"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Friday, September 30, 2011

In Praise of Libraries

This weekend is the annual Lincoln City Libraries book sale. Anyone who's been in my vicinity in the last couple of days has heard me go on and on about it. I love libraries, public or private. I think they're among the world's greatest ideas. (So are library ladders, for that matter. I fantasize about built-in bookshelves too...) I went last year and got some amazing books and though this is only my second year in Lincoln, it's becoming my favorite part of the year. Fall is here, the sun is shining, the fields are gold, and there's a chill if you're standing in the shade. It's the perfect time of year for sitting on your couch with a book, under a blanket, with a mug of something warm.

Yesterday, I took home 63 books for very little money (today was about half that and I'll go back on Sunday, when things are half price or ten cents a piece), especially compared to what I would have spent elsewhere. I'm working on my comps and my dissertation, as well as preparing classes to teach for the future, and that all adds up to lots of books I need that my stipend doesn't cover. So, I gather every book I see that could be useful in the future, Best American Essays from the early 1990s that I don't have, Irish lit and Great Plains lit and other types of Lit that I should have on my shelf, Irish criticism on James Joyce and Sean O'Casey, books that I want to teach at some point in my life, books by people I know (which is one of the true joys of being a writer and knowing writers). Poetry that I may or may not read, but that I should own, because I know poets. Books for the independent study I'm taking this semester. I picked up paperbacks by mystery authors I adore. Three cookbooks that look like fun.

My apartment is 450 sq ft and my bookcases, four of the tall ones, are already filled to the brim, the paperbacks stacked two deep. With the aid of various types of crates, I'm able to stack the books higher, almost to the ceiling. I love the high ceilings. I moved two orange crates above the tea cabinet and separated out my comp lists, then put on top of them Irish criticism that I'm glad I have, that will be useful later, but that I don't need to get to often. Last night I turned on Anthony Bourdain and let his snark fill my apartment as I put my new books away.

There are people in my life who ask why do you need to own them? Why don't you just check them out from the library? It's true, I have a small space and a small budget. But you can't explain to a non-writer why owning the books is important. I write in the margins, I put sticky notes on the really important passages. I reread them, sometimes for professional reasons, sometimes just for pleasure. You never know when you'll need to produce a copy of something or other. I write from them, I write critical papers about them. That means that I need to be able to pull it off the shelf and find exactly what I need there.

Part is that I'm feeling exceptionally smug that I was able to find a place for the books I've brought home so far, though I might be at the end of that kind of space. The next crop of books will require some creativity in space. But there's something even bigger here. The color on my shelves is just fantastic, the kind of color you can't get any other way, not from wall paint, not from photographs and paintings hung on the wall. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks and mass market paperbacks. All sizes and shapes, various heights and thicknesses. This is a library that gets used. These are books that have had a life before they joined mine and they'll have a life long after I'm gone. This is the reason that I can never get fully onboard with e-books. I can't do it. I love the books that have somebody's inscription in them. Birthday wishes from Mom, "I bought this for you because I thought you would like it" notes.

Most of the books I brought home this weekend are well-loved. Worn. Some showing quite a bit of stress. Books are meant to be read and these have. Yet, perversely, I hope never to have read every book on my shelf. I want there to be at least one book that I haven't read, something that keeps me coming back. Sometimes I despair at never being able to read all I need to read to be a writer, to be a teacher, that there's always more out there to read than I can read--but sometimes, this is a lovely thought.

When my sisters and niece were here last weekend, both of my sisters wanted something to read before bed. The sense of satisfaction I felt at the question was the whole reason I love my library. I want my library to be a place where other people get lost, just looking to see what's there. When friends or family are looking for a certain kind of book, I want to be able to go through the shelves and just pull out book after book. You'll like this one, I want to say. Try this one. Let me know what you think. K3 returned Bill Bryson and Tim Cahill and requested fiction, which surprised me. She doesn't often read fiction, let alone fluffy fiction. I gave her Jennifer Crusie's Agnes and the Hitman. I want to be Agnes when I grow up, I said. K2 looked at me (as she'd already read the book) and said, You already are Agnes. I gave her a withering look and said, I don't attack people with frying pans.

And I want