“The Gaps I Mean” by Mary Nicholas

I balanced uneasily on an eight-inch stool, while reaching up to the top shelf of my seven-foot bookcase. I pulled out The Novels of George Eliot by Barbara Hardy and Eliot’s Middlemarch, the Gordon S. Haight Riverside edition, copyright 1956, but still available between 1982 and 1984, the two years I was working on my master’s degree in English. Middlemarch was the only Eliot novel I still possessed.

As I flipped through these two “Eliots,” I breathed out a disappointed-in-myself sigh. I had not read Eliot for over thirty years, since I had assigned The Mill on the Floss for a first-year, honors composition course. Was that the fall of 1985 or 1986, when I was still filled with hope (or delusion) that I could manage—that I was smart enough, disciplined enough, and driven enough—to grade the work of 100 freshman composition students every three weeks, semester after semester, at a two-year campus of a state university, and create space for writing? Though I could not remember the exact year I taught The Mill on the Floss, I remembered what one student had to say about it: “This novel is a soap opera in print.” That stung. I had spent the last year of graduate school studying Eliot, and in eight words, this teenager was telling me I had wasted my time on a writer who, from his perspective, should have only secured popular not scholarly acclaim.

While I handled Hardy’s critical commentary, the kelly green book cover faded but not torn, I remembered how urbane I felt when I first purchased the book. Before graduate school, I thought such books could only be found in libraries. At least in my experience to date, they weren’t available to the general public. When I discovered I could buy the books I needed to use for my papers in graduate school instead of checking them out for a few hours or weeks, if on reserve, I added books like The Nature of Narrative, The Rhetoric of Fiction, and The Cycle of American Literature to my personal library.

I returned Hardy and Middlemarch, remnants of my graduate school years, to the top shelf and stepped down from the stool. To the right of Hardy and Middlemarch should have been the rest of Eliot’s canon, from Scenes of a Clerical Life to Adam Bede, from Felix Holt to Daniel Deronda,the ubiquitous Penguin Classic orange versions. Instead, there was empty space, a gap. Most of the Eliot Penguins had already made their way to the trash, casualties of the “sorting through” process I want to complete before I retire. While I could picture the Eliots lined up in chronological order where they had been for thirty some years, I could not recall the plots or most of the characters of the novels. I remembered only bits and pieces, such as the injustice in Adam Bede, the never-ending research process of Casaubon in Middlemarch, and the Jewish titular character of Daniel Deronda.

Each time I return to this bookcase as though thinning out seedlings of carrots, beets, and radishes in the garden, I work systematically from top to bottom. I do this because I’ve organized my books in a version of the Library of Congress method, chronological and then alphabetical. In the garden, gaps between seedlings are made so vegetables have room to develop and mature. Like those thinned seedlings, the Eliots were easy to cull because of their worn condition, and I had replaced the Norton Austens with a one-volume edition, The Complete Novels, published by none other than Penguin. Still, not all gaps on my bookshelf have been as easy to make, even though I am motivated to downsize. Although I had already filled in some of the bookcase’s spatial gaps with stacks of unorganized CDs, this spontaneous filling-in of mine left me feeling empty after dumping hundreds of books. 

For the time being, I would have to step away from the shelf. I was not as ready for this round of book thinning as I thought I was. 

Whenever I consider opening up more space on the shelves, I panic because I do not know who I will be without these books. I could lose the identity I have been constructing for forty years. Since I was twenty, I believed that titles such as The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, and Black Theater U.S.A. could close the gap between my above average—but not exceptional—intelligence and my satisfactory academic credentials, my modest SAT and GRE scores, and my B grades. My books served as my true credentials. 

Who will I be if I reduce my library even more and the British and American canon no longer stand watch over my household? Without Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman guarding my six, how vulnerable will I be to somebody questioning my professional standing?

My personal library has kept alive my perception of myself as an intellectual, a perception I began to piece together, book by book and paper by paper, as an English major in college and graduate school, a major I didn’t declare until my third semester in college. I started out as a journalism major because my dad, employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, pushed me toward majors with some career outcome, though he wasn’t too sweet on “journalism” either. By the end of my first year in college, I transferred to another university and switched to a more career-oriented major, which “might” guarantee me a job: fashion merchandising in the university’s School of Home Economics. The sister of my cousin’s wife had graduated from this same college with a degree in fashion merchandising and was a women’s ready-to-wear buyer for Woodward & Lothrop, a high-end department store in Washington DC. I had a tenuous connection to fashion: I could sew my own clothes because my mother taught me, and she and I often worked on projects together.

However, I didn’t even last a semester in my new “practical” major.

During the first semester of my sophomore year, a sentiment took hold of me. 

