Will You Marry My Library?

By Tara L. Masih

When writer Mary Larkin sent me the link to a wonderful essay by Anne Fadiman titled Marrying Libraries,” a memoir piece about Fadiman’s humorous struggle to combine her book library with that of her husband’s after ten years of marriage, I couldn’t help but wonder how other couples dealt with this cohabitation dilemma. In my own household, it was never an issue. Not having married writers, I took over the bookcases; my former and present husband had a few old textbooks and some books that had been gifted, which took up about 1% of the space. So I thought I’d ask a few writer couples how they managed.

For Midge Raymond and John Yunker, publishers at Ashland Creek Press, the fact that they met as impoverished grad students early in life made this a nonissue: “For us,” says Raymond, “combining our libraries hasn’t been difficult—we basically started our library together twenty years ago.”

But for others who met later in life or who have more of an eclectic library, the issue can be more challenging.

Writers James Claffey (Blood a Cold Blue) and Maureen Foley (Women Float) merged families and librariesand have moved several times, residing now on an avocado ranch in California:

James Claffey: When Maureen and I moved in together we merged libraries because of space limitations. I "persuaded" Maureen to cull her book collection. She's still slightly ticked-off at me, even though when we moved to Louisiana I sold hundreds of my books to a second-hand shop in Santa Barbara, evening out the playing-field. Our collective library is somewhat disorganized, at times repetitive, and given our completely different backgrounds, hers of Californian heritage and my Irish heritage, we have an eclectic collection of books that nicely represents our marriage and writing lives.

Maureen Foley:  Merging our libraries reminded me of the poem "Shopping Spree" from Anne Waldman's book Marriage: A Sentence. Using repetition, she plays with the idea of double property within a union, as in, "This this is mine mine no no this this is mine mine." Does anyone really own a book? In my world, if you read it, it's yours. James and I have had more problems sharing shelf space than books. I can't believe we still have some double his/her volumes of certain important books, ones so special neither of us will relinquish our copy. In the end, I'm delighted to share a household with someone who understands that if times get rough, everything can go, but don't touch the books.  

Steve Yarbrough (The Realm of Last Chances, 2014 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award) and Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough (The Best American Essays 2012), like Raymond and Yunker, met early in life. Married for almost three decades, what’s the secret to their successful intercultural married library?

Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough: We’ve now been married for almost twenty-six years, and the books we have live in conjugal happiness, the way we do. They reflect our different tastes and personalities, and sometimes bring a look of puzzlement to a guest’s face when he or she is scanning the titles. We treat them all as “ours,” although we have several bookshelves for the books each of us refers to as “mine.” I have more of those than Steve for the obvious reason that he can’t read Polish. . . .The books on my shelves are organized by genre, but within each genre there’s no particular order, except they are grouped by the author’s name. The only bookcase in our household where the books follow an orderly sequence holds English-language poetry, and I take credit for their alphabetical arrangement.

Steve Yarbrough: I actually recall wooing her with the Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki, though the poet Tadeusz Różewicz came into play shortly afterward.  I owned one book by each writer.  Those were two of the three books by Polish writers that I had in my possession. . . .  I didn’t have a lot of Polish ammo to woo with.  But in the years since, I’ve acquired no small number of books in translation by Polish writers.  I notice, however, that even though they are “mine,” sooner or later they end up among “hers.”  As for “ours,” that would include almost everything else.  However, if I went into her study and found, say, The Collected Stories of William Trevor there, I would take it back.  It’s one of “ours,” but it’s more mine than hers.  Same with anything by James Salter, Alice Munro, Richard Yates, John Cheever.  Anybody whose work we discovered after we met—Colm Toibin, say—is by definition equally “ours.”  Some books are strictly mine, because she wouldn’t be caught dead reading them, and into this category would go any book ever written about sports, bluegrass music, American politics, or the Civil War.

Jennifer De Leon (Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education) and Adam Stumacher (Raymond Carver Short Story Award winner) recently merged their lives and libraries together after some years of establishing their own separate libraries. If you can’t give up your books, how do you cope? Here is their crafty response:

Jennifer De Leon: Marrying our libraries was a natural to-do when we moved in together. Because this was in Cambridge, we had limited space on our bookshelves. Actually, Adam lived in the apartment first, so really, he had to remove books from his already crowded bookshelves and make room for mine. We got creative. We went to Home Depot and bought shelves in order to maximize every nook and cranny of our office. We preferred zigzagged stacks of books on our dresser instead of picture frames. We had to give up double copies—2666, Drown, Revolutionary Road. Of course, we kept all autographed copies. A home for two writers means there is a bookcase in every single room. Our eleven-month-old son, Mateo, also loves books, which means even less space! But I admit, I love seeing Moo, Baa, La La La beside a copy of Chimamanda’s Americanah. 

Adam Stumacher: One of many values Jenn and I share is the belief that when you run out of space for your library, you don't pack your books away; you build more shelves. So when we moved in together, we invented contraptions out of cinder blocks and boards and filled every corner with books. The challenge was when we decided to spend a year together on writing residencies and we had to figure out which books to take along in our limited suitcase space. After much back and forth, we decided to buy ebook readers. It was great to be able to download library books from the shores of Lake Atitlan, but I must say one of the most exciting things about returning home after that year was to be reunited with our library. Nothing can compare to the experience of touching an actual book.

So what conclusion can we reach from reading about writers marrying their book collections? Nothing earth shattering. But perhaps the best takeaway is to see how the combination and merging of one’s treasured objects with another’s can be a test of the relationship itself, and if you can share your bookshelves with a fellow bookworm with humor and respect and creativity, it might be a good sign the relationship will last even longer than your favorite dog-eared paperback.

About the Author

Tara L. Masih is author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories (a National Best Books Award finalist), and is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year) andThe Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (a Skipping Stones Honor Book). She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (such as Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, New Millennium Writings, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, and The Caribbean Writer), and her essays have been reprinted in college textbooks and read on NPR. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest, a finalist fiction grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. She judges the intercultural essay prize for the annual Soul-Making Keats Literary Contest, and has taught flash at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and at Grub Street. She received her MA in Writing and Publishing from Emerson College, and is the founder of and managing editor for The Best Small Fictions series. For more information, visit www.taramasih.com.

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