Thoughts on Combining Personal Libraries

I just came across this excellent article by Alexander Chee (whose novel Edinburgh is fantastic, incidentally) about the issue of combining libraries when one moves in with a new romantic partner. This is a topic that I have thought a lot about over the years, and especially in the past few as I’ve gone through a divorce. My ex-wife and I combined our books on the shelves according to the classification system that I used for my books, which meant that sometimes she would have to ask me where one of her books was located. In other words, despite being combined, it never really felt like a shared library, but rather a situation in which I was graciously letting her books hang out with mine, and perhaps that is a symbol of why the relationship ultimately failed.

As I’ve been thinking about what I would like my future romantic relationships to be like, I’ve decided that were I to live with another person I would keep my library separate from theirs. On the surface, this may sound selfish or like I am incapable of a full commitment, but Chee eloquently explains why this is not the case, and why it is acceptable for each partner to keep their own copies of books that they have in common. He writes that

“When each of you owns one copy of a book, it does seem particularly problematic, as if the two of you should only have one copy of it. On the surface that seems to make sense. But the thought of selling my copy makes me feel a phantom pain, but from a future phantom limb—the literary equivalent of a premonition of amputation. I can only conclude I want my own copy not because I don’t feel sufficiently attached to the person I live with, but because I want to feel sufficiently attached to myself. …

“You don’t keep the doubles because you believe you may not stay together. You keep the doubles because the one you own, that’s your friend [Chee’s italics]. The one he owns, that’s his. To only have one, it would be like sharing an email address.

“Not everything can be shared. And that isn’t a crisis. It’s how it should be.”

I have previously written about how my books feel like they are a part of me because they are a physical documentation of my history. I appreciate how Chee acknowledges that this is the case for everyone who loves books. His naming of books as “friends” is spot on.


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