Some Perils of the Reading Life
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
On Tuesday, March 27, I loaded 250 cartons of books onto a Budget Rental Truck, preparing for the first leg of my move from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Highland Park, Illinois, a town on the North Shore of Chicago. I worked from 10 in the morning until about 5 that afternoon, and as I finished loading the last carton onto the truck, my son—on whom I had been counting for a little bit of help—drove up; he and his band had just returned from a tour of New England. Since I had loaded all the boxes of books, I put him and his friend to work the next day loading bookcases and completing the packing of the truck.
We pulled out of Lancaster on Thursday, spent the night in Indiana, and pulled into the driveway of our new rental house on Friday around noon. It took us a much shorter time to unload the truck than it did to load it; we were finished in about two hours. Although we did put the bookcases in the rooms where I think they will reside permanently, the cartons of books are stacked in the living room and dining room, waiting for me to unpack them.
I didn’t pack my books for this move, since I am already living here, and I couldn’t get home long enough to do it myself. If I had packed them myself, it would have taken me twice as long as my daughter. I would have blown the dust off the top of each book and fondled each one, leafing through the pages to recall the occasion on which I had bought or received the book. Here, for example, is the copy of Heidegger’s Basic Writings that a former girlfriend gave me on the night she broke up with me. In the book is the letter which she wrote, and which I reread every time I pick up the book. In retrospect, her choice was appropriate, (she never intended it to have any meaning beyond her gift of a philosophy book to a budding young existentialist), since our breakup made me feel the despair and hopelessness of love. Here’s the copy of Bellow’s Seize the Day that a dear friend gave me on my birthday one year in seminary and that was more important to me then than the religion texts we were reading in class. Here are the books that friends have inscribed with the hope that the book will reflect the depth of our friendship and with the hope that our paths will cross again. (In at least one case, that’s happened.) Here’s my college copy of Middlemarch, and here’s my copy from the days when I taught it. It’s wonderful and quite sobering to compare the underlined passages in each text. Here’s a book that my Dad gave me—the hardcover Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost—with an inscription that I will find the book inspiring and useful. This from a man who has never read Paradise Lost and whose reading is confined to the daily newspaper. Here’s Dorothy Richardson’s quartet, Pilgrimage—and many more—which I found at a wonderful little bookstore that’s now gone, the Ardmore Book End, in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I spent many a day off in there, poking around for modern literary classics, from Nabokov to Kafka. Here are books that I bought in college, when I was beginning to build my library, and here are books that I bought in seminary and graduate school (many of which had absolutely nothing to do with what I was studying) that bring back memories of those days or of the bookstores where I purchased them. I still have that copy of William Empson’s 7 Types of Ambiguity that I purchased at the University of Virginia bookstore when that store was still a magical place.
I haven’t yet begun to unpack my books, though, for a couple of reasons. One is that I will fondle and recall the life the book has lived in my own life. I’ll find the copy of Kazantzakis’ Saint Francis that so influenced me twenty or more years ago and start leafing through its pages and reading it again. Just handling each book in this fashion means that it will take me a long time to unpack my books. The second reason it might take me a long time is because I would for once like to shelve them in some fashion that resembles order. Once upon a time—and when I had fewer books—in graduate school, I was able to shelve my books alphabetically by author and even to divide the fiction into literary periods. When I took my first teaching position and moved form Atlanta to Westerville, Ohio, that order crumbled, and it’s been crumbling ever since. Even if I could organize my books in an orderly fashion on my shelves here, we’ll likely move in a year—for we hope to find a house here—and so I’d be starting all over. Finally, I realize that I have somewhere around 8,500 to 9,000 books. Even without caressing them or putting them in order, the task will be gargantuan.
Loading and unpacking my books has led me to some ambivalent feelings about this reading life. Like Maggie and Mike at the end of John Sayles’s wonderful film, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, who wonder after a weekend reunion with dear friends “what are we going to do with all those eggs?,” I wonder the same thing about my books. Should I keep all of them? Is now the time to start weeding my library? (I have donated about 150 boxes of books to my local libraries over the past eight years.) How many more times will I read George Hunston Williams’ magnificent book, Wilderness and Paradise in Early Christianity? Will I ever read it again? When am I going to teach The Satanic Verses again? When am I going to plunder these literature anthologies again? Where did I get these multiple copies of Madame Bovary, and do I need more than one copy of the same title? (Okay, in this case they are different translations, but I do admit to having at least two copies of the same translation.)
I don’t know the answers to some of these questions, but I do know that I’m not yet ready to part with any of my books just yet. I may not read many of them again, but there is a certain comfort in knowing that these books have taken me to strange and wondrous places, have helped me plumb the mysteries of life, love, and hope, and have created memories that cannot be donated to the local book sale. Perhaps one day I will have to part with these dear friends, but I expect their companionship will accompany me even now into new worlds.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at