Company. Our flat is, sadly, bare save for the handful of books we brought and which have long since been read.
We both agree that our space doesn’t feel like ours unless it is teeming with books, even if Steve prefers careful organization and I’m happier with random piles on the floor and the chairs and the bed (bad librarian).
For years now, in lieu of Christmas presents, we go book shopping in early December and allow ourselves to buy whatever we want, adding to the collection. We always stop in bookshops when we travel. And it isn’t just new books. We’re those people who act like we’ve found a pot of gold when some retiring professor puts a box of old books in the hallway outside her office. My friend Bridgett, another fierce bibliophile and literally the only other person on earth whose recommendations I trust implicitly, said that collecting books is a great way to manage anxiety. She nailed it. If I don’t have a stack(s) of unread books I’m a bit panicky.
Which leads me to December. We’re planning a big camping trip over the holidays. The thought of extended time off (by which I mean more than two days in a row) makes me almost giddy after months of near-constant work. But I need books. And probably a lot of them. I finished three this week, and that’s with the near-constant work. A few weeks off in a row means that I’m probably going to spend more money loading up the Kindle than we’re spending on campsites and lodging. Priorities, right? Thank God for my Missoula Public Library and their participation in Montana Library2Go, which will save me tons of money (support your local library, kids!).
Sometimes I wonder what will happen to our books when we’re gone. I suspect that whoever remains will box them all up and try to foist them off on a library or used bookstore, which probably won’t want them (one of the saddest things about my job is having to tell people that their collections aren’t useful to or needed by the library). Maybe there’ll be a yardsale, and some other newly-in-love college students will see a great opportunity to start making their own home together. That would be lovely. Until then, though, we’ll collect and be comforted by words, words, words.