Throughout a typical week at school, I often checked in with my dorm room neighbor, Debbie. She was usually propped up in bed, reading her “textbooks,” which weren’t really textbooks, but just books. I do not remember exactly what she was reading, but I imagine she might have been spending time with Twain, Dickenson, and James, when English majors were still required to take survey courses of American literature. When she wasn’t reading, she was sitting at her desk, long, un-styled brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and flannel shirtsleeves rolled up, as she typed papers on her electric Smith-Corona. By the middle of my third semester, I knew I wanted to do what she was doing for the next two years of college: read books and write papers. I also figured out I wanted from college not a degree that would secure me a job, but a degree that would validate me as an educated human being. From the disciplines of English, philosophy, religious studies, and the arts, I wanted to be the person who read the “great books” and who could dialogue with others about essential ideas. I had no idea, of course, what kind of profession such reading would lead to. In the late 1970s, I had no career plan whatsoever, except that I wanted to be a writer. While I “planned” to find a job to support myself as I “established” myself as a writer, I knew nothing about how to find a job or how to begin, develop, execute, and embody a writing life, even though I would graduate with a degree in English. I had not connected any dots between the work of the writers I was reading and their lives—what they had to do to support themselves while tending to their writing careers. 

Even if I couldn’t figure out the writing life, by being an English major and collecting books, I believed I could at least make up for all those years in school when I could not quite break through into the top tier of my class and “catch up” to my more celebrated high school classmates: those earmarked since ninth grade for the Governor’s School and National Honor’s Society; for Georgetown, William and Mary, and Northwestern. When other students purchased used college textbooks, I always purchased new ones. When other students sold their textbooks, I kept most of mine to build my personal library. When family and friends asked what to get me for birthdays and Christmas, I gave them a list of books from The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich to The Collected Stories of Collette. One Christmas, my brother gave me a book from such a list: Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography by Deirdre Barr. By the time of my wedding, some guests knew what I valued most. A high school friend gave my husband and me Georgia O’Keefe: Art and Letters, a perfect complement to a marriage between a painter and an English instructor. Books were important to my husband, too, the son of a school librarian. The first house my husband and I lived in had ten-foot ceilings on the first floor. We bought two, seven-foot bookshelves, one for him and one for me, from Just Cabinets, and we filled them both. When we decided to move, we found a house that could receive our bookshelves. While the bookshelves could only fit on the first floor, we added more shelves upstairs in our offices.

As I filled my bookcase to the brim, the books filled me in like spackle sealing cracks in plaster. My library covered up my performance in school, and then later, my just-above-average teaching evaluations and my incomplete credentials. If I just had enough books, I could gain membership into the same caste as my high-performing school classmates, my serious graduate school contemporaries, and my elite university colleagues, with PhDs in English. In Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Richard Rodriguez explains how education from books remade him. He writes, “Reading was for me the key to ‘knowledge’; I swallowed facts and dates and names and themes” (181). Like Rodriguez, my books “fill[ed] the hollow within me” (64). Unlike me, the hollow within Rodriguez had more to do with race and sexuality than intellectual confidence. Rodriguez has impeccable credentials: Stanford and Columbia, two fellowships, several awards, and a life of writing he crafted after walking away from the Berkeley PhD program. He not only collects books, but he has made them too. At least five. All I have is an MA in English from a state university. Without publications or public recognition, I was destined to teach required writing courses, if I wanted an academic position. I would have to spend week after week, month after month, and semester after semester reading and grading student writing. 

Even though I wasn’t equipped for the full version of the writing life, my books at least closed some of the intellectual distance between my PhD colleagues in English and me. On any given Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I would walk catty corner from my office to that of a full professor, Mike, lean into the door frame, and ask him a question about a recent journal article, a student we had in common, or Patti Smith. Mike thinks like a cross between Miles Davis, Jacque Derrida, and Susan Sontag and tells stories with Flannery O’Conner twists about growing up in Tennessee, engaging with his church-going parents, and raising his three sons. To answer my question, he might reference Roland Barthes one minute and quote from James Brown’s The Godfather of Soul the next, both sources included in his extensive, eclectic, and consummate post-modern bibliography of his first book. Because I had read Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory and Susan Sontag’s “On Style” and listened to Al Green, I could keep up with Mike. Sometimes. Even if I couldn’t, I didn’t care. He could theorize and narrate for both of us, throwing his boyhood run-ins with owls and snakes alongside his commentary on Monk, Fellini, and Dylan. 

