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In my basement are thousands of voices yearning to be heard, ghostly spectres of beauty and ambition lying mute on cobwebbed shelves.
It is a library of riches, but to me it had become just so much wasted thought: sad, futile genius entombed in dusty bindings; dead weights that had to be sorted and ordered before we could move from our house; the repository for my husband’s mania for collecting.
He collected many things over the years – films and music, masks and Inuit prints – but the books were the greatest annoyance. They took up so much space. They were the reason we stayed in the house when I wanted to move. The thought of transporting them was daunting and the likelihood of finding another suitable space for them slim.
Increasingly, I felt the weight of each new book that came through our door: paperback or hardcover; art book or beautifully-bound copy of some ancient illuminated manuscript. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate literature – I did. I studied English as an undergrad and am an aspiring author with two unpublished novels under my belt. But there was something numbing and discouraging in the sheer number of books that languished in our basement. And they kept coming. Where first they arrived occasionally, bought on trips abroad or during Sunday visits to Nicholas Hoare, later they came regularly, delivered to our door in cardboard boxes that overflowed our recycling bins.
We had bookshelves built along the basement walls. At first, this made our basement interesting. Friends, family and workmen would remark when they saw it, their faces betraying a certain awe in which even I took some pride. But soon the shelves became overburdened, the books piled in artlessly, and finally stacked on the floor, chairs and tables.
We stopped bringing people down the stairs to see. And then our basement flooded. Few books were damaged, but any order that had once existed was lost entirely. My husband always meant to reorganize the chaos, but could never find time.
Then, almost two years ago, he had a spinal stroke that rendered him quadriplegic. Now, he uses a wheelchair and cannot descend the stairs.
A few months ago, we finally had the discussion we had been putting off: We need to move to a home that is more accessible.
My husband’s main concern? “But what about the books?”
The first real estate agent I brought through the house was appalled by our basement.
“Just pack up all the books,” she said. “Don’t even put them in storage because you’ll never look at them again. Just get rid of them.”
I knew then that if we were ever to move on I would at the very least have to tame the monster. I didn’t start right away. I procrastinated while haranguing my husband for his unrestrained collecting.
“What were all those books good for?” I said. “You never even read them! Now I have to deal with them. It’s my worst nightmare!”
He looked at me with a pained expression. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I did it. I guess I hoped to read them some day.”
It was an outsized dream under any circumstances; the things we do don’t always make sense. But it had given him pleasure. The dream had given him pleasure, and now it was gone.
He was living a worse nightmare than organizing the books – his nightmare was that he could no longer do it.
Even knowing this, my heart was hardened against the silent weight of poetry and philosophy, history and criticism, epic and theory that lived beneath me.
I didn’t deign to start the task until Gabriel Garcia Marquez died and I wanted to reread One Hundred Years of Solitude. I would have avoided the whole thing if I could have downloaded it on my Kindle, but the English translation is not available.
So, I finally started on the books. I am not yet finished. I have organized the cookbooks, the Folio editions, poetry, biography and memoirs, photography, architecture, most of Shakespeare (we have multiple editions) and, with my daughter, have moved into fiction, that amorphous category.
It is taking a long time, for I am stopping along the way, opening the books and reading. Though I have combed every shelf, I have not yet found either of our copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I am still hopeful.
There is a comfortable-looking couch I might use once the books on it have been shelved. And the bookcases that are finished look good. I find myself stopping to admire them, in awe at the thought and creativity they contain. I’m inspired now, not deterred.
I don’t know when we will move, or even if it will happen. But I do know the library will stay with us. And when my task is finished, I’ll figure out some way for my husband to see it. He may never have organized the library himself – he didn’t need to order the books to appreciate them. But for some reason I did.
And so this task has become a gift to my husband, and to me; one of those little things that fate sometimes gives us when it takes something else away.
Cheryl Lewis lives in Toronto.Report Typo/Error