The Ritual of Renewal

Forget decluttering—I need to be surrounded by my library books

Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr
Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

I recently came to the end of a big writing project involving a great deal of research and, in the spirit of decluttering, began cleaning up my home office. This forced me to confront a somewhat uncomfortable truth: I have more than 200 books belonging to Harvard University, many of which I’ve had out for more than eight years.

How, one might ask, is this even possible? As a staff member, I can borrow books for a semester at a time, and can renew them online five times (so, for two-and-a-half years) before I actually have to take them back to the library. Then, once the books have been physically checked in, I can immediately check them out again if I want to—which, of course, I do.

This, then, is the drill: twice a year, in February and September, I get an email telling me it’s time to front up with a subset of my books. I print out the list—some 40 to 50 titles—turn the office inside out trying to find them (many of the bindings are identical), pile them into an assortment of canvas bags, and schlepp them off to the library.

Some of these books are enormous. A bound volume of anthropological monographs from the 1920s might weigh as much as five or six pounds. The biggest book I ever borrowed—Volume Six of the 1846 United States Exploring Expedition Series: Ethnography and Philology by Horatio Hale—was 13 inches tall, 10 inches wide, a full three inches across at the spine, and weighed more than 10 pounds. One year—it must have been a February—I slammed my finger in the car door trying to navigate the foot-deep slush, the fading light, and the traffic on Massachusetts Avenue. I lost the fingernail but safeguarded the volumes, getting them all into the library and back home.

I am often nervous performing this ritual of renewal. Occasionally some whippersnapper at the circulation desk will comment on my borrowing history: “Wow, how many years have you had this book?” I’m also slightly afraid of being reprimanded by one of the librarians. Although there’s no rule against taking books out or renewing them, I do feel an unspoken prohibition against hoarding. But I remind myself that there must be plenty of people at Harvard, professors deep in their own arcana, who have had even more books checked out for even more years.

One reason I can keep my books so long is that nobody else seems to want them. This may suggest that I am working in an intellectual backwater, but it is nevertheless very convenient for me. On the rare occasion when one of my books is recalled, it’s invariably one of the ones I care the least about: some collection of postcolonial papers, say, and never the weird, old-fashioned ones, like Kirtley’s Motif-Index of Traditional Polynesian Narratives or Sullivan’s Marquesan Somatology.

But perhaps the more obvious question is why? Why do I have so many books out of the library, and why am I having so much trouble giving them back? I once had a student whose family had been bequeathed a library of classics, which, because of their religion, they never actually read. Instead, she told me, they just passed their hands over the spines, as if to collect some kind of vaporous intellectual magic. I have to admit to a similar sort of feeling about my library books. Of course, I do read them; some of them I read over and over. But if it were just a matter of reading them, well, one could read them and return them to where they belong. In truth, it’s not so much a question of reading as of living with them—sharing the same space with them, breathing their dust, running one’s hands lightly across their spines.

I like to live with the books through the darkening autumn. I like to look at them in the filtered light that comes through the skylight when it’s covered in snow, and in the bright slanting rays of an early summer morning. I like to feel them behind me when I look out the window. I like to see them—in stacks and piles and rows—when I walk in the door.

Thinking is an arduous process, and having these books on my shelves helps me think. Sometimes the mere sight of one—Prehistoric Long-distance Interaction in Oceania!—will suggest a solution to some problem I’m having. In an odd way, they keep me company. I feel in their presence as though I’m surrounded by people who are interested in the same things, people I would enjoy talking to—people I am talking to—never mind that many of them have been dead for hundreds of years.

Still, I know I can’t keep these books in my office forever. They are not, after all, mine. This past January, aware that another due date was approaching, I forced myself to take a hard, dispassionate look at my shelves. Some of the books, I conceded, like Willard Libby’s Radiocarbon Dating, represent an inquiry I am not likely to revisit. Some were never as useful as I’d hoped. Some, I can let go of because, so loath was I to surrender them, I went out and bought copies of my own.

In a way, it was liberating to return so many of them, though lugging the bags across the ice did remind me how much easier this is to do at the end of summer. When I got home my office seemed empty in an interesting way—like a blank slate, or a slate with some scribble at the margins but also a space in the center to start something new. I immediately sat down at the computer and brought up the catalog: perhaps A. J. von Krusenstern’s two-volume Voyage round the world in the years 1803, 1804, 1805 and 1806, or the Hakluyt Society’s History of the Tahitian Mission, or Frederick O’Brien’s White Shadows in the South Seas. I’m pretty sure no one will be calling for any of them.

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Christina Thompson  is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, which was shortlisted for Phi Beta Kappa's 2020 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award.


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