Long before e-books and the cloud, I got rid of my library. I didn’t regret it. It was a frenzied, hell-bent purge of thousands of titles: not just Austens and Brontës, but the excuses for my sexuality, the detritus of my dissertation, and the reason for my being. When I left grad school a few years earlier, the movers informed me that half the weight of the haul was books. There was a car on the truck, too—a small Saturn. But still... I needed to change my life. Throwing out books was the easiest way to do it.
Books are roots. Yes, metaphysically, but physically, too. Full bookshelves hold you in place. You can’t move quickly. When you’re eventually faced with a cross-country transfer or a finalized divorce, the first thing you’ll do is count your books and ask, “What am I going to do with these?”
It may be a cliché to say that a life of books starts with a specific book, but mine had an advantage. I was reared as an American fundamentalist. I had the book. I eventually replaced it with many more: literature, history, psychology, graphic novels, bestsellers, mid-list tragedies. My soul fragmented into volumes. William Blake made me drop out of premed. William Faulkner showed me that I was a Southerner, though I didn’t know it. Eudora Welty helped me marry a woman. Henry James helped her leave me. And Lorrie Moore pushed me out of academia.
“Do you have any marital assets?” my Texas divorce lawyer asked me. I was coming out; he wore cowboy boots. It was an uneasy alliance.“Books,” I said. “Tons of them.”
He wrinkled his nose at a bad smell. “Pennies on the dollar.”
I didn’t get rid of all of them. I pared them down to two 12 in. x 12 in. boxes that I shipped to New York City, where I was starting a new life. That was in 1996, when I was leaving the straight and narrow to become a writer. I didn’t need books.
The digital revolution came, and it suited me. I could load a title onto my e–reader and then disperse it into electrons, even when I hadn’t read it. “Lose something every day,” Elizabeth Bishop once counseled. I was her disciple. I wanted a worldly life that was ephemeral, transient. I called it “gay.” It was rootless.
I did become an author. I met Bruce Weinstein, a chef, and we pooled our talents. Although we lived in a small Manhattan apartment almost devoid of books, we published 22 of them. I wrote volumes on ham, goat, slow cookers, whole grains. I also discovered that writing cookbooks is one of the few ways to be published without the chip of literature on my shoulder.
Ten years after I arrived in New York, Bruce and I left for a rather remote bit of Connecticut. I became a Confederate among Yankees, a member of the middle class wedged between the rich and the poor, a nonbeliever among the Puritans. One winter afternoon, I took a walk down our country road and found myself thinking about Thoreau. He left civilization for woods like these but went home on the weekends. When was I going home?
I bought a copy of Walden. Not an e-book—a hardcover book. I was afraid I’d delete it without looking at it.
I read it, marked it, dog-eared it. I put it on a shelf. And I started to think about other books. I even bought a few. Mostly for the weight in my hands. Sometimes for the smell. I wanted the physical experience of a book. I didn’t want electrons. I didn’t even want paperbacks. I wanted to hear the scratch of a pencil on heavy paper, and I wanted to imagine reading that book again 20 years later.
The shock isn’t that things fall apart. Faced with the threat of the Rapture since childhood, I’m prepared for the worst. The true surprise is when things come together.
Today, I lead book groups and teach literature courses across New England, funded by grants and private donors. I spent eight weeks this past winter with 65 adults and Emily Dickinson. I almost got run out of my smalltown library because of Ian McEwan. I’m off to Canterbury with Chaucer this fall. And I’m still writing cookbooks, though I’m surrounded by books this time. As I write about vegetarian dinner parties, my office overflows with translations of The Aeneid, everything Kate Atkinson and Virginia Woolf have written, and piles of the unread. My iPad stands almost empty.
In exasperation, I pointed to a stack on the floor the other day. “What am I going to do with these?” I asked Bruce. He suggested we get someone in to build bookshelves.
I’ve never felt more at home.
Mark Scarbrough and chef Bruce Weinstein have written 25 cookbooks together. The two currently write a column for Weightwatchers.com, and Scarbrough contributes to several major food magazines.