At a recent book signing, I met a couple who live in a four-room apartment with 8,000 books.
I cannot tell you how deeply I envy them. Our home is bigger than theirs, and we don’t have 8,000 books. I’ll bet we don’t have more than 3,000. But it’s not from lack of trying -- or buying, I should say. I can’t go into a bookstore without wanting to own every volume in it. What in this world is more wondrous, magical, intriguing, alluring than a book? An entire world contained between two covers!
It’s not the content alone that I love. I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands, I admire a sturdy spine, I appreciate an attractive cover and an elegant design. I’m a type junky and always check to see whether the book includes a note about the type. I’m disappointed when I don’t find that information. (My favorite typeface, at least for the moment, is Sabon, which is used in Stephen Booth’s British editions.)
Once I own a book, I never want to let it go. When we moved, about 15 years ago, from one Washington, DC suburb to another, we decided it was a good time to thin our book collection. We went through them all and filled box after box to donate to the Arlington County Central Library’s used book room. As soon as they were gone, I began to suffer the most agonizing remorse. How could I have them go? How could I live without them? For a long time after we moved to the county next door, I made regular trips to the Arlington Library, where -- yes -- I gradually bought back a fair number of the books we had donated. They’re mine. They belong at home with me, not with strangers.
I’m constantly adding new ones, but that doesn’t mean I’ll dump the old ones to make room. We have a Modern Library edition of The Grapes of Wrath with a $1.65 price on the cover. We have one of the early editions of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I consider the greatest American novel ever written. We have a 1910 edition of David Balfour by Robert Louis Stevenson and a copy of Middlemarch that is so old the pages have turned dark brown and I'm almost afraid to handle it.
I’ll admit that I never look inside most books after I’ve read them. I just like to see them on the shelf. A few, though, call me back again and again. Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass still enthrall me after many readings, and make me homesick for a romantic, idealized East Africa that I’ve never seen and which, in truth, probably never existed. It doesn’t have to be real; I can go there anytime I want to by opening a book. I also reread passages from Thomas H. Cook’s psychological suspense novels when I feel as if I’ve forgotten how to write (a dismayingly frequent occurrence). Cook shows me the way. Dinesen’s memoirs, plus To Kill a Mockingbird and one or two of Cook’s novels, are the books I never want to be without.
Occasionally I get the notion that I should reduce the glut of books in our house. But how to do it with minimal trauma? I could try the method I once heard Donna Andrews describe. She has plastic bins in her garage where she places books she’s decided to give away. This gets them out of the house proper without the agony of a sudden, final parting. They’re still there in the garage if she changes her mind. When she’s used to the idea of parting with them, they’re finally donated. Yes, I could try this approach. But I know myself too well. Regardless of where I donated books, if they remained accessible to me I might try to get them back before long, even if I had to pay for them.
But enough about my passion for books. Let’s talk about yours.
How many books do you own?
How many have you bought in the last year?
What is the oldest book you own?
What is the one book you will never part with?
Which book do you reread (in part or in full) most often?
How many books do you own but have never read?
How many books do you give away in an average year?
Do you ask friends and family to buy you books as gifts? Do they -- or do they insist on giving you “something more personal”? (And don’t you just hate that?)