When Bibliophiles Realize That They're Pack Rats

MOVING your own furniture and household effects is a California tradition. In New York, land of the five-story walk-up apartment, I've heard moving heavy furniture requires a professional's touch, possibly involving a winch hanging outside a window. But here in California, ranch houses and bungalows predominate, and few people own a piano. Moving oneself is, for most, no problem.

Only, my husband and I have a collective case of bibliophilia, the love of books. Book buying is our shared addiction, compounded - in terms of book population - by a refusal to sell or throw any of the books out. This habit might have gone unnoticed for years but for the arrival of moving day.

The scene: With the sole aid of a pickup truck, two young adults try to move hundreds and hundreds of books across town in one Saturday, along with the family furniture and 600 LPs. What odds would a London bookmaker give us?

By Sunday afternoon our energy is in serious decline. ``This move is taking longer than I thought,'' my husband, Dean, admits as he lifts his side of the dresser from the kids' room.

WE stop. We know it's true. We're both sick of ``lift and shuffle.'' What went wrong? We kept thinking, ``Just a couple more trips,'' but every time, more stuff kept rising up out of the carpet, tumbling out of closets, and coming out from forgotten cupboards. Why do we own all these things? Why are they all so heavy? All of our possessions were ``beloved'' before we started moving, but now, 36 hours into the ordeal, we're ready to jettison some cargo.

Dean asks me why I didn't dump some of my old childcare books, ``the ones you're never going to read again, the ones with the pictures of 1970s people with bell bottoms and long hair?''

Naturally, I think at this point, once you reach the horse latitudes of moving, your first thought is to push someone else's horse overboard. ``But they were gifts! How come we had to move a whole box of your library books? Why couldn't you just have taken them back where they belong?''

He eyes me sternly. ``Those aren't just any library books, they're important. I've got them on inter-library loan from Berkeley.'' My husband, the scholar of ancient language and history, can't always get what he needs at our local university.

So, we have half a shelf of tomes from the other end of the state. As of this writing, he's just requested books from East-Coast schools and has recently made a great discovery: the method for accessing overseas interlibrary loan, tapping into the stacks at sleepy Oxford and Cambridge, at Tubingen, and in the Vatican vaults.

It's unfortunate for us that everything in this house is important, important enough for us to decide to move it to another residence instead of taking a more rational route such as throwing it away.

Dean gets a better grip on the dresser and looks at me over the top. ``Why can't we get rid of some of your old manuscripts and papers? I can understand keeping the last draft of each story, but you've got every copy you ever made!''

I am stung. ``My manuscripts?'' How could he mention it? I'm saving those, in case I am ever discovered to be a great writer. Then, my literary executors might want the unpublished manuscripts after I'm dead. I'm unwilling to throw away what could turn out to be a national literary treasure.

``A few boxes!'' He says. ``We need to get rid of a few boxes. And the magazines!''

``Magazines! You're as guilty as I am there!'' I packed up four years of The Atlantic Monthly, but he's got three years of Archaeology Today, which weighs more than The Atlantic because of the pictures. He hasn't read them since he was an undergraduate, yet one of us has to carry every last one down a long set of stairs and then heave it into a pickup truck.

So what, I think, so what, I'm not touching them; he's carrying them or they're not going. I grab the Atlantic box and make my 57th trip today down 14 cement steps, around a U-turn onto the connecting path, and down a long sidewalk. I heave the box onto the black plastic of the pickup-truck bed liner, which I have seen so much of that in my vision it is now cartoon-like.

IN a ripping moment of self-knowledge, I think to myself - four years of The Atlantic, which if you really need you can get at any library. What kind of madwoman am I? A bibliophile, that's what kind, and now I know: Bibliophilia is no more than a subheading under ``pack rat.''

It's as if we misread that old lunchroom poster, ``You are what you Eat,'' and substituted ``You are what you Read.'' In our minds, we are creating a new Monticello, the kind of place where, if the Library of Congress were to call up to say they'd just burned down, we could spare a few important works on the Late Roman Republic and on 70's theories of child rearing, not to mention assorted magazines.

At the new apartment, there are rows and rows of small book boxes and nowhere to set up a table for our dinner, a frozen pizza. We eat on the floor.

``You know, Dean,'' I say, ``I've heard that you can send books via the US Mail instead of moving them yourself. Next time let's try that.'' He doesn't hear me. He's salvaged the ``Scholar's Bookshelf'' catalog from the wreck and is assiduously reading about low, low prices on remaindered ancient history books. Some of them, no doubt, will be sharing our residence soon.

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