If I had set up a time-lapse camera that captured my actions at a consistant interval, starting at the beginning of the summer and ending later this month, I think most of the pictures would show me either packing or unpacking some percentage of my possessions.  It’s been a pretty helpful experience for a woman in her early twenties: I now know exactly what I own, where I have surpluses, and can not only answer the question, “What three things would you grab in the event of a fire in your house?” but also, “What is the most efficient, fire-safe route by which to retrieve each of those things?”

My mom helped me a lot with all of these packing and unpacking adventures, and in so doing, found several apt occasions to point out, “Mary, I think you should maybe work on trying to be more tidy.”  Ask any of my family or previous roommates; I am a hot mess ninety-three percent of the time.  I have always had one of those bedrooms where it’s a miracle if you can see the floor, and even some of my closest friends growing up couldn’t have guessed what color the carpet was.

But the fact of the matter is that when I was younger, the state of my bedroom caused me to think I had two brains.  Not like, a left brain and a right brain, and not like a conscious and subconscious, but like there were actually two separate thinking engines stuffed in my head that took turns controlling me.  And, while I have learned beyond the shadow of a biological doubt that this is not the case, I still wonder if there isn’t some truth in that theory.

As I moved into my new apartment in Pittsburgh, I worked hard to make sure every article of clothing found its permanent home and every piece of kitchenware found a comfortable place to settle in.  This is a process I hate—I’d much rather just throw things in categorized piles and sort of sift through them whenever I needed something—but I forced myself to do it anyway because I wanted to get my apartment off to a good start.  And I wanted to avoid getting to the point where I forgot the color of the carpet.

Then I unpacked my books (…all thirteen boxes).  I took them all out of their storage and placed them in semi-straight piles around one marginally empty room where I figured the bookcases would go.  Now, if my book-organizing brain were the same as my other-stuff-organizing brain, I probably would have just started putting them into bookcases right away, and maybe begrudgingly figured out a basic system of alphabetization to keep up appearances of respectability.  But lo, I sat down on that floor and spent several hours over the course of the next couple of days updating my extensive Excel spreadsheet and my LibraryThing account, and then doing what I consider complicated math to estimate how many books would fit in each of my bookcases.  I did not have to coerce myself using ice-cream bribes to make this organization happen, nor did I ever really tire of it.  In fact, I ended up filling, emptying, moving, refilling, re-emptying, re-moving, and re-filling one of my bigger bookcases in the process of all of this settling in, and I did so without hesitation.  I just knew it “needed” to be done, so I did it.

How can a person as unorganized and untidy as I am—when my desk becomes too cluttered, I subconsciously decide I’ve always preferred working on the couch anyway—simultaneously be so anal retentive about how to arrange books?  The question becomes even more baffling when you realize that I go looking for books significantly less frequently than I go looking for those t-shirts and plastic cups, so it makes more sense to keep the other things organized.

I still think the only real answer is my original two-brain theory.  Or maybe my regular self—the one that leaves papers and clothes on top of her bed and then sleeps on the couch—takes a potion at night that turns her into a low-budget librarian who can’t feed herself but knows the Library of Congress call number for Russian literature off the top of her head.  In either case, I’m sure my mom would appreciate it if one of my personalities created a spreadsheet for the duffle bag I pack whenever I come to visit, if only so that I wouldn’t leave all of its contents strewn about on the floor of what is now my parents’ guest room.


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    Oooh, I agree, there’s some different kind of gear that kicks in whenever I deal with books. (Though, at the moment, mine are all arranged by color, so maybe I’m not so meticulous after all.)

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    You must read Anne Fadiman’s “Marrying Libraries,” an essay found in her marvelous collection Ex Libris.


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