Scholars have a slogan: Three moves equal one fire. They mean that the amount of material — books, papers, belongings of all sorts — lost in moving from one home to another is so inevitable and immense that with each trio of jumps, one sheds forever the equivalent mass of what one might be forced to abandon in a tragic conflagration. That’s how perilous and unsettling a move can be.
But move we do. The average American moves almost a dozen times in her or his lifetime, Louise DeSalvo reminds us in her new book, On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Homes, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again. Every year, one in four of us changes address. It’s a wonder the highways aren’t crumbling beneath the weight of all those overloaded moving vans.
Sometimes the moves are involuntary, as has been the case with appalling frequency during the home mortgage crisis that continues to threaten far too many American families. Sometimes the moves are voluntary, prompted by a new job, a new relationship, a chance at a fresh start. Either way, though, moving is momentous.
This familiar ritual is the springboard for DeSalvo’s extended essay, which is a fine example of the hybrid genre that blends memoir, reportage, self-help tips and either literary criticism or political analysis.
With this form of writing, you get your recommended daily allowance of facts and figures, but the dish is flavored with personal reminiscence. And the whole thing is geared not toward some amorphous, feel-good “sharing”, but the attempt to make a serious cultural point. DeSalvo does a fine job as long as she sticks with literary criticism. Her catalog of well-known authors — Virginia Woolf, Stephen King, Percy Shelley — and how they felt about moving is valuable, enlivened as it is by relevant quotations from their work.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that DeSalvo knows her way around Woolf’s world; DeSalvo’s excellent 1989 book, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work was among the first to give proper weight to the grotesque and prolonged sexual abuse Woolf suffered at the hands of her uncles.
The rest of On Moving, however, is pleasant but undistinguished. DeSalvo’s book was prompted, she tells us, by her own recent move after more than three decades in the same house, and while the change was challenging, she fails to come up with any special insights about moving.
Too often, she sounds a bit like a warmed-over Dr. Phil, offering platitudes about home selection: “To know what to search for, we need to learn what we need in a home and also what truly gives us pleasure rather than imagine what we think will give us pleasure.” Really?
Yet, just when one is becoming frustrated with DeSalvo’s rather pedestrian advice, she comes up with something marvelous. “I learned,” she writes, “that asking a family member to relate their moving history unleashes a stream of remembrances.”
What a beautiful suggestion: telling the story of a life through the homes in which one has lived. Maybe On Moving will inspire people to ask parents and grandparents about where they lived, and for how long, and what those places meant to them. Such stories are bound to be — in an entirely different sense of the word — moving.