A few years ago, Mike entered the process of retirement. Those of us who loved him and who would miss the way he could build a sound, elaborate argument in minutes watched as he purged his bookshelves before he and his wife relocated to Costa Rico. To do so, he stacked up some books outside his office, free for the taking, donated others to Good Will, and proceeded to build an online library. In his new Central American digs, he has only one shelf of books above a doorway. I couldn’t—and still can’t—fathom life with just one shelf of books. 

A week after I returned those two remaining Eliots to the top shelf, I cornered another one of my tenured colleagues, Noel, in his office to talk through depopulating bookcases. As I stepped into his office, Noel tossed a folder on his desk and swiveled around his chair to see me.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Just spent the weekend sorting through books again.” I answered, glancing around the perimeter of his office. Filled with the Shakespeare canon, American classics, science-fiction novels, creative writing textbooks, poetry collections of others and of his, two bookcases line both walls of Noel’s office, and like lines of perspective, they meet him at his desk. 

“Me, too.”

We’ve been having this conversation for months about what to do with all our books. Noel has been motivated to cull his collection because, for the last couple of years, before his mother died and his dad moved to a condo near Noel and his wife, he watched his parents age in a house that was too big for them and filled with stuff they should have taken care of twenty years ago. He is choosing not to duplicate his parents’ behavior. He isn’t waiting for that golden moment when he will have the perfect amount of time and the perfect reason to work through his books because he knows he has too many of them. 

“I keep asking myself, ‘Who wants these old books that you can find anywhere?’” I said.

“I know. I’m selling some online but individually, each book might bring twenty-five cents here, a dollar there. When I put together a box of books, I might get ten to fifty dollars for the whole box.”

To move books, Noel is much more entrepreneurial than I am. I have been culling my book collection for the last four years, but I have not sold my books. I calculated my return on investment, based on how much time and energy setting up such an account and shipping the books would take, and decided that it wouldn’t pay off for me. I have taken some books to a local charity, I have dropped some off at the university library, and I have thrown some away—such as all those Penguin classics that were required reading for English majors, their pages flavescent and separated from the binding.

Throughout this downsizing process, Noel and I have discussed the criteria we use to discard even more of what we have left. Will we ever re-read this book? Do we want to? Do we still need this book for research and teaching purposes? Can we easily find this book if we need it? (This last criterion is almost irrational, as we both teach at a school with one of the largest university libraries in the country and have access to hundreds of other libraries and online resources.)

After this most recent conversation in which Noel and I rehashed our first-world dilemma for the tenth time, I again stood in front of my bookshelf, staring down my books with these questions in mind. 

I pulled out The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. I thought I should just give this to Noel, since he’s a poet, but knowing him, he probably has this in his collection, a Doubleday Anchor Book, which I bought for $7.95 when I was taking an American poetry class in graduate school, but which I ended up dropping for some reason. Poor choice on my part. Why did I drop that course? The book couldn’t tell me. I slid Roethke back on the shelf. Next, I pulled out Dubliners by Joyce, one of those Penguin Classics I still hadn’t cut from my collection, even though it’s in the same shape as the other Penguins. Should I keep Dubliners, Ulysses, and Selected Joyce Letters to verify my Joycean qualifications? I opened the cover of Dubliners, and on the first inside page, my handwriting serves as header and footer to a brief biography of the author.

At the top: “5:00 Bruno’s.”

Was I making plans with my fellow students during this undergraduate short story class to meet them for pizza later that day? Was writing notes on any piece of paper we had handy at the moment the way we kept track of appointments before smartphones? 

At the bottom: Marcy H. Nicholas.

In 1979, this book cost $1.95. A quick Google search tells me I can Kindle this for .99 cents or buy a paperback copy for three to four dollars. What value do any books have, even first editions, if you can get the electronic version for $1.00, far less than a cup of coffee?Nevertheless, I returned Dubliners next to a falling-apart copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Modern Irish Short Stories, another Penguin. I scanned the next shelf and noticed Don DeLillo’s 9/11 novel Falling Man. I remember reading the book. When I mentioned to someone that I was reading it, she squeezed her nostrils together with her fingers and said something along the lines of how DeLillo is hyper-masculine. However, I could not fully remember the story of the novel. Again, the book couldn’t fill in the missing details in my memory.

I opened Falling Man, A Scribner paperback,to the first page and read the first sentence: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” With this sentence, the narrator describes the streetscape of Lower Manhattan as fundamentally changed: a world with no edges, outlines, or borders, no horizon line—nothing to help locate you, to ground you, to give shape to you and to shape what you are supposed to see around you on a street in NYC. The next sentence begins with the pronoun “he,” not the character’s name, another way DeLillo maintains the shapelessness of this scene.

