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On the Shelf

Posted by Dave Bull at 10:18 PM, April 4, 1996

It's almost impossible for me to believe it, but I find that I am now in my tenth year of residence at my current address here in Hamura, in Tokyo. When we moved into this 'concrete box' nearly a decade ago, I could not have imagined that I would still be in these same rooms so many years later. My previous 'record' for length of stay in any particular place had been something less than five years - and that was quite an exception. Counting back through the years, I calculate that in the 35 years before coming to Japan I lived in 18 different homes - an average of nearly two years in each place. And now to realize that it has been ten years here ... No wonder it seems unbelievable.

Now whether or not you think that spending only two years in each home before moving on to a new residence is 'good' or 'bad' in itself, there is one quite undeniable benefit to such a practice. Each time the moving truck arrives it becomes an occasion for a grand clean-up and clear-out. Important possessions go into the truck - everything else goes out to the garbage, or gets passed on to somebody else. Two years in a home simply isn't enough time to accumulate many boxes hidden away at the back of the closets, or parked up in the attic. The volume of possessions that builds up over the years is thus kept to a reasonable amount compared to that gathered by a person who has resided in one home for most of his life. People who do that can amass quite spectacular 'collections' over the years.

During our long stay here in this apartment, I never really gave this much thought. On occasion, such as when looking through the albums of photos from our early days here, I realized that the appearance of our place had certainly changed - it seemed so wide and airy in those old pictures, but as such changes take place very gradually, one doesn't really notice what is happening. It is only when some dramatic event like a move, or a huge 'spring-cleaning' disrupts our routines, that we become faced with the reality of the situation ... where did all this stuff come from?

And so it was with me this spring. Those of you reading these scribbles of mine over the past couple of years know something of the changes that have taken place to my family - the four of us moving here to Japan; being joined by two grandparents; grandfather passing away, and his wife leaving to another relative's home; my children's mother leaving for school in Canada, and then a couple of years later parting from our family permanently ... But through all these changes, this place still remained my home, and there was no major rearrangement of it. Whether there were six people living here, or four, or then three ... it made no difference. Here I sat, carving my woodblocks day after day. Unnoticed to me though, we were all this time building up a vast collection of ... of 'stuff'. One by one things came in the door, but nothing ever seemed to leave. A book for me, a toy for the girls, a new umbrella for their mother, a mattress for grandad, a new cooking pot, a bag of clothes being 'handed down', a few woodblocks ... on and on and on it went, for ten years. For ten long years ...

But this spring there was finally that major rearrangement. I don't really want to write much about it just yet, but as of this April I suddenly find myself living here alone. The girls have gone to Canada to live with their mother. Ten years ago four of us, then six of us, then four again, then three, and now ... and now, for all the foreseeable future, it will be just one. It is going to require quite some emotional adjustment to get used to this situation, but just as obviously, it is time for a very large clean-up. Ten years of accumulated possessions to be sorted through.

Now if you found yourself in this situation, what would you tackle first? Would you get into the kitchen and clean out all those unneeded stacks of plates, pots and pans, trimming it all down to just those things useful for one person? Or would you perhaps start with those bags of clothes stashed at the back of the closet, throwing out the useless stuff, and wrapping up the rest for 'hand-me-down' to friends' children? Or how about that closet full of baby toys and games ... What about the balcony, with those stacks of unwanted empty flower pots? The bathroom, with all those mysterious bottles of lotions and potions waiting for disposal? What would be your first 'target'?

My answer: none of the above. Once I felt ready to start work, I began with the most important place - the bookshelves! Now although we have always had bookshelves dotted here and there in the apartment, and indeed had built some right back at the beginning when we first moved in, I have never found most of them comfortable or useful. The shelves in the kids' room were full of their own books, magazines and games, while those in the 'dining room' held our fax and a pile of general junk. The shelves in my workroom held materials related to my printmaking work, and those in the kitchen of course were stacked with kitchen supplies and cookbooks. Whatever books I had managed to accumulate over these ten years were housed in that little room that served us as a storeroom, and which contained all the overflow from each of the other rooms - boxes of woodblock prints from my workshop, bags of clothes from the children's room, etc. The bookshelf was unreachable, and even if I could have 'browsed' comfortably along it, it would have made no difference, as the books in it were stacked three deep. It was such a chore to get in there and try to locate a particular book that I simply never did it. Out of sight, out of mind.

Restoring order to this chaos became priority number one. Into boxes for disposal 'later' went all the kids' books and other clutter from their shelves, and out came my long-hidden, and now very dusty, books. It took quite a while, setting aside the printmaking work for a couple of days, first getting out the woodworking tools to rearrange the shelves as I wanted them, and then organizing the books satisfactorily. When the job was done and my 'new' library was ready, I felt quite a warm satisfaction at again having books as part of my daily life. Of course, I don't 'use' those bookshelves every day, but just being able to see all those books there is important to me. They are all old friends; these books that had enough of an impact on me to prompt me to keep them after reading, instead of turning them in at the second-hand bookshop, as I have done with so many others. And thus one of those quiet pleasures of life, one which has been denied me for most of this past decade, has been restored: the pleasure of browsing along the bookshelves waiting to see which one will jump out into your hands, saying "Read me! Choose me! Me next!" Those clothes closets? The kitchen cabinets? Umm ... I'll get round to those a bit later ... I've got a bit of reading to catch up on first!

Seeing these books at last out in the open, and having them as part of my daily life again, is making me feel a bit restless about all those books I put in storage in Canada ten years ago when preparing for the move to Japan. There are a few thousand volumes waiting patiently for me over there, and during these years of living in this relatively small apartment with an active family it has been completely impossible to even consider having them brought over here. Now though ... But I think I'd better hold off before sending for them. After all, I'm supposed to be in the middle of a giant clear-out. I shouldn't be thinking of bringing more stuff in here ...

It's funny, but when I sat down to start this little piece this evening, it was simply with the intention of chatting about why I hang on to old books, even ones that I'll probably never read again. I didn't want to mention my family situation, I just wanted to talk about books. It's easier just to talk about a few old books ... a shelf or two of old friends ...

(April 1996)


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