“The thingness of books” (From Chrostowska’s Novel Permission)

The thingness of books, especially of many books kept in a small space, stacked high without rhyme or reason, can become impressive. I worry about being oppressed by the books I own––quite different from being oppressed by the ownership of books. There are days when I am certainly very oppressed by the presence of so many books in such a small space. There is really no more room for me with them around, just as there is no room for more books with me around. Yet I keep introducing new books, and reintroducing books that have either fallen or been misplaced and have now been picked up or found, or those I have lent (both with relief at the extra space and with apprehension at never seen them again) and that have just been returned to me. So now: loads and loads of books everywhere, and the fear that they will all come falling down one moment as I am passing through (or edging through) or sitting or (worse) dozing in my armchair, and that I or (more so) that they might be injured in the fall. The idea of all those books tipping over or (even) a shelf detaching itself from the wall and crashing to the floor, is positively nerve-wracking. Every time a book is taken off the shelf, transposed or put back I feel I am pushing my luck. I have so far been unusually lucky in avoiding an avalanche of book matter. I do believe a little order goes a long way, and that the ordering of books and maintaining always some semblance of order are possibly the best way of obviating the clutter typical of book-laden apartments. One really cannot speak of a book collection without having taken stock and organized and subjected one’s books to a more or less logical and consistent access-and-retrieval system. And apartments where the number of books impedes one’s access to them and exceeds a sustainable human-to-book ratio, books attract a frightful degree of clutter in a category unto itself. If it were merely dust and cobwebs everything would still be manageable; but a book heaven that has not been whipped into shape invites its owner to let go of themselves, is an invitation to physical sloth, if not intellectual sloth and downright mental confusion (too many books in too much chaos too often proves deadly for a thinking brain). The typical flat where books predominate, hence a space dominated by books, sooner or later adapts to the physical dimensions of books and reconfigures itself to accommodate even more of them––that is, ceases to be a flat and becomes a library. The sole occupant of such a space is, properly speaking, sharing accommodation. Without realizing it, this inhabitant has already given up many of the advantages of living alone. For starters, there is the uncontrollable, self-begetting clutter. You can deceive yourself that you could straighten up any day, but the mess that comes with the preponderance of books is addictive and ineradicable. It takes considerable exertion of the will to alter this reality. Similarly you may claim to be free to move out any day, to leave the mass and cramped conditions behind, but the truth is only too material: you are not going anywhere as long as you hold on to this many books. There is finally, the sheer lack of space for independent thought. These towers of intellect are known for their diminishing effects. You feel dwarfed both physically and mentally, and when this inequality in stature becomes too great you are done for as an independent thinker. Intellectual inferiority won’t let you scale the shoulders of giants to see further than them.

–From Sylwia Chrostowska’s novel Permission.