Monday, June 2, 2014

The Home for Abandoned Books

"Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million. books" Shirley Jackson Life Among the Savages

I have come to jokingly refer to our house as The Home for Abandoned Books. I will fully admit here that my husband and I have a problem. We cannot seem to  leave a library without books. You may say that that's the point of a library, but our problem is that we always leave having purchased more books than we have checked out. Since we are always stopping by to pick up a book we requested on Inter Library Loan and leaving with three  25-cent books from the discard rack, the books are starting to pile up around us.

Just the other day Brent called to say that he had stopped by the library and they were giving away a whole shelf of mid-century children's books and that now his backpack was extremely heavy. Yes, no one had checked out these books for years, but there they were with their tattered covers and beautiful woodcut illustrations. How could we leave them on the shelf?

Then there are the books we love; the ones it is almost painful to leave on the shelf even when we know we own them. Every time Brent has to go to New York, he visits the giant used book store The Strand. Each time he sees a copy of The 24 Days Before Christmas by Madeline L'Engle and it pains him to leave it on the shelf even though we own two copies of the book: one his own personal copy from childhood and one beautifully illustrated hardcover our friend Susannah bought us. At a library book sale the other day, I saw a copy of Understood Betsy and even though I own a nice hardcover purchased at another library book sale, I thought," Isn't there someone we know who needs this book?" So we end up with a stack of duplicates too. So many in fact that I was able to send my cousin two dozen books for a start-up library for her classroom.
Our affliction is not limited to books either. A few years ago we discovered that libraries were clearing out their books on tape and that by buying a cheap cassette player, we could have a full library of audiobooks for practically nothing. At the time, I didn't even own a cassette player, but I just couldn't leave Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Harriet the Spy there to be thrown away. I recently heard that a local library was giving away their books on tape, and when the librarian saw me, she helpfully rolled the whole cart over to the children's section and offered me free bags. "She didn't offer to just roll it out to your car?" Brent asked me when I got home.

We recently celebrated our eleventh anniversary by going to a library book sale without the children. It was glorious and since it was the last hour, it was fill a bag for $7.00. When two bookworms get married, there is a secondary event after the honeymoon: the merging of the bookshelves. At that point our shelves were mainly filled with books we had purchased for one class or another. We met our freshman year of college when we were next door neighbors and had three classes together, so there was a certain amount of overlap that required culling, but also a reorganizing of our lives and books: my Appalachian literature on one shelf and his collection of New England gardening and homesteading books right below. Other shelves merged completely: now we had just one fiction section, one memoir shelf whereas before we had two. As the years have passed our collection of books has shifted, grown and retracted with our interests; now it's children's books I collect and foodie and farming memoirs for Brent. We've both recently felt the need to have more books of poetry on the shelf. Of course, we now have a secondary book nook in our house for our four children. My daughter alone has a whole shelf of great works of pig literature that would never have existed if she hadn't been born.

 Every few years we have a great sifting. Whole shelves of books Brent didn't read in divinity school and ones that looked good on our shelves but we never really loved have been donated to Reader to Reader. We are starting to be more honest about what we have on our shelves. Because as any book-lover knows, you can tell a lot about a person from their bookshelves.

As long as there are libraries selling books for 25 cents, our house will be full of books with other people's names written in the covers and library bar codes on the spine. Brent says that he thinks of it as a hedge against the downfall of western civilization or maybe just the advent of the kindle. It is so easy for a digital file to vanish in an instant, but an old paper book can be passed down. It is at once a piece of the past and also full of  possibility. As long as real paper books are being discarded, we will take in the lost and wandering souls and give them a place in our lives and on our shelves.