Like many new couples, my husband and I were pretty excited about living together. We were excited to share furniture and art, tableware and bed linens. We were even excited to open joint banking and retirement accounts.
But he hesitated when it came to books. “You want to put Jennifer Egan between Dostoevsky and Faulkner?” he protested.
I’m a first-generation college graduate (University of Minnesota, 1998). After entering the workforce, I spent 10 years numbing myself to office life by bingeing on contemporary literature. I kept a big, ugly stockpile of coffee-stained paperbacks in my old Uptown apartment: Raymond Carver, Wendell Berry, a yellowed copy of Jonathan Franzen’s “How to Be Alone” bought on the cheap from Magers & Quinn. There was even an old edition of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” complete with marginalia from 1998.
As for my husband, he went to a fancy East Coast music conservatory. Fluent in three languages, he filled his downtown condo with hardcovers by Dos Passos and Thomas Mann, plus thick biographies on composers from Beethoven to Bernstein. He fancied himself a collector, too, splurging on carefully crafted editions from a boutique London publisher.
“Wanna come see my letterpress Shakespeare?” he asked on our second date.
You bet I did.
Once we were living together, I felt merging books was a matter of principle. Did we really want to segregate our collections, with my dog-eared Marilynne Robinson hiding in the bedroom while his pristine James Joyce paraded in the living room? He thought yes, at least initially.
I argued against it. I hadn’t realized how many couples — indeed, most of our partnered friends — maintained strictly separate stacks through years and decades.
In the end, combining books proved a tidier way to organize the Minneapolis condo we bought together. Fiction was shelved in the living room and alphabetized by author: McCarthy, Melville, Morrison. Poetry and memoirs went to the dining room, with biographies in the second bedroom and Ayn Rand shoved to the back of a utility closet.
Seven years later, colorful bookshelves are perfect metaphors for our relationship: Vastly different tastes, practically polar-opposite educational and family backgrounds, brought together by sheer luck and compatibility. Oh, and a shared love for reading.
And besides, blending books helped us discover unknown commonalities. We found our collections overlapped on Italo Calvino and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The birth of our daughter in 2012 meant cramming our bookshelves with more titles. My husband and his family supply her with classics: “Robin Hood,” “Rumpelstiltskin.” I like reading to her from chapter books by E.B. White and Kate DiCamillo.
Our daughter, of course, has her own preferences. She currently favors “5-Minute Princess Stories.”
I’m afraid the family library has grown unwieldy — it’s so big it’s fallen into disarray. Our place has become scattered with stray Dr. Seuss and Laura Ingalls Wilder. New releases are haphazardly piled atop our neatly organized collection. Nightstands tower with stories that a sleep-deprived parent only aspires to read.
There’s still something beautiful, something harmonious about that shared mess of books.
Christy DeSmith is a Star Tribune features editor. Laurie Hertzel is on vacation.