It takes moving to let you know how many books you've accumulated. Having recently moved to a new apartment. I've discovered again that I have too many books. I packed up 24 Brand X laundry detergent shipping cartons full of these volumes, and I still have six cartons sitting under the kitchen table. I'm out of room. I'm guessing, though, cautiously -- say in three weeks -- that I'll soon have decided to add a few more books to the collection. Why have a library if you can't reach for a given poem by Yeats or Louise Bogan or Joseph Brodsky at 12:38 a.m.? The whims of inspiration are notoriously undisciplined, though that's no excuse (I tell myself virtuously) for book buying binges.
I've noticed, though, that I haven't been writing my name in the books I've bought recently -- over the past year or so. That's too bad, I think. Not because writing my name in a book implies the responsibility of ownership -- if I have more books than I can write my name in, I probably have more books than I can read -- but because seeing my signature reminds me of what was going on when I bought the book.
I could pick up an unmarked copy of a given book 20 years from now and read the same words I read now; and I might remember some events surrounding my earlier reading, how I was feeling, what impression the book made on me. Or I might remember hardly anything, feeling as if the book were essentially a new discovery for me. But the act of writing my name in a book sets the scene for me. It's the "X" that marks the spot where my life began with a given book; it helps me to recall where I've been, what I've been through, and what I've accomplished.
For instance: I'm about to start writing an essay on Imagist poetry, so I've pulled William Pratt's wonderful little anthology "The Imagist Poem" off the shelf. There's my signature on the first page -- smaller and more controlled than I write it now, but still with a flair to the final "s", the dot of the "i" sliding into a line. How can it help me remember so much? But it does. . . .
"I'm signing it, in February of 1975, sitting in my dormitory room after a trip to the university bookstore. I fall into its pages immediately, hoping, but not forcing myself, to be absorbed; I neglect the room light, which is dim and doing little enough against the gloomy overcast of a California winter. And I am absorbed; the promise of this volume is more, for me, even than my reading of the book suggests.
"For weeks now, I've been disconsolate about my course of study -- a freshman who wants to write poetry, but can't find the time or motivation to make any progress. I'm up half the night reading for my Western Civilization class; I'm slow in my math class, which demands hours of labor; if I do snatch a few minutes for a poem, the words don't come out right.
"Yesterday I happened to run into my English professor from last quarter. I was one of a hundred students, but she remembered me. We walked over to the Political Science lounge, where she bought me a cup of coffee, and we talked about literature and writing. I told her of my frustrations; I had one of my poems with me, and she asked to see it. She was so quiet -- for ages, it seemed. She couldn't like it, I was sure . . . but she did. And suddenly I found myself invited into one of her poetry writing tutorials. She smiled so warmly -- she knew what it meant to me. She could have offered no greater encouragement, no greater reassurance.
"So I'm in my dorm room, reading part of my professor's assignment, studying the structure of certain poems, delighting in many of them. I've found a place not only for study, but also for writing, at this university -- a school that before had seemed inhospitable to a hopeful poet." . . .
In telling these recollections to myself, I've invented nothing. All these thoughts and events are there, somehow, in my way my mind reads those small letters of my name on the front page of this small anthology. Such recollections always take me by surprise, but they never fail to occur. I glance at my copy of Theodore Roethke's poems, and see in my sprawling signature the anticipation of my first official creative writing class. The name in Wendell Berry's "Openings" reminds me of how thrilled I was to return to a place I could home and how much those poems helped me to identify that place. And on and on.
So I think I'd better start writing my name again in the books I add to my -- I really should say nascent -- library. It's not for nostalgia's sake, certainly not for a superficial trip down memory lane. My name is just another form of mapping a life that, as all lives do, pretty much resists mapping. My signatures are small cairns that mark, so clearly for me, the definite intersections of ideas and events that, after all, might neve r have happened.