Boxes of Books

The first box was the easiest to fill. Anything could go in it. So went my books from Social Studies 10a, “Lyrical Ballads,” Bellamy’s “Looking Backward.” To fill in the empty space (unlike puzzles, packed boxes still have holes) I jigsawed in thumb tacks, extra tape rolls, foam mounting squares, mint green earplugs from CVS. In a Microsoft word document, yesterday, I typed “Box 1” so as to keep track of it all, and then bent the box' wings and taped them bowed.

I’m not sure yet what number box the mugs holding pens and pencils will go in. I don’t want the mugs to break, see, and I don’t want all the pens to spill out. What do I do with the stack of papers there, now to my right, like they have been all year? And the pirate hat?

Packing is a process of emptying a space that a few months ago I filled. An element of packing is maintaining a certain order of things: books as I read them, shoes and shoes together. “Box 2” holds some American novels; a guide to footnoting and endnoting in Chicago style; more books; “Paradise Lost.” “Box 3” contains books from a tutorial called “Freedom” which, problematically enough, I am interested in selling; paper clips; books about the Constitution; my high school copy of the “Iliad”; and from this last semester, “Ulysses.” The change that had accumulated in a mug from various purchases of sandwiches and coffee is now in a ziplock. The shelves in my room have more visible depth now that their contents are gone.

I read the pages of these books, now in boxes, with varying degrees of urgency and thoroughness, depending on the due date of the paper, or the due date of an article, and, sometimes, how sunny the day was. I missed much of the farming section in “Anna Karenina.” It can be said that I missed much of “Bleak House.” But others of these books I read slowly and with care. In the margin beside Dostoyevsky’s phrase “But there is a Being and He can forgive everything,” I wrote, “backed into ideological corner.” Elsewhere, I wrote “wow,” and circled the word, “forever.”

For social studies, my concentration, all seniors were made to write an “Intellectual Autobiography”—a 1,000-word explication of one’s journey through college. What course led to the next, what idea led one to care about X, why ultimately one ended up writing one’s thesis about Y. In other words: explain why one has the books on one’s shelf that one has. I insisted before writing the thing, in vague rebellion, that I did not have a linear narrative to tell. I started interested in China, I ended interested in George Eliot. Between, who knows. But somehow, when I actually wrote the thing, I realized that in sum, the books on my shelf did have some coherence, some unifying interest, in generosity and sympathy.

A while ago, I wrote an article for this paper about the Depository—a large facility roughly 30 miles from Harvard Yard that contained, as of 2010, 45 percent of Harvard’s books. It was so odd, I thought then, how the books there were shelved not with spines facing outward, grouped by subject or author, but rather ordered by size, aspects of the books’ materiality. The Depository is a storage facility. Then Assistant Director of the Depository Thomas E. Schneiter said of it: “It really is an industrial operation. Our product just happens to be books.” Now, here I am, doing the same: cramming books into boxes, like any other thing that needs to be moved, along with a DVD of “The Sound of Music” and a Lego farmer figurine.

After four years here, it is the things—the change, the books, three green highlighters, five unused spiraled notebooks—that remain and need to be boxed and moved. I do not know what relationship this stuff has with my experience or what bearing it will have on my memories. “Box 4” holds one towel, running spandex, various organizational sweatshirts, long-sleeved t-shirts, and socks. Are they themselves significant?

It is through packing that it has become evident that I am leaving. The empty shelves tell me, unequivocally, that I will be gone. Later today, I will paint over the blue stripes I added to my walls earlier this year. I will roll up my carpet. I will take out my trash and then put in the back of a car the things I intend to keep.

There is a certain arrogance to something that is often said of this college: that we learn more from each other than from our classes. There is of course something to this. I have learned much from my friends, my roommates especially. But I think as well, and not just because I spent yesterday lifting them, that the books mattered a great deal. Not how manifestly heavy they are, but what they say: something that requires the boxes be opened again to see.

Elyssa A. L. Spitzer ’12, a former Magazine chair, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.