Monday, July 30, 2012

The kind of person who

It's recently struck me that I'm no longer trying to be "the kind of person who" does this or does that: the kind of person who lives in a house full of books; the kind of person who entertains on vintage china; the kind of person who knows Latin; the kind of person who always wears lipstick; the kind of person who lives in Manhattan; the kind of person who gets invited to give talks; the kind of person who makes complicated cocktails; the kind of person who knows stuff about stuff.

Now I either do or am or have those things--or I don't. But the things themselves don't signify in the way they used to: I still like mostly the same things and still have mostly the same tastes and the same interests as I did in my mid-twenties. But when I was in my twenties, it seemed to matter terribly much that I be the kind of person who owned demitasse spoons, and wrote letters on distinctive stationery; the kind of person who kept up on live theatre and museum exhibits; the kind of person who threw good parties. A friend once told me, affectionately, that my life was "governed by imperatives"--by which she meant not that I was driven or ambitious or had a life plan all mapped out (I didn't then and I don't now), but rather that I had a decisive sense of how I should live in the world.

Maybe lots of people are like that in their twenties, and maybe it's normal to become less zealous about identity-construction when one already has one: a core self that can't be materially altered by the presence or absence of a few external signs or behaviors. But it still feels like a remarkable change.

Last summer I went out for drinks with a woman I'd become friends with years ago, when we were both recent college grads in a fiction-writing class run through the NYU extension program. We were close for a number of years, then only loosely in touch, but we reconnected because her parents now live in the same city where Cosimo teaches. I was in the midst of moving households at the time, and I happened to mention how thrilled I was to have been able to weed out 50 whole books from my collection for donation or resale--and added that I'd been aiming for 100, but oh well.

My friend said, emphatically, "I could never get rid of my books!"

Well, I said, it was hard, but I've got so many books, you know? And I want my library to be functional. These were titles I knew I'd never read, so better to get rid of them so there's space for the good stuff, right?

She shook her head, insisting that she would never do it, because her books were so important, so beloved, and so central to her self-identity.

And I thought, huh. I used to feel that way, but I don't any more. I went through a phase right after college where I not only read voraciously, but bought every book I read. And if it was available, I always bought the hardcover. I wanted a goddamn wall of books in my living room, and a handsome wall at that.

These days I'd still much rather own a book than check it out from the library, and my collection grows with every passing year; it gives me pleasure even beyond its practical value. But I don't need to hold on to every book I've ever bought, or display them all publicly, to prove the diversity of my taste, or my literary-intellectual bona fides, or whatever. I assume people know I read a lot.

Similarly, I still derive enormous satisfaction from all the pretty objets in my life and I like nothing better than dressing up--but I can damn well spend an afternoon running errands in track pants with unwashed hair and no makeup.

Frankly, I experience this as a great relief. It's nice not to feel that every external thing matters so very much, or that the person I'm trying to be will collapse without vigilant attention.

So it seems odd to me to meet people my own age who lead with the identity-construction, who are obsessed with their membership in and embodiment of a particular group (those who trot out all the evidence of their liberal bohemianism, or their New Yorkiness, or who talk endlessly and not-really-self-deprecatingly about how "stereotypically gay" or "obnoxiously Ivy League" they are). Isn't it tiresome to work that hard and care that much? I think.

But I guess I shouldn't talk. I'm the one with the silver ice-bucket and the 1937 Bell telephone.


Withywindle said...

Kingsley Amis has a phrase in Lucky Jim, "the false maturity of your twenties," or something like that. I felt blessed to have read that phrase before I got too far into my twenties.

Not that it prevented me from buying a lot of books.

Flavia said...


That's a nice way of putting it; didn't remember the line, so thanks! (At a similar age, I felt grateful to Waugh's Vile Bodies for the observation that the two twentysomething lead characters "suffered from being sophisticated about sex without being at all widely experienced"--which neatly explained to me so many people I knew.)

Comrade Physioprof said...

Very entertaining post! My attitude has evolved to the point that now all I really care about is being "the kind of person who enhances the lives of others".

Bardiac said...

Comrade Physioprof is brilliant!

I think there's a point, if you're lucky, where you realize you're more or less comfortable in your skin. And if you're lucky, the things that matter will matter in the long run, and you don't need to worry too much about the rest.

Flavia said...

Oh CPP! Way to show the rest of us up. I mean, damn.

Andrew Stevens said...

I grew up in a house full of books. My older brother was an obsessive collector and books were his biggest collection. He worked part time at a book store and he took his pay in books. Fortunately, his example freed me from that sort of obsession and I would always give away whatever books I had acquired when I moved - there was always a public library within a few miles, after all. I must say that other people's opinions of how many or what books I owned never factored into it. (Just because I don't think it ever occurred to me that anyone would notice or care. And, indeed, I don't think anyone ever did.)

phd me said...

Oh, how true! I'm not exactly pleased with all the results of getting older (oh metabolism, why have you deserted me?) but being more comfortable with "me" is definitely a perk. It's rather nice to go to the grocery store in my pj pants, sans lipstick, after donating books to the library!