My books are arranged by subject matter. There is a section for Literary Theory, which flows nicely into Feminism, which then abuts American Studies. All three topics overlap, and I can sandwich in the middle the books that fall into both categories. Since I have a lot of plays about the Holocaust, I always position Holocaust Literature next to Dramatic Literature, although where to put American Theater History and Performance Theory is a bit of a muddle. Does it go next to Dramatic Literature, or is it more a part of American Studies and Literary Theory? And the book titled Holocaust Poetry causes me no end of angst. Poetry or Holocaust Literature? Each time I unpack my books that one throws me for a loop.
The rest of the fiction is easier. I divide it by nationality. There is a respectable Brit Lit section, an embarrassing World Lit section, and a rather impressive American Lit section. I do, after all, have a Ph.D. in American literature. Within those departments, I organize chronologically. The problem, of course, is what to do with the likes of Toni Morrison or Tom Robbins. I need to keep all their books together (what asshole breaks up a family?), but Morrison and Robbins span decades. Usually, I pick whatever strikes me as the writer’s best-known or most important work, put that in the right place chronologically, and stick the rest of his or her work in beside it.
I am ashamed to say I do not organize within the author sections by date. I used to, really I did, but who has the time to check the publication date of every single Edith Wharton? And do you know how much Henry James I own? It could take months to finish unpacking (it may anyhow).
Most of these books were in storage while we lived in London, and as I unpack there is a feeling of returning the world to its rightful axis. I own what must be well over 1,000 books – and those are just the adult books. We’re not talking about the kids’. Bringing them out of boxes, where Harriet Jacobs was absurdly stacked against Geoffrey Chaucer, and putting them next to their contemporaries restores order to an unruly world.
Some are authors I have loved for as long as I can remember – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Octavia Butler. Others are authors I have researched and written about, and so I know their work and their lives down to the skeleton – Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein. But others are writers I did not like at first, like the man at a cocktail party who blows his nose on the napkins and tells you about his new Beemer. Getting to know them has been a courtship, and only through continued time together have I learned to love who they are underneath.
And that is how I came to my relationship with William Faulkner, a writer whose work at first struck me as unnecessarily difficult and pretentious beyond its merits. I have spent time with him, unpacked his words – reluctantly at first, for a class assignment or because I had to teach him. But, eventually, I began to relax into his rhythms and submit to his poetry. He is, after all, a genius. As I unpack his books, I find they take up a whole shelf on their own.
As I put Faulkner next to Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, A Light in August – and put Hemingway uncomfortably close, I wonder. Did he know? Did he know each day about his gift? Did he sit down to write secure that he was creating something right?
And what about the others? I know that Gertrude Stein never wrote about her doubts, but did she have them? Does Edward Albee just assume his absurdity will strike the right balance with reality? They might struggle with words, but do they struggle with writing itself? Does the concept of being a writer feel uncomfortable, even to the geniuses? Do they wonder each day whether what they are pulling together is any good or just more crap to fill the library shelves?
Because for me, writing is a constant juggling of unreasonable confidence with continual self-doubt. And, even though I know I am no William Faulkner, I’d love to know that every now and then he wondered who the hell he was to call himself a writer.