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.