First Person

Around Valentine’s Day, my gut finally confirmed what my head had long known: I would in fact be graduating from college in just three months, which meant that something would have to be done about the books.

This was in Philadelphia, in a large room on the second floor of a three-story house on Baltimore Avenue. Not wanting the hassle of selling a sofa or armchair at year’s end, I had furnished the room with little other than a bed, a salvaged nightstand, and a too-small desk borrowed from a friend’s girlfriend’s roommate. If it weren’t for the books (and the Robert Kennedy campaign poster that passed for decoration), a visitor to my room might surmise that its occupant tended toward a mildly disturbed kind of solitude. But there were books, lots of them. Books lined the mantel of the bricked-up fireplace. Books were stacked at the foot of the bed; they were strewn on the floor around the desk like a blast radius. Piles of books that frequently collapsed into small landslides annexed the nightstand. A stray book or two often lay on the floor in the middle of the room, the aftermath of hasty between-class transitions. For the first time in my life, I felt I had too many books.

You have to understand that like many bibliophiles, this was a Rubicon I never imagined crossing. In my experience, the adage “all things in moderation” carries much wisdom; until last winter, I thought books were an exception to this rule, occupying a higher moral plane than other things one might collect, like bottles of fine scotch or European football jerseys. In my reverence for the printed word, I subscribed to all the humanistic pieties: books as worlds between two covers, as food for the mind and soul, as a link between living and dead. Walking into Penn’s library every day for the last two years, I passed beneath a window bearing a breathless quotation from Samuel Daniel: “O blessed letters! That combine in one all ages past, and make one live with all!” The pane’s religiosity was apt; my faith in books had never been higher than in college. There, they protected me from the terrifying emptiness of Sunday afternoons, distracted me from one girl or another’s failure to return my call, and transported me from the campuses where I often felt I was merely playing at life, swept away from my old comfortable St. Louis existence because I needed a college degree. Books were the tributaries that returned me to the main current, if only for a few hours.

Since I held books in such exalted regard, I seldom considered their status as things with mass and volume as anything but an accidental part of their existence. True, I frequently condemned e-books as yet another symptom of a world unable to sit quietly with itself, and I occasionally sought specific editions that would look nice on my shelf, but the magic always lay in the words. It never occurred to me that as things, books were as likely to become an encumbrance as tea sets or nutcrackers. The idea that you could own too many of such hallowed objects seemed absurd, and so over the years my mom’s frequent encomiums to the public library fell on deaf ears.

But now I was practically up to those same ears in books. Not only was the tide rising in Philadelphia, but there were no longer any relief channels into which it could flow. Shelf space in my room back home in St. Louis was at a premium, the result of spending the first two years of college at the University of Chicago, home to the Seminary Co-Op, a bookstore where shelves vie for space with pipes and boilers in the basement of the eponymous seminary. In its cramped orderliness, the Co-Op is basically a living argument for surrounding oneself with as many books as possible, an argument I heeded closely during my years in Hyde Park. Combine the Co-Op’s example with the university’s famous Great Books ethos—as well as a summer internship across San Francisco’s Valencia Street from Dog Eared Books, home to a sublime remainders table— and you can begin to imagine the collection I’d amassed in St. Louis.

It was the thought of adding the Philadelphia library to the Midwestern one—the logistical acrobatics of it, like shuffling together two stiff decks of cards—that made me feel my books were in danger of becoming clutter, that heavy and omnipresent pollutant, one of abundance’s subtly pernicious byproducts. The question thus became not how to get these books back to St. Louis, but which ones to cull into a portable elect that would make the trip home.

