Unpacking Memories (98)

Muchos libros. Carlos, the man installing my new windows, said this as he saw me trying to organize the piles and piles of unpacked books stacked haphazardly on shelves in my study. They’re not just books, I told him. They’re memories – they reflect my interests, my passions, my life. A few books are older than I am, but most span the decades of my adult life. I have almost no books from my childhood, mostly because my parents didn’t buy me many but also because they didn’t save them. I’ve gone to the other extreme and saved many favorite books from my children’s early years, hoping that someday I can share them with their children.

I lost most of my bookcases due to extreme smoke damage from my house fire, nearly one year ago. Luckily, I had already packed them up and stored them in the garage. New carpet was being installed upstairs where the kids’ rooms and my study were and I had to remove them from the bookcases; because of this, my books suffered only minimal smoke damage. I didn’t mourn the loss of most of my furniture or kitchen things too much. I was sorry to lose my wooden bookcases, but I knew those could be replaced. My books could not. Many are out of print now or from foreign countries. Somehow I didn’t think the insurance company would spring for plane tickets to Mexico, Europe, and Israel to search for replacements.

Looking over the shelves, one can see my passion for foreign language and literature. I still have some of the Spanish textbooks from my college years. I don’t read Spanish much anymore despite being a Spanish major for two years and ending up with a minor in the language, but I remember a few lines of poetry from a Garcia Lorca collection, a book I bought in Spain on my first trip abroad after high school, and the interesting, confusing, sometimes bizarre stories of Jorge Luis Borges and other South American writers. I spot 10 años con Mafalda, a once popular series of comics from Argentina, that I bought from a sidewalk vendor on my first trip to Mexico in 1980.

I spent one semester as a history major, which accounts for some thick volumes on Russian history and philosophy, and I ended up as a Russian major. I have the language textbook from my very first course in Russian. I remember the excitement I felt buying the new purple textbook with the metallic blue titles (it was the 70s). Some of the books are from my two trips to Russia, the first in 1977 and the last one in 1989 – very different times and experiences. When I open them up and sniff them (I always sniff books), the memories of my travels come rushing back. I use my Russian knowledge much less than I do Spanish these days, but each time I unpack my Russian novels (in translation), I swear I’m going to reread them. Anna Karenina would be a very different book to me now in my fifties than it was to my young college self.

German books take up four shelves, not surprisingly. It was my concentration while in graduate school and I lived in Germany six years. Lots of German language, literature, and culture – books I read and researched as a student and used as a teacher. I think back to my first year living in West Germany (still divided in 1981 when I moved there), struggling to learn the language and culture, and then survey all the books I now have in German, a language that has become second nature to me. My thesis and dissertation and a few published articles on poetry, translation, and other topics rest high up on a shelf. I discovered English and American literature and mystery novels while living in Germany (in my desperation to read in a language I understood) and that collection continues to grow. There are also books about Turkey and Turkish literature, a souvenir of my three trips to Turkey and of the Turk in my life, a former passion.

One entire bookcase houses my Jewish books. Jewish religion, history, and culture have been a passion since I first discovered Judaism at age 16. When I had kids, it gave me a good excuse to build a collection of Jewish children’s books, now tucked away due to a shortage of shelf space (but waiting patiently for future Jewish grandchildren to find them). My passion for soccer takes up nearly one entire shelf, an accomplishment in a country that isn’t as passionate for that sport as I am. Indeed, many of my soccer books were published in England, not America. My interests in comparative religion, philosophy, travel, art, music, dance, politics, house and garden, and more fill the shelves, not leaving much room for more though I know that won’t stop me from buying more. Many books, yes. But my books are so much more than pieces of paper with words on them; they are my life in so many ways.

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