Friday, May 1, 2009
I was born into a book family, and married into one, and have spent my life surrounded by books, thousands and thousands of them. We acquired them, we welcomed them into our family, we hoarded them. And we continue to do so to this very day.
My most important memories are connected to books--some of the first words I was able to decipher, as a very very little girl, were "Langland: Piers Plowman," for the book stood on a lower shelf in the front entryway, I can remember exactly where, and the pale blue color and smooth feel of the dust jacket, and I would find myself, in my aimless perigrinations through the house on a dull Sunday, face to face with it until suddenly one day the strange code came into focus.
When I was growing up, our most exciting times together as a family involved the acquisition of books. We would stop at stoop sales on weekends, and find treasures--old hardcover Babars, only-slightly-torn pop-up books, and most memorably our first Tintin--"Red Rackham's Treasure," a battered hardcover for a quarter. In the weeks after that magnificent coup, my dad would come home from work bearing more and more Tintins, until we had them all; and then he began with Asterix.
One afternoon, when I was an adolescent, my parents heard from their friends that someone in the neighborhood who owned a strange, musty, dark used book shop, housed in a basement nearby, was liquidating their poetry collection. We didn't ask for details, but ran, all four of us, to investigate, and my parents ended up purchasing all of it--with boxes and handtrucks, we hauled it home to the safe haven of our apartment--hundreds of books of poetry, we had to rearrange and rearrange our already overflowing library shelves to make room for them, but the feat was accomplished and the immeasurable treasure was ours for a song.
When I married Sarge, we each brought an extensive book collection to the deal. This was the single most significant change, for both of us, from single to married life, much more significant even than the merging of our bank accounts. In the beginning, we kept our books in separate bookshelves. I would go to Sarge's collection if I needed to check the Septuagint for something, or had a sudden craving for Heinlein, or The Art of War...Sarge would venture into mine for religion, fiction, poetry, and sociology. The first and most obvious, natural merge was our individual graphic novel collections. Tintin, Sandman, bandes dessines, came together in one bookshelf. It was a major step in our own marriage, and one that led ultimately, albeit many years later, to a full-fledged consolidation. Now, together, we own thousands of books, housed in shelves and more shelves in livingroom, bedroom and kitchen, but overflowing into every room of the house; indeed every last cranny that can be filled, is filled with books. And we feel finally, truly, married now that we can say "our books."
When we made our most recent move, we had to warn the moving gents ahead of time that we had a lot of books. "How many? Ten boxes? Twenty?" asked the foreman. I was actually embarrassed and a little afraid to tell him, lest they back out of the moving deal...
Books were the first thing out of the boxes in our new place, before clothes, before plates and forks. It was too strange, too lonely without them, the shelves echoing, empty...
When my father died, he left us very little in the way of, well, anything of worth...but his books. His apartment was, of course, a library. When the will had been probated, we came into a huge collection of art books, a fourth complete set of Tintins, a second complete set of Patrick O'Brian...now adopted into my mother's, my sister's, and my own library.
Just recently Hedgehog came to me after an unusually quiet hour spent alone in her room. "Mama!" she announced, standing before me with an excitement in her eyes that I recognized. "Mama. I was counting my books. I stopped at 500."
All this is to say. There are people who love to read, and there are people who collect books, and there are people who read and collect. Then there are those who amass. We are of that last, peculiar, breed. We live with books, we need books, we look at our shelves with proprietary pride, we rearrange them, we take them out to find a passage, to reread, just to look at the familiar covers, to remember our loved ones, to quote aloud to one another. It is the look, the feel, the coziness, not just what they contain, but the artifacts themselves.
People will say, "Thousands of books! It's too dusty, it's cluttered to the eye. Cull them, cull them!" Dust is dust, there will always be dust. And would I cull my own family, my best beloveds?