The Weight of Knowledge: On Moving Books

March 25, 2015 | 5 books mentioned 9 4 min read



“Yes, sir, 45 boxes over the original moving estimate.”

“How much is that going to cost?”

“Well, the revised estimate adds another 1,000 pounds, so $450.”


“But that’s just a weight estimate. It could be a lot less depending on what’s in them. They could be filled with pillows for instance. What is in them?”

“Not pillows.”

Many were filled with books, hundreds of them. And if the mover was to believed, they weighed about half a ton: the approximate weight of my knowledge.

I had packed all of the books into two types of freely acquired boxes: those labeled “Adult Brief for Incontinence (Moderate Absorbency),” which my wife brought home from a hospital; and a colorful array picked up at our local liquor store, everything from Ciroc Red Berry to Kinky Blue Liqueur, a versatile concoction which doubles as an aphrodisiac and a window cleaner.

I thought about packing thematically, sorting my volumes by intoxicant. The Russians would go with the vodkas, the Irish with the whiskeys, Germans with the beers, the French with the cognacs, and those few authors whom I knew personally, along with William Faulkner, with the beloved bourbons.

It would be trickier to decide whom to put in the adult diaper boxes. Definitely the Victorians, fussy as they are, but also those darkly comic authors who would appreciate their absurd fate — Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Philip Roth. I’d toss Jonathan Franzen in too, just for fun.

In the end, laziness prevailed and I freely mixed nationalities and genres in whatever booze or diaper box had room. Looking at the stacked assortment waiting to be hauled north, I wondered how I had backslid so spectacularly.

Before my last big move, from California to North Carolina about five years ago, I had unloaded most of my book-hoard — I prefer this Old English construction to “library” or “collection,” both of which don’t quite capture the thrilling chaos of that word-treasure spread over my shelves, coffee tables, floors, bathrooms, and car.

coverLined up for inspection as I was deciding which volumes to sell, the books stood tall, proudly baring their spines even as their pages must have trembled. My decisions were swift and pitiless; one must be heartless to enter an era of biblio-austerity. But I take heart that of all the books I eventually sold back then, I can remember, and thus regret, only one: C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. For a person who loved books, I was actually relieved to have unburdened myself of them.

After the purge, my book-hoard was whittled down to a few boxes to be shipped via media mail.

“Now to get the media mail rate there can only be books in here,” explained the suspicious postal clerk as she watched me hoist the boxes onto the counter.

“I understand.”

“If we open it up and find even a toothbrush, we’ll charge you the full rate.”

(Had she divined my scheme to defraud the post office by cheaply shipping dental supplies, or was she bluffing?)

“Got it,” I replied, despite the realization that I had actually thrown a non-media mail object in with my Norton anthologies — not a toothbrush but an armless Hideki Matsui bobblehead doll. (It made it through undetected.)

Those several dozen books transported from the West Coast multiplied over the years to fill 45 some-odd boxes, proving that the greatest fiction is that book lovers can reform.

coverI had tried to downsize before this latest move as well. Sure, I granted a reprieve to all my old favorites and recently received Christmas gifts, as well as those books I hadn’t yet cracked open and had no immediate plans to. As recounted by Walter Benjamin, Anatole France was once asked whether he had read all the books in his library. He responded, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” No indeed, and I won’t take my illustrated copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey out of its cover until I’m good and ready.

covercovercoverBut many books did go into the “sell pile.” First were Finding the Right Words, 101 Ways to Say Thank You and Great Letters for Every Occasion, which my college roommate had sent me as a joke after I admitted that I enjoyed penning “Thank You” notes. Next in were a few Peter Carey paperbacks, John Banville’s Benjamin Black mysteries and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made the cut five years ago, but not this time, and plenty more. On a roll, I even tried to throw in my wife’s pristine and eminently resalable copy of Wild — twice. She made it clear that if it happened again, Stevenson’s donkey might wander off as well.

I took the carful to a used book store, where the clerk instructed me to wait as he sorted the books into two piles — one he wouldn’t buy and the other he’d buy for a pittance. For a bibliophile, this period is especially dangerous, akin to an alcoholic trying to dry out in a Kinky Blue Liqueur distillery. If you must browse to pass the time, I recommend confining yourself to the least tempting section, for me “Spirituality” or “Business.” Then plug your ears when the clerk offers you a figure for store credit, which can be twice as high as the cash offer. Always take the cash.

The most desirable stuff having been picked clean, I went to another store in the area, selling some of my remaining wares to a less discriminating buyer for $24 in trade. (I know what I just said, but what’s one more hardcover?)

coverI still had a box of unwanted books left, including a copy of David Copperfield with increasingly embarrassing marginalia from the times I had read it in high school, college, and graduate school; some tattered mysteries; a comedic romance with a moose on the cover; Anatomy flashcards; and those three indispensable treatises on writing the perfect “Thank You” note. Over the next couple days I distributed these among a local coffee shop, the library donation bin, and my apartment complex clubhouse, disposing of the dismembered corpus of rejected texts so as to leave no trace of its owner.

However, as the moving estimate made clear, I hadn’t really made a dent. And thus, here I am in a new home, resolving once more to reform my book-hoarding ways. Unlikely, especially with Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks, and Capitol Hill Books nearby. Luckily, my movers made my task a little easier. As if sensing that I was a recidivist, they took it upon themselves to smash one of my bookshelves to pieces in transit. Message received.

They also blithely informed me that they had broken my writing desk as well, which I chose to take as a sign of their carelessness rather than a pointed criticism of my work.

The books, all 45 boxes of them, naturally survived the move unscathed.

Image Credit: pixshark.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at