Who you are is what you can’t get rid of
This essay, now updated and rewritten, first appeared as my June, 2020 entry for the Spirit of the Senses website.
When most of us think about our “selfness,” if we ever do, we most likely think of something interior — a psychic identity. That self is an accretion, a slow buildup of experience that memory binds into a continuous story.
But we are not purely interior beings. We live in a physical world and our selves expand into every corner of our existence. My selfness is where and how I live, who I surround myself with, the items I buy at the grocery store, whether I wash and polish my car, or leave it to the elements. All me.
I finished college 50 years ago, and I have changed a great deal in that half-century, and I don’t just mean the issue of losing hair on the top of my head and gaining it in my ears.
But much has remained the same. And what has remained is what I take as the essence of my self, who I am. For most writers who tackle the subject, the self is defined primarily by memory: The continuous thread of remembering from our earliest recollection to the moment an instant before this. This continuity is our self. It is what we have held onto. It remains separate from what others believe about us or their perception of our who-ness.
There is something very insubstantial about this thread of memory. After all, the past doesn’t exist; it is a reconstruction, not an actuality. And so, for many thinkers, the self is also a construction — a back-construction. We are reminded of this when we meet old friends and talk about “remember when,” and discover that our friend’s remembering is different from our own, or that they remember things we have long forgotten.
Surely the self is more than our own cogito ergo sum, recalled in memory. It is also our behavior, the sense we make of the world and how it is constructed and how it functions. It is not simply our past, but our expectations of a future. And there should be some outward manifestation of our selfness, not solely the interior rattling around of snippets of memory, strung together like a necklace of remembered events. Self is continuity.
I began to think of such things when I woke one morning and sat on the side of the bed, facing the bookshelf on the wall in front of me. I happened to spot the slim volume of The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyard, an ancient paperback that I had in college. It is a book I’ve owned for more than 50 years. It is where I first encountered the idea of the “Great Chain of Being.”
Then, I gazed over the shelves to discover if there were other books I’d owned that long, and saw Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I attempted to cook from during my first marriage, when I was still in college. Are those two books as much a part of my selfness as the memories of the old school or the failed marriage?
As I wandered through the house later that day, I pored over the many bookshelves to seek the books I’ve owned the longest, through divorces and break-ups, through four transcontinental relocations, through at least a dozen homes I have rented in five different cities. Nine cities, if you count homes from before college, which I didn’t rent, but lived with parents.
The oldest book I have owned continuously is my great-grandmother’s Bible, which was given to me when I was four years old. I also have my grandmother’s Bible, in Norwegian, and the Bible my parents gave to me when I was a boy, with my name embossed on the cover in gold. I am not religious and don’t believe any of the content scribed therein, but I also have to recognize that the culture that nurtured me is one founded on the stories and strictures bound in that book, and more particularly, in the King James version, which I grew up on and which has shaped the tone of the English language for 400 years.
Surely, completely divorced from doctrine, the KJV is a deeply embedded part of who I am. In this sense, my self extends well back beyond when I was born. Roots are deep.
The second oldest book is one my grandmother gave me on my eighth birthday, a giant-format Life magazine book called The World We Live In. It was a counterbalance to the Holy Writ, in that it was a natural history of the world and gave me science. At that age, I was nuts about dinosaurs (as many young boys are in the third grade), and The World We Live In had lots of pictures of my Jurassic and Cretaceous favorites. It also explored the depths of the oceans, the mechanisms of the weather, the animals of the forest, the planets of the solar system, and a countering version of the creation of the world, full of volcanoes and bombarding meteorites. I loved that book. I still love it. It is on the shelf as a holy-of-holies (and yes, I get the irony).
Both the Bible and The World We Live In are solid, tangible bits of my selfness that I can touch and recognize myself in, as much as I recognize myself in the mirror.
I pulled down Tillyard from the shelf, and gathered up the several Bibles and began a pile by my desk, and went through the bookshelves finding the many books that have defined me and that I kept through all the disruption that life throws at us, with the growing realization that these books are me. They are internalized and now their physical existence is an extension of my selfness into the world.
The pile beside my desk slowly turned into a wall, one stack next to another, building up a brick-foundation of me-ness. They were cells of my psyche very like the cells of my body, making up a whole. And they began to show a pattern that I had not previously noticed. The books I’ve held on to for at least 50 years sketched a me that I knew in my bone.
I’ve kept books from 40 years ago, from 30, from 20. I’ve got books that define me as I am at 75 years old that I have bought in the past month. But the continuity of them is a metaphor for the continuity of my self.
When I was just out of college, a neighbor of my parents died and left my a pile of old books, printed in the 18th and early 19th century. There are three volumes of the poetry of William Cowper, a History of Redemption by Jonathan Edwards, a fat volume with tiny print collecting the Addison and Steele Spectators, and a single volume of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature. I have Volume IV of five volumes, which contains descriptions and illustrations of birds, fishes and “Frogs, Lizards, and Serpents.”
And while my great-grandmother’s Bible gives me a sense of roots running four generations deep, these older books take those roots deeper into the culture that made me. I see myself not as a single mind born in 1948, but as part of a longer-running continuity back in time. A reminder that any single generation is simply a moment in a process: seed, sprout, plant, flower, fruit, seed. Over and over. My self grew from my mother’s womb and she from her mother’s and so on, back to a mythical primordial Eve. And my psyche grew from all the books I’ve read, and all the books that have shaped the culture that produced those books. It is a nurturance that disappears in the far distant past, like railroad tracks narrowing to a point on the horizon.
I am not here making an argument for nurture vs. nature. I am not simply the sum of the books I’ve read. Rather, the books I’ve read that have remained with me — and there are many times more that have not stuck with the same tenacity — have not only nurtured me, but are the mirror of who I was born, my inner psyche, who I AM. They are the outward manifestation of the inward being.
I have books left over from college, such as my Chaucer and my Shelley, my Coleridge and my Blake.
I have the poetry I was drawn to when first discovering its linguistic and cultural power, such as all the Pound I gobbled up.
There are the two volumes of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, edited by Artur Schnabel. I could never be without them. I read scores for pleasure just as I read words. I still have piles of Kalmus and Eulenburg miniature scores that I have used over the years to study music more minutely than ears alone can permit.
Books that have turned the twig to incline the tree stay with me, such as Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, or the Daybooks of photographer Edward Weston, or The Graphic Art of the 18th Century, by Jean Adhémar.
I still have the Robert Graves two-volume Greek Myths that I had when taking a Classics course my freshman year, and the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Milton that I took with my in my backpack when I tried to hike all of the Appalachian Trail (“tried” is the operative word), and the photographic paperback version of the Sierra Club book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.
My many Peterson Guides and wildflower books have only multiplied, but the basics have been with me for at least five decades.
The Thurber Carnival I still have was actually my mother’s book that I took from home when I went off to school. The catalog from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is now browned out and tattered and the Hokusai manga is another holy of holies.
All these have stuck to me like glue all through a life’s vicissitudes, many with ragged and torn covers, as I have myself in a body worn and torn by creeping age.
I could name many more, but you get the idea. And it is undoubtedly the same for all of us. For you, it many not be books; it might be a shirt or blouse you have kept, or maybe a blanket that comforted you when you were an infant, or your first car. These are the outward signs of an inner truth. The you who is not separate from the world, but embedded in it, connected to it, born from it and in some way, its singular manifestation.
Self is what you can’t get rid of.
NB: The books illustrated are all some of them I’ve lugged with me for at least 50 years; anyone who knows me would recognize me in them.
Click on any image to enlarge.