A Change of Scenery

Last night, probably because there was something much more pressing I should have been doing, I started rearranging books. I get this urge periodically, but I don't think it's necessarily symbolic of anything other than an ordinary human restlessness - "we are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper...our sense of purpose may be derailed by an unfortunate bedspread," as Alain de Botton writes, and our house is wallpapered mostly with books.

I started to think a change of scenery might be nice. I spend so much time in my upstairs study, looking down on the frozen garden in winter, the lawn overrun with elder in summer. But the last month has been a period of intense unproductivity, and maybe, I thought, there was an unfortunate bedspread in the room, derailing my sense of purpose (also, the chair downstairs is much more comfortable than the chair upstairs). So I started the shift to the downstairs study - another periodic compulsion of mine, and an obvious luxury of space. It takes me a while to move from one study to the other, although ostensibly my only tool is a laptop, because I have to arrange the space with great care: I need to make sure I have all the books I might want to refer to, the irrational little display of shells and pens, the candle I almost never light, the box of wax matches from Kenya with which to light the candle I almost never light.

Anyway, as I was arranging my most crucial books downstairs, I looked up, at this towering shelf, floor to ceiling, 9 stories high, and I was overcome with a fear that it would come crashing down on my head if I worked here. At first I thought the fear was arbitrary: I worry about everything from whether my teeth are stained to whether the world will end in a series of nuclear explosions, so why not this, too, plucked at random from the infinite list of possibilities? But it had infected my consciousness, and now I was imagining all kinds of gruesome scenarios: what if I did light that candle, and the shelf collapsed and the books went up in flames and the house burned down? Investigation seemed not just prudent but necessary for survival, so I climbed up on a stool.

The shelves themselves are just slabs of wood, resting on small protuberances which have been drilled into the wall, and my investigation revealed that the protuberances holding up the 7th shelf had come loose. There did not seem to be any immediate danger of anything collapsing, but I was nevertheless vindicated: I had averted disaster! I removed the books from the 7th shelf, set them out in stacks on the mantlepiece and, when they began to overflow even there, next to the fireplace. And now I am literally surrounded by books and only a little less afraid that they'll all come crashing down on me.