I have a confession to make. I left Australia six months ago for Canada, and I miss my books more than I miss my friends. I remember the last time I saw them, jumbled but arranged in an order so specific to me that it would be incomprehensible to anyone else – preciousness and imminent readability being the two main categorical factors. I only brought one book with me to Nova Scotia: Patrick White’s The Tree of Man. A beat-up, second-hand copy; unremarkable, really. But of all my books, of all the expensive coffee table tomes and gifted, hard cover novels, that was the one I could not leave behind, the one that I felt was, as an object, irreplaceable. You see, it isn’t the story within its pages that really matters. It’s the book itself that is the story.
In his 1969 collection of essays Illuminations, cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote about unpacking his library. He describes the profound feeling of happiness and rediscovery as he takes each book from its crate, as if he were greeting old friends. His books, like mine, were not valuable or necessarily well read, but each represented a moment in time, a discovered place, a turning point or a signpost on his life journey: “Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property… for a true collector, the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopaedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.” In a recent article on lithub.com, “In Praise of the Book Tower”, Susan Harlan defended the joy of ‘cluttering’ your house with stacks of books, describing the book collector as “the sun to the universe of her things…and when I see these things, I see myself, and the world I inhabit, more clearly.” The books that sit on my bookshelf ten thousand miles away are not Persuasion and Cloudstreet, but rather, ‘the moment I realised I was settling for less and decided to leave my boyfriend whom I did not love’, and ‘the first book I bought for my first apartment, the money for which should have gone towards my rent’. The stories they tell are my stories. Their spines, their forms, their pages remind me who I am.
I went on anonymous social media website ‘Reddit’ to see if other people felt the same way, and the stories I found moved me close to tears. Old, battered, torn paperbacks inspiring love – genuine, deep love. Some of these people would run into a burning house to rescue their books. One user, rosemaryintheforest, wrote: “It’s a piece of me, not a ‘book’ anymore.” Turncloakforwhat wrote, about a mass-market edition of Clash of Kings from the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire: “that book has been under my pillow every night, come with me to every test and college interview, and been there for me when no one else wasn’t [sic]. It sounds dumb to be so attached to a book, but I love that copy more than anything.” Sixinabag wrote: “Last year my 10 year old son saved up his allowance to buy a beautifully bound LOTR [Lord of the Rings] omnibus for me. I cried when I opened it, and I will cherish it forever.” When a book is yours, truly yours, it seems to sing when you hold it and open it. Its words carry more meaning, being whispered to you and only you. It holds memories and love in the cracks in its spine, the folded corners and tears in its pages. This is why I love giving books as gifts, to people who I deeply care about. It’s a way to be part of their lives forever – you can sit right there on their bookshelf, reminding them of that moment in time when the two of you loved each other.
I gave my copy of Tree of Man to a man I fell in love with here in Canada. I knew he was grappling with the idea that I was from so far away, and what exactly that meant and what part it played in who I am. I couldn’t think of a better way to tell him how I felt and who I was than to have this piece of me join his other, carefully selected books. It was February, snowing and relentlessly cold when I gave it to him, with this note on the title page:
“I found this book in a tiny town off the motorway called Sofala, and read it lying on grass flattened by kangaroos, under gum trees and wattle, baking in summer sun. Now it makes me happy to think we’ve both found new homes somewhere we did not expect to be.”
It wasn’t so much giving it away as sharing custody; a thought which makes me very happy, indeed. And when I return to Sydney in a few weeks for a brief visit, I’ll be packing up all my old friends, my magical encyclopaedias, my universe, and bringing them back here with me to sit on a new shelf on the other side of the world. Then, I will truly feel I’m home.