I like to tell stories about how I read voraciously as a child. Even when I put down my current book to eat breakfast or lunch, I would find myself searching out the words on the cereal box or the mayonnaise jar. I read everywhere. All the time. I couldn’t stop. It was a torture to me that I was subject to motion sickness during the long car trips my family made between Illinois and Canada and I was forced to read signs and mile markers and license plates and bumper stickers instead of books.
I’m grown up now (at least in years) and my addiction has grown to monumental proportions. It isn’t just reading that marks my “illness” now, but the thousands of physical books that I own. You see, I’m not just one of those crazed readers who consumes the NY Times Bestseller list in as few bites as possible or who belongs to some snooty book club who dissects literary one-hit wonders to the point of college literature class torture. I do, indeed, read, and I sometimes I even read e-books– (gasp!). But the book that earns a permanent spot on my shelf must have one exceptional quality that most new books lack.
I must want to re-read it.
Not immediately. Not for a special purpose. Not necessarily for research or inspiration—but simply because the writing drew me in. It took me to someplace new. The words made me feel and care and escape. Perhaps the writing wasn’t perfect, but there was something…some intangible magic that was called to life as I read, like a Pagemaster-y Inkheart-ish enchantment. I am forever searching for the story that has the capacity to ensorcell me again and again and again.
What books are on my shelf? So many, my friends, so, so many. Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Lois Lowry, Christian Jacq, Garth Nix, Victoria Holt, Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Collins, Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Philippa Gregory, DuMaurier, Irving, Bronte, Stoker, George R.R. Martin (damn him!), Thackeray…the list goes on and on and on…new authors, old authors, young authors, dead authors.
And, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that it isn’t just fictional stories that can transport my spirit, but poetry, nonfiction, history, and even just fantastic illustrations. I own an extensive collection of Elizabethan history books including antique first edition biographies of Elizabeth I. And I’ve become a collector of fairy tale books of all kinds—particularly old volumes with illustrations from the so-called “Golden Age”—Arthur Rackham, Caldecott, Greenaway, and Dulac are among my favorites (I recently acquired a copy of the Hungarian “Csoda Album” illustrated by LEFLER AND URBAN…so amazingly beautiful, sigh…).
From The Csoda Album, illus. Lefler and Urban, 1911
I’ve also become enamored with Edward Gorey’s offbeat art and stories. And studies of world mythologies (Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces) and Victorian cemeteries and asylums have all earned a place in my personal library, as well as books on the art and craft of writing and the history of language.
I have over 2000 books on the shelves around me as I sit at my desk writing. All of these books mean something to me. I can pull any book off the shelf and know that it is a worthy companion. The physicality of the book is part of its relationship to me. It’s a little like the difference between hugging someone in person and sending them a little “*hugs*” message in an email. I don’t read or collect books in the way that some individuals “friend” others over social media. I’m not just gathering the largest pile possible or reading to keep up with pop culture. I have read the words, pondered and processed and daydreamed about the content, closed and opened the cover, reveling in the weight and thickness/thinness of the pages, and followed the trail of thought to the author’s last word or the artist’s brush to the final colorful stroke of expression.
I recently packed up my library and moved to a new house in a new state hundreds of miles away. Books are heavy, friends, very heavy. And packing and then unpacking and reorganizing my cherished collection in a new, smaller space has been challenging. After I mentioned this to someone in my extended family she asked why I just don’t buy electronic copies of my books.
I tried to explain but she shook her head, obviously not understanding. I think she felt sorry for poor book-addicted me–as so many other, practically-minded people do.
And we feel sorry for them, don’t we?