Why Books Are the Best Roommates

Living with other people can be great, but living with books is better.

Living with someone is like dancing in that it’s less about particular moves and more about staying in rhythm with your partner. No matter what your skill level, you have to move in some kind of unison with the other person, and while I’ve had my fair share of wonderful roommates, still, everyone I’ve ever lived with—family, friends, girlfriends, doesn’t matter—inevitably has the talk with me. Sometimes it’s introduced casually, like it’s no big deal, while other times it’s a serious, sit-down discussion, a whole thing, but ultimately what they all boil down to is this: “Jonathan, you’ve got to do something about these books.” At this point their eyes scan whatever room we happen to be in (again, doesn’t matter) at all the piles and stacks and bags and shelves of books, variously sized heaps littering the floor like miniature skylines, spilling out onto everything, occupying chairs and tables and counters and cabinets. Then they look back at me, their expression articulating an implied, You know what I’m saying?

And I do. I know. And I’m not an asshole about my books, nor do I expect anyone to tolerate their capricious distribution—it’s just that no matter how many times I organize them, or how assiduously, slowly but surely a shocking number of them will remove from their order and end up who knows where. With each new book I read, my interests shift, my ambitions solidify, and this leads to pulling related titles out for aesthetic continuity or contextual support or textual interpretation. There are times I need to locate a specific quote, an instructive scene, or a germane piece of information. And, of course, there are times when I just stand there and stare for a while, picking up this novel, that collection, and oh, look I totally forgot I had this!

Let’s not forget—oh, please, let us not—the new books, which, let’s be real, rarely come one at a time. Usually it’s another fucking pile to add to all the other piles—often from used books stores, which are seriously like my favorite places on Earth and the only way I can think to compare just how much I love them would be if there were such a thing as a place that sold illegal drugs for 50% the market price—which very quickly renders whatever organization system I’d created basically useless, since continually rotating them to incorporate new ones is a bullshit chore and anyway how would one go about that anyway? Do you leave some gaps in each shelf to allow for additions? Or do you literally slide them down, shelf by shelf, until you’ve reached its appropriate place? Both of those solutions sound tedious as hell, and the latter would make me never want to buy any authors whose last names begin with A—L.

But anyway my real point is that I get it. I get that I own a lot of books, I get that I constantly acquire a lot of books, and I get that I’m incessantly touching and moving and holding and removing and stacking and cradling and loving them in utterly whimsical and random ways—and, crucially, I get how annoying all of the above can be for someone who isn’t me to live with. In fact I always harbored a secret shame about my books, how impractical they were and how stubborn I was to keep them, to pack them up and move them from city to city, those backbreaking boxes the bane of my friends’ existence as they help me unload. Since high school I carried this shame, and bore the pointed leers of my co-habitants, and often did most of the packing and unpacking myself.

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But now I live alone, something I’d never done before. And in my apartment’s big open space my books don’t have to be relegated to a small office or a back room, they don’t have to be organized or re-shelved or cleaned up, and they can remain in piles of varying height, on the floor, on chairs and tables and counters and cabinets. And there is no shame; not anymore. My books are, to put it simply, companions, friends, even roommates—but they are infinitely malleable and they shift and morph and bend to my caprice. The stacks not stacks at all but manifestations of particular fascinations of mine, attempts to make literal the connections I make in my mind as I read, and somehow seeing them everyday, the pile like a list, a free association with titles, a visual to reinforce a hazier abstraction.

Apart from their edifying utility, there is of course the fact that I just love the way books look, in every architectural permutation, partly because being around a library’s worth of books means I will never be bored, partly because of the excitement they arouse in me, anticipating my methodical perusal, but mostly because of the comfort they bring me. Books are my life—some have cushioned devastating blows, some have inspired innovation, but all have contributed to my development—and I very simply just want to be around them all the time. And now that the shame’s gone I realize how much I’d yearned to have books surround me and loom over me like a canopy, accumulating and rising up like chimneys, like skyscrapers, the towers of spines enveloping me into a maze of literature. The dance of roommates never seemed to be one I could master, like there was something about the rhythm of life that prevented me from finding the pocket. But the truth isn’t that I can’t do the dance; it’s that the moves I know are meant for solo performances. Now, my home matches my heart—and, hey, listen: they beat in unison.

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About Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic and the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Tin House, The Georgia Review, and numerous others.

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