(The song that goes with this piece of writing is “Cotton” by the Mountain Goats, and I guess I should apologize for the highly derivative first few sentences.)
This story is for the people who have ever looked around their tenuous and confining place of residence, where they couldn’t stop adding, multiplying, calculating interest in their heads. This story is for the people who realize nobody else will help them, so they table panic for a few minutes and construct elaborate artifices by which to give themselves the illusion of control over their spiraling situations. This story is for the people who bit their lips and dug through their things until they found something to sell, recalling the stories of great-grandmothers who clutched their pearls over the stove until one day they had to sell the pearls to cook the things on the stove, and then one day the stove was gone, too, and then they had only sandwiches, and stories.
It’s not really a story: it’s just a sketch, and a futile, inadequate one at that, and it’s also true, so I don’t know what that makes it. A blog entry? Oh.
In all the different places, in all the zip codes and all the time zones, in all the states and all the countries, I always had my books. They were an ever-revolving selection, to be sure, to reflect ever-revolving tastes and interests. Where other people have a family whose faces they see every morning, I saw a calming and familiar set of book spines, and those were really the only material possessions I cared about.
And now summer is so hot time seems to be melting into itself like that stereotype of a Dali painting, and yet again, I’m so desperate I am selling off my books, but this time I’m gradually – in 3 or 4 fell swoops – selling them all, or at least, all the academic ones. This may not sound worthy of such hand-wringing, but it’s like a mechanic selling his (or her) tools. Because I am selling the tools of my trade, at pennies on the dollar.
It works like this: late at night I start to panic about money and feel like I’m falling through infinite space again, the wind rushing around me in a way that screams the amount of student loans I have. And I have to do something. But I can’t do anything, except make pretend-hard choices: “Do I want to keep Kierkegaard still, or do I want to have $5 to put towards my loans?” And I fuss over book stacks and carry them to my car and wait for the book shop to open.
So I get in my emergency-purchase car (i.e., the straw that broke my financial back, my getaway vehicle) and I drive across town in the migraine-inducing traffic and construction. And I hope that the guy buys my books today; I have changed from standing and holding those books in a seminar room, hoping I could adequately articulate how I understood them, to standing in a strip mall, holding these books and hoping I didn’t underline too much because, oh hell, I’d like to get $3 instead of $1 for the Lacan that originally cost $40, and so forth (“Phone bill, or move Cahiers du Cinema Volume II one more time and hope I read it this year?”). Here is the point in my routine where I realize that despite my liability of a liberal arts education, I can compound Stafford loan interest in my head. I wish I had pearls to twirl, though if I had, they would have been sold off long ago to pay some outrageous and usurious school fee. I wish I had a grandmother (or even a mother) to call.
The women who really succeed in this society, I think, staring blankly at the neon-orange vests of the gainfully employed road builders, have this same problem, but with designer bags and shoes. So maybe there’s hope for me yet, somehow. I bite my lip and think about how my new mantra is do what matters, do what lasts; and then I think about how these books are not transformative works in and of themselves; they are only social capital. They were only artifice, a prettified means of nearly aggressively asserting intellectual capital within the last gasping subculture that actually knows what intellectual capital is, or cares about it at all.
So then I take few quiet-deep breaths and remind myself, these aren’t the books that made me who I am (those – are already packed away: the Dickens and the Woolf and the Proust and the Fallada and the David Foster Wallace, and so forth). These are the books that represented the person I wanted to be, the person who could never be, the person who’s dead now: my aspirational self lost to the realities of being a capitalist subject.
There are no great cultural landmarks to be found in second-rate media research published by politicked and poorly-funded university presses (I tell myself as traffic grinds forward a yard). None of these books will be read in a hundred years, or even twenty five (I assure myself as I heave them out of the backseat and into the store). I’m one of only five people who have ever read these (I rationalize as I stare at my shoes and the book guy judges the value of my education). If there was a fire, I wouldn’t even save any of these; if there was a fire and I had time to save books, I’d definitely take some POETRY OR NOVELS FIRST (I think, in all caps, as I shove twenty or thirty dollars into my tattered wallet, trying to look like I don’t care; poetry or novels first: my financial house’s version of the Titanic evacuation procedure).
And, oh, but I do care. But it’s more about me than some books. And I need to think about me right now (ergo, blog). So I will reframe the gaping holes in my bookshelves as opportunities, not horrible, self-inflicted loss; they will be considered rational decision-making in response to external pressures, not heart-wrenching events.
All those years, all those agonizingly bourgeois decisions about toothbrush holders and kitchen accents and shower curtain rings and pots and pans bought second-hand at yard sales. And now I parcel my things away into boxes and bags: the Goodwill bag, the recycling bag, the sell-books-for-cash bag. This is what all it comes down to. Stuff doesn’t last; ideas do. I once wanted to start traditions and leave legacies. Now I am more humble. I only want to break even and I only want to surround myself with ideas that represent the traditions and legacies I once hoped to leave. I want those ideas in my mind, not on my shelves. I have no great ideas or great voice in me; I just need to amplify what’s good enough about what already exists.
I’m starting my entire life over and I’m absolutely terrified.
At least being someone who voluntarily complicates their own life is a lot more reasonable than being the kind of person who stays up past 2 AM crying and pontificating over selling some books.