Over the years I have collected so many books that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life.
Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community” in When I Was a Child I Read Books
I can’t say that I have ever thought deeply about why I keep acquiring books even though, like Robinson, I probably have more than I will manage to read especially since I keep borrowing books from the library too. Should the quantity of my books ever be mentioned, I generally make a flippant remark like, “they are my retirement savings.” Around the book blog world we like to gleefully call it an addiction we have no control over; we love books, we just can’t help ourselves.
Since earlier in the week when I first posted this quote I’ve been pondering off and on about what all my books mean to me. And when I type that out it sounds like a horrible high school essay title of the “What Happiness/Success/Love/etc, Means to Me.” I shall carry on nonetheless and you can all laugh at me if you so choose.
Not until I moved to Minnesota in 1994 did my book acquisitions begin to really take off. This is not to say that I never bought books, I did, but I was always limited by money or space, having only a bedroom in my parents’ house, a dorm room, or a small apartment and funds coming mostly from birthday and Christmas and whatever I could manage to scrimp and save. Moving to Minnesota meant a lower cost of living and the ability to save and it wasn’t long before Bookman and I bought a townhouse. Freed from the constraints of a one-bedroom apartment we started buying more books. It also helped that Bookman began working at Barnes and Noble. We moved into our current house about 13 years ago and have no intention of moving anytime soon. We have so far always managed to find more room for our growing number of books.
But do all those books mean anything? The thought of not having any books scares me. Each time in my life I’ve had to pack up all my books because I was moving I would become distinctly unhappy, short-tempered, very stressed. Upon moving into a new place, the first thing that got unpacked were the books and I’d immediately feel better, I was home. Which would mean that books must represent a sense of home and stability, comfort and safety for me. As long as I have books, everything will be alright.
At the same time that books mean home, my books also represent freedom and escape. Open a book and the every day world melts away. I can travel around the world, to the past and future, even into deepest space. And, I let go of myself and become someone else, an elf or a scientist, a horse or a Victorian lady, a boy or a villain. I was going to say all from the safety of my sofa, but while the sofa is safe, the reading is not. Like Jeanette Winterson, I believe that reading is dangerous because when I come back from my book-travels, I might see my world differently.
I used to believe that my books represented who I am and who I want to be, but I don’t believe that so much anymore. The books I have read and want to read don’t really tell you anything about me other than my reading tastes. Sure there are certain things you could figure out, I’m a feminist, a vegan, a gardener, etc, but that doesn’t tell you anything more than the broadest things. Yes, there are certain books I own that I am very attached to, that I have instilled with emotion and memories, but those books don’t tell you anything more about me other than I really like them. I think being able to let go of the idea that books reflect who I am has allowed me to read even more widely, to take more chances in my reading choices and to enjoy what I read even more because I’m not tied up with what the books say about me.
I do fully intend to read every book I buy eventually and here is probably where a bit of magical thinking enters the equation. Because I own so many books I have not read yet I can’t possibly die until I at least read most of them, right? The knowledge of all the unreads will keep me going. They are hope and optimism on a shelf.
And that, my friends, is what my books mean to me. Ask me again in ten years and they may have evolved a different meaning. But for now, this will do.
How about you? What do your books mean to you?