I haven’t read any other books in DeLillo’s canon, so I can’t testify to the assessment of my fellow reader. However, I did not put Falling Man back on the shelf. In fact, I re-read Falling Man, and the reread was worth it. Yet, I’m not sure if I will re-shelve the book. For the moment, it is on my nightstand, a liminal location between the shelf and some other fate, as I consider the question, “Can I easily find this book, if I need to?” And why would I need to? In case I forget about 9/11? In case someone asked me if I were familiar with the book as a way to quiz me about contemporary American writers? What cracks in my façade will need fresh spackle if I have too many gaps on my bookcase?

If I wanted to, I could digitally replace DeLillo, along with most of the other hard copies of my books, and access them through my Kindle, my iPad, my Samsung Galaxy Note, or my desktop computer. I can substitute my paperback copies of Grene and Lattimore’s three-volume set of Greek tragedies with the 2013 electronic version for about thirty bucks, texts I might not reread, if I even read them the first time around when I took Greco-Roman Literature in Translation in college. On the inside cover of Greek Tragedies Volume 1, I wrote my name, my address, and my phone number (what we used to do, because on college campuses, when you could only purchase books at the campus bookstore, the tacit ethical response when you found a book was to make every effort to return it to your fellow student). Published by the University of Chicago Press in 1960 and each priced at $3.95, the three-volume set has held up surprisingly well even though it’s been through at least eight moves, some version of college, home, graduate school, first house, second house. Will the Greeks make the move to retirement, will a Kindle version replace them, or will I send them off on an odyssey?

  If Falling Man is on my Kindle, that means the book is not on my shelf. If it’s not on my shelf, the browsers of my bookshelves won’t know that I have read a novel by Don DeLillo. Without Grene and Lattimore, I can no longer demonstrate to people that I took Greek Literature (in translation) in college—if they were even impressed to begin with. Does anyone except me care that I took the course? 

Months after my conversation with Noel, I placed a banker’s box on the floor in front of my bookcase. I surveyed the titles from right to left, top to bottom. So many seedlings, I still had plenty of books, but I knew I would never open some of them ever again. I also knew that I didn’t need books for the same reasons I once did—but I still needed books.

I reached first for the Grene and Lattimores and placed them in the box. I followed those with Greek Lyrics, Aristophanes Four Comedies, Aristotle Ethics,and The Portable Roman Reader. After the Greco-Romans, I added to the box British Titles: The Fairie Queen, John Dryden’s Selected Works, Selected Poems and Prefaces by William Wordsworth, Prose of the Victorian Period. Next, I added works of German literature in translation to the box: titles by Böll, Grass, Hesse, and Mann.

My college professor for Modern European Literature, Dr. Patricia Collins-Stockton (the first woman I knew who hyphenated her name) had inspired me to read outside of the British and American canon. For her class, I wrote a paper titled “Thomas Mann’s Dialectics in Death in Venice,” one of the few papers I saved from college. Surprisingly, since many of my courses ended with the all-too-familiar B, I earned an A- on the paper and an A in the class. 

As that memory hit me, I knelt beside the box and rifled through the books, looking for the Vintage paperback version of Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, so I could return it to the shelf. The book wasn’t in the box because it hadn’t been on the shelf, thinned, I assumed, during a previous culling session. It’s not as if I needed Death in Venice. While there were gaps on my shelves, I still had plenty of literature to read by the likes of Wendell Berry and Toni Morrison.

I added three more books to the box: Turgenev’s Father and Children, The Portable Emerson, and Complete Tales and Poems Edgar Allen Poe. Before I disposed of these books, I recorded myself holding them up and reciting their titles one-by-one with the video feature of the Microsoft app OneNote. At least I had some record of the time I spent with these books.

For decades, I used books to cover up my suspect credentials. They stood in for me, atoning for my limitations. Yet, in my longing to appear as more than what I was, I had shoved down not only feelings of inadequacy but also it seems many experiences I had because of books: my life in college, in graduate school, my many years of teaching, and my dream of the writerly life. The books are my library of memories, my bookcase a memory palace. When I unlock the palace vault and preside over this ritual of downsizing, these glimpses of the past are summoned. Even if the memories are only brief scenes rather than complete narratives like the ones I dreamt about in graduate school, these titles connect me to my younger self, to distinct eras of my life, and to others who read, write, and teach. 

At work, at home, my books never could bear the weight of my less-than-stellar credentials.  They didn’t convince anyone that I was a tenured professor or compensate me for the drudgery of teaching writing instead of literature, yet they did save me. They saved me from a life of mediocrity. They saved me from a life without dreams. Granted, my books never made me who I wanted to be, but they remind me of who I once was and may even map out who I can be.

Delillo, Don. Falling Man. Scribner, 2008.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. David R. Godine, 1982.

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