Some choices were easy. The books adorning the fireplace mantel were displayed there for a reason; indeed, some—for instance, my inscribed copy of Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone, which accompanies me everywhere—had come from St. Louis in the first place. Also occupying the place of honor were the Penguin Classics editions of Saul Bellow’s novels (through Humboldt’s Gift); Ulysses, which, along with Moby-Dick, constituted the signal reading accomplishment of my college years; the complete works of Montaigne; and Murakami’s 1Q84, which I had no intention of reading any time soon, but whose magnificent Chip Kidd–designed cover I couldn’t imagine parting with, making it the rare book that I appreciated exclusively as an object. On the other hand, it cost me no emotional turmoil to part with Gone With the Wind (read, with increasing rage at Scarlett O’Hara’s solipsism, for a class on American best sellers), William Wells Brown’s Clotel (assigned the week my grandfather died, and consequently never opened), and companion guides to Descartes and Kant.

But the painless decisions ended there. I realized that a certain ruthlessness was required to decide the fates of the books hovering between the poles of adoration and indifference. I gave my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism to a friend and immediately felt lighter; I sold all of my Kafka and immediately regretted it. I bid farewell to Finnegans Wake. I reluctantly cast off The House of Mirth, figuring that the amount of time likely to elapse before I wanted to reread Edith Wharton’s great novel was long enough to merit buying a new copy when the day arrived. Again and again, I made the trip to the Penn Book Center with an overladen J.Crew bag that somehow never tore. I’d leave with a recompense so tiny as to be almost felonious, barely enough to buy a burrito for dinner. But I was so relieved to be free of another load of books that I didn’t care.


At some point during this purge, I realized I’d lost something. Not a book, but a photo stored in a book. In the 1990s, my uncle Don, a talented amateur photographer who lives in San Francisco, was in the habit of printing his photos on postcard paper and mailing them to his family in St. Louis. It was one of these that I’d misplaced. He addressed many of them—of a full moon over the Louvre; of patrons sitting outside Les Deux Magots; of Charismatic, the 1999 Kentucky Derby winner, in an equine ambulance after breaking his leg at Belmont—to my sister and me. But the one I cherished most, the one now missing, had been mailed to my grandparents in early 2000. Captured on black-and-white film, the photo shows my uncle and grandfather, seated at the latter’s kitchen table in the south St. Louis County home that was one my childhood’s enchanted spaces. The play of light and shadow is crisp and lunar. My grandfather occupies the frame’s center, smiling his brilliant smile, his hands resting on either side of an empty plate. The creases in his golf shirt are rendered so clearly that the fabric appears to be a liquid. At shutter’s click, his Alzheimer’s diagnosis stood about a year away, and though it may simply be a trick of hindsight, his face strikes me as correspondingly healthy and untouched by disease. My uncle leans in from the viewer’s right, his arm around my grandfather, their bald heads meeting in a gully of shadow. Don smiles with closed lips, suggesting affection touched with sadness (Some inkling that my grandfather is not altogether well? The rueful smile of an out-of-town son visiting aging parents?). It is the finest photo I know of anyone in my family, and my uncle apparently agreed. He wrote on the back, “Mom – this is the best photo you’ve ever taken—my absolute favorite,” thus revealing who pushed the button on my uncle’s Hasselblad.

I had left the postcard in Philadelphia between junior and senior years, forgetting over the summer months (spent, incidentally, with my uncle in San Francisco, where a large, framed copy of this same photo hangs in the hallway leading to his bedroom) that I owned it. Only in the midst of thinning my book collection did I realize its absence, because I was certain I had stored it for safekeeping in the cover of one of my hardcovers. But the likely candidates—the Norton Anthology, the Montaigne, Franzen’s Freedom—yielded nothing, and riffling through the rest of my collection proved just as fruitless. I was left with the unhappy conclusion that the photo had been lodged in one of the books I’d already sold, and I was helpless to avoid imagining one of the clerks at the Penn Book Center finding it in Native Son or The Last of the Mohicans and examining it with mild interest before consigning it to the garbage.

To my surprise, distress quickly yielded to relief. My sense of ownership towards the postcard had always been tenuous. For one thing, of course, it wasn’t addressed to me, which was part of what I liked about it, the sense it conferred of writing myself into a story in which I didn’t originally appear. Where there had once been a straight line between two points—represented on the postcard’s back by my uncle’s address in San Francisco and my grandparents’ in St. Louis—there was now a triangle, with me at the third point, arriving a decade later. But the contingency of my ownership also made it something of a burden. I salvaged the postcard from a box of my grandparents’ photos that my dad was preparing to throw away after they had moved into a nursing home. Without my intervention, the postcard would have been a scrap in a landfill; it depended on me to retain its meaning. I felt like a White House staffer who’d kept one of the president’s dry-cleaning tickets.

My grandparents’ move to the nursing home had offered a hard lesson in the value of things. It occurred in the spring of my freshman year of college, after my grandfather had suffered a severe stroke. I was only a few months removed from my time at a Jesuit high school, where we often spent theology class critiquing American consumerism, exposing the malign influence of advertising and understanding the vanity of worshipping things. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits’ founder, had instructed his followers not to prefer wealth to poverty, an attitude I found superhumanly ennobling and heroic. Consequently—and because I suddenly felt very guilty about my affection for clothing—I became an enthusiastic haranguer of modern capitalism. I spoke of solidarity with the poor; of radical, systematic change; of Reagan’s disastrous presidency (this, I should say, was in 2007), all while continuing to patronize Urban Outfitters, expensively cultivating a personal style best described as “unemployed 1970s music critic.” Like many of my high-school cause célèbres (the Great Society, pacifism, Jack Kerouac), my enthusiasm for anticonsumerism cooled during the first months of college from a gatecrasher’s zeal into a liberal’s conscience-assuaging principle. I was no longer refusing to buy any clothing made in Bangladesh, but I still harbored a smug disdain for the things of this world—except, of course, for books.

During the move, I had a long phone conversation with my grandmother. A frail woman for as long as I’d known her, she’d grown even weaker since I’d left for Chicago. Her voice now dragged and slurred, as if she’d always just awoken. I stood in Hutchinson Courtyard, the sort of sheltered campus grove that keeps you from considering the scene of crisis towards which the distant siren wail is heading, listening to my grandmother recount the dispersal of her things. My grandparents had a single room in the nursing home, forcing my dad and uncle to pass what remained of their life’s possessions through an unforgivingly narrow sieve. As she had throughout her life—through the Dust Bowl and World War II and the stillbirth of her first child—she set her jaw against hardship. But my grandmother was a tough lady, not an unfeeling one, and her sadness emanated from my phone’s earpiece, each strained pause suggesting truths about time, aspiration, and mortality that I could only begin to understand. But what I did recall at that moment was how much meaning, for better or for worse, we deposit in our things. “I can’t live without it” is an expression of attachment to an object, but it had become painfully literal for my grandmother. The gradual dissipation of her possessions must have looked like the very walls of her allotted time meeting in their vanishing point, which suddenly drew very near.

My grandmother was by no means materialistic. Raised on a farm in South Dakota during the Dust Bowl, she bore her generation’s apocalyptic sense of thrift, the belief that profligacy left you vulnerable to the next world crisis, looming unseen around the bend of time. She preached economy and respect for what you already owned; my uncle, in a eulogy, described her as “a saver who taught us to save; she was a clipper of coupons.” She once reprimanded me for casually throwing a pair of trousers on the floor after Sunday Mass. As she folded them properly, she told me that my dad would have never treated his good clothes with such indifference. A refrain in her house when I was young was, “Wally, you can’t take it with you,” it being the Japanese rifle my grandfather kept in a Wilson golf clubs box in their basement, a wartime souvenir he used to thrill me and irritate her. Her prophecy proved correct; by the time of my grandfather’s death last year, the rifle had long since been sold to a collector.

Her only discernible indulgence was a collection of Hummels, those kitschy porcelain figurines depicting Teutonic children in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats as they huddled beneath umbrellas or sang their way through Alpine foothills. She owned dozens of them, displayed in two tall cases in the family room of their house. They survived the move to the apartment, but there was no room for them in the nursing home, and they went to my uncle’s mother-in-law. Though entrusted to a person my grandmother knew and liked, the loss of one of her life’s few purely enjoyable pursuits must have been a blow. The clearance of other items was hardly less distressing. During the year she lived in the home, she often asked my dad or uncle what a certain item had fetched at a local school auction or from a collector, not knowing that many of these things had little market value. She was interested in prices because they assured her that what had mattered to her would matter to someone else after she was gone. As my dad once told me, ruefully, “We were essentially telling her that her time was up.”

True enough. A little more than a year after moving to the nursing home, my grandmother died. I was sitting in Hutchinson Courtyard—the same place where I’d listened to her pained account of the move a year earlier—reading Moby-Dick. My dad called to tell me the news, and the first thing I did after hanging up was circle the number of the page I’d been reading. My dad had been playing golf after visiting her at the nursing home when he learned of her death, and he kept his scorecard from that afternoon. After the funeral, he gave me one of Grandma’s Hummels, a doe-faced boy reading a newspaper, a nod to my interest in journalism. I placed it on my desk, where my hand seems to knock against it every time I reach for a pen or rearrange papers. But it was Grandma’s, so I keep it. My children will be bound to the Hummel by no such contract of memory. It is like an isotope with a short half-life, sitting on my desk while it leaks meaning.

We so often claim to be owners when we are in fact stewards. Indeed, with a sufficiently macroscopic lens, one that encompasses mortality, ownership gives way to stewardship entirely. And stewardship, with its connotations of preserving for later generations, may not be the right word, for there is no guarantee that the objects that mean a lot to us will be anything other than clutter to our descendants. The exigencies of time and the vagaries of individual experience ensure that most of what we own will speak only to us. A copy of Moby-Dick with a circle around the page number 38, a scorecard from an afternoon of golf, a postcard bearing a photo of a smiling father and his son: all of these things will someday become clutter, their stories silenced.

My grandparents’ move left me wary of the meaning with which we endow our things; the release I felt at the loss of my uncle’s postcard only served to confirm that our reliance on stuff in constructing our selves is just another absurd tile of the human experience, lovely when part of a mosaic, terrifying when divorced from the whole. I returned home with an expunger’s eye, hoping to preempt the pain my grandmother had felt by reducing the number of portals by which it might enter. I ripped CDs from their jewel cases and mailed them to a recycling center in West Frankfort, Illinois. I threw out all but the most meaningful grade-school art projects and high-school notebooks. I stood over the recycling bin for a quarter hour, ripping baseball cards from the binder that had housed them for ten years, shearing open each little plastic rectangle and dumping MVPs and top prospects and forgotten journeymen alike into the bin’s indifferent blue mouth, denying myself a pause lest sentiment gain a foothold. I felt the thrill of thoughtless reduction that I imagine animates some of Washington’s most ardent budget cutters. I purchased space on my shelf and quiet in my mind.

As I might have guessed, my passion for thinning was short-lived. A few days after sacking my baseball cards, my dad and I traveled to San Francisco to visit my uncle and his family. One morning, we walked from his house in Noe Valley into the Mission, where we turned onto Valencia Street. Passing Dog Eared Books, I suggested we stop in. Inevitably, ignoring my better sense and feeling entitled after shedding so much clutter, I walked to the remainders table. I paid fifteen bucks for unused copies of Invisible Man and The Fortress of Solitude. I felt guilty, but only just. And upon my return, flipping through a neglected folder of papers that I’d thrown in one of the moving boxes after graduation, I found the postcard of my uncle and grandfather. I’d never stored it in a book in the first place. Losing it had been an unexpected relief; rediscovering it was an even more surprising joy. After all, the two men in the photo—one living, one dead—are a large part of my story, whatever they may mean to my descendants. I keep the postcard on my desk, in plain sight, lest I lose it once again.

James Santel lives, writes, and teaches in St. Louis. His writing has appeared in The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals, and The Millions, and is forthcoming in The American Scholar. He blogs at