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Boxes of Books

July 15, 2010

I don’t mind helping friends move. Packing, unpacking, even hauling boxes around. I know that moving can be stressful, can test friendships, and at best, it’s sweaty, dusty, hard work.

Most of the time, I’m no good at all with shapes, sizes and directions. But I seem to do all right packing up boxes of things, and figuring out how to cantilever chairs into U-Haul vans. Plus, afterward, there’s often good beer.

I particularly like packing books. They’re square, after all, so it’s nice and straightforward. I remember when I moved into my current apartment, it took setting up bookshelves and arranging books to make it feel like home. The best part of helping someone move is packing and unpacking books, because of the voyeuristic curiosity about what they’re reading, and what books are important enough to take from place to place.

Over the years, I’ve moved many boxes of books throughout the city. I am fairly certain I’ve moved Shakespeare and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series for everyone I’ve ever helped move. The other books vary, though, and are such an enticing glimpse into a person’s history. Also, as I exclaim over a familiar title found, or pause to be curious and read an inside flap, a reminder of why we’re friends.

This summer, it feels like many people I know are packing and moving. I helped a couple I know move to an apartment across the hall from their old place.  (Do you even need to fill out a change of address form for that?) And Frank, a good friend who just had rotator cuff surgery, is moving away in the fall.

So, bored and stuck in a sling, Frank offered me a job helping him get his books organized and into boxes.  Frank’s one of the good ones. He tells wonderful stories, and has insights and pithy assessments about so many different things. Every time I talk to him I learn something.  I was happy to lend a hand. So to speak.

“Weren’t you one of the early adopters of the Kindle?” I teased him, staring at the double-stacked shelves. I should have guessed that the eclectic mind that ranged from Celtic music to New York history to urban planning to the best lobster rolls in Maine would need such a collection of books to sustain it.

After assembling ourselves a nice heap of boxes (full disclosure- even with his dominant arm in a sling, Frank’s faster at folding boxes and lids together than I am. Didn’t I mention I’m no good at shapes!) we got to work sorting books.

Frank organized his boxes of books by topic. Here’s a glimpse.

Transit– lots and lots of transit boxes, covering both a keen interest and an interesting career in planning. Transit books are heavy! Interesting coffee-table-ish collections of subway art I expected to be heavy… but glossy bound reports weigh more than I anticipated.

History generally- with an entire box devoted to the Great Depression. Also, Frank and I share a fondness for well-written social history. I grabbed one of the Post-It pads I’d been using to label boxes, and started writing down titles for my next library trip.

The box known as either the John McPhee box, or the “Curious-odd-cool box” since that’s what Barnes and Noble calls my favorite display table, filled with oddments like a 1967 baseball season, the history of Nancy Drew, life in the first millennium. The fact that I have a similarly organized shelf, but no overlap, made me wish Frank and his books weren’t moving so far away!

Irish culture and history. (This covered at least four boxes, I think.) I kept lingering to read the backs of these, especially the memoirs and the ones about music.  I love to hear Frank talk about musicians he knows, seisuns he’s been to. Found a few pennywhistles to pack away, too!

British history: It amused me to make very sure the British and Irish boxes were packed, and stacked, nowhere near one another.

Two boxes of cookbooks. “But… you’re not moving til the end of the summer… packing cookbooks?” I asked. Can’t imagine living in a place and packing those away. Frank wiggled his fingers at the edge of the sling. “Good point.” And it’s too hot to cook. Also, and I’m guilty of this too– I leave my cookbooks alone for months at a time, and Google recipes as I need them.  Even when I’m Googling a recipe from a cookbook I own. I know this is silly.

New York history. This one might have taken me the longest to pack because I kept browsing. I have been saying for years that I need to immerse myself in New York history, read about the city’s evolving networks of streets and houses and cultures. I’m most interested in how New Amsterdam became New York and the 19th century evolution of Fifth Avenue. From the looks of his books, Frank’s interest is in some of the comparatively more recent aspects, taller buildings and subways.

Urban planning generally. Every time I talk to Frank, or to my Aunt Nancy, I kick myself for not studying this more in college.

Two boxes of mysteries (I have roughly the same number, I think), but interestingly, only one box of more general fiction.  Frank wasn’t sure whether he wanted to pack his copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I share his ambivalence. It’s a heck of a lot of book for not much story. His theory is that she just ran out of story but kept writing anyway. My theory is that her editors were too easy on the cash cow that JKR became.

The “nostalgia box” of children’s literature and weathered, clearly-loved books that were precious for their age and memories made me smile and feel privileged to pack them. I love the smell of books from the 50s and earlier. I looked sheepish at Frank the first time I paused to sniff the yellowed pages of an older book. How could I not breathe them in, though? There’s a sweetness to their musty smell. (And as the day wore on, they smelled better than I did!)

I also love the way a weathered old book will get soft at the top and bottom edges. I love the nubby texture of a certain kind of binding, the speckled reddish kind- Buckram, I think? I love the furry texture of old, unevenly cut pages. Whenever I encountered one of these, I nestled it securely between sturdier examples of its topic.

Books are always a window into a person’s obsessions. Irish history, general history, structures and politics… I knew these were a big part of what made Frank tick. The process of packing became our conversation- some of “put that there” of course, but plenty of “I loved that too!” or confessing that I would rather have tossed the collection of Thomas Hardy out the nearest window than found a box for it.Frank gave me the over-the-tops of the glasses stern look for that last one… And I admit I should probably read something other than Far From the Madding Crowd before I write Hardy off entirely.

Helping someone pack is a revelation and a dialogue. A day spent sorting and sealing books away, a day geared toward the process of uprooting and leaving, opened up stories and conversations. As the day went on, and I jotted titles on my rumpled Post-Its, I felt like I was leaving bookmarks in Frank’s books. Marking the place of conversations I wanted to remember to unpack.

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