Teaching Opinion

Packing Books, Unpacking Memories

By David B. Cohen — June 13, 2017 4 min read
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Not to boast, but I’m good at packing boxes. I like the three-dimensional puzzle aspect of it, and I have plenty of experience with moving as well. During the first 12 years of my adulthood, I lived at 12 different addresses. Even after being long-settled in my current home, I’ve had to pack up classrooms and offices multiple times in the past several years. So, when I had to pack up the contents of my office again after this school year ended, I was ready for the task.

If it were merely an exercise in placing items in boxes, I might finish in a fraction of the time. The challenge is in deciding what to throw out, what to recycle, and what to keep. Even with materials I haven’t used in a year or two, I’m not quite ready to give up on paper and binders and folders. If I haven’t looked at the contents of a manila folder for a few years, it’s usually ready to toss.

But when it comes to books, I have a much higher threshold. I packed hundreds of books, and kept 99 percent of what I started with. The difference is that I think of the books not in a strictly utilitarian way, but rather, as representations of my past, of my personal and professional evolution.

Some of the books that have come with me, move after move, are my personal copies of the literature I read in my secondary school years. Sometimes I even rediscover notes and bits of homework folded up between the pages of a book. Last week I uncovered an archaelogical find in my copy of A Tale of Two Cities: my 10th grade English notes about the animalistic attributes of Madame Defarge. I paused to read these observations, and then placed the notes back where I found them, hopefully to be rediscovered again someday. Holding and perusing my old books is not only about remembering the stories they contain, but also recalling the person I was at the time. I can see myself doing homework at my old desk, feel the chair I used to sit in, picture the desk, the lamp, the cup holding pens and pencils, the wall calendar above the desk, and I try to put myself back in that mental space as well. How familiar, and yet how odd it feels, with my own sons now in high school.

My college books represent a time nearer to the present, yet they often carry less emotional attachment, perhaps because there are more of them, and they were often studied quickly (maybe even partially). But then again, some of these college books are even more cherished, having been subjected to more sustained inquiry and earnest analysis. I remember college as the time when first began taking some intellectual risks, and began to benefit from more interdisciplinary study: my copy of 1984 came from an anthropology class, and White Noise (Don DeLillo) was from a sociology class. These books help remind me why I’ve tried in my own teaching to break down those artificial divisions by integrating more film, art, music, and history into my teaching.

The books I’ve picked up during my teaching career include not only plenty of literature, but also some treasured reference books about literature, and plenty of books about educational theory, practice, policy, and history. Sometimes, as I’m packing a box, I’m reminded of the origins of something that has become a standard part of my practice, or I’m struck by a pang of guilt looking at a book that reminds me what I should be doing better. Some of the books have been reviewed, annotated, and bookmarked several times, while others, acquired years ago, are still somehow unopened. Maybe this summer...?

I try to keep boxes somewhat organized by the type of books inside (fiction, non-fiction, reference), and even try to organize the fiction by time period or genre: all my Greek and Roman literature goes in one box, along with the complete works of Shakespeare, which I see as a fitting combination. There’s just enough room for “Beowulf” and “The Canterbury Tales” to squeeze into that box too.

And yet, the desire to pack a perfect box means that sometimes I’m filling spaces based on a book’s dimensions rather than its contents, resulting in some odd juxtapositions. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (Lynn Truss’s popular book about punctuation) ended up right next to Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction (a work of literary theory). Two very different memoirs shared the same space: Arthur Miller’s Timebends ended up next to Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy. And then, Nabakov’s Lolita wound up next to Gibran’s The Prophet. Trying to think about both of those books at once produces a swirl of cultural and cognitive dissonance.

A few hours of packing turned into an extended wandering down memory lane to my own high school years, college and graduate school, and 20 years of teaching. There are represented in these boxes my struggles and successes, readings sometimes tedious or trivial, or transformative. I wonder if future generations will be able to relate to this experience. Will my children have some of their current books on bookshelves 30 years from now? Will my students be able to reflect on their learning and growth by holding the physical books that made a difference in their lives? Will books trigger any memories of me, as I remember the teachers who introduced me to influential works of literature? Even if I help cultivate the love of books and reading among my students and in my sons, I have a feeling they won’t have the same kinds of occasions to pack and unpack, to hold or display the books that have been important to them. Such reflections might instead require browsing through the virtual “library” or download history on their various devices and accounts in “the cloud.”

So, in this ironically digital ode to print, let me end with a request. If you’re a book lover like me, consider printing out this blog post. Tuck it in between some books on your bookshelf. Then, months or years from now, when you or someone else discovers the printed copy, let it be cause for a moment of appreciation for role of reading, and actual books, in shaping our lives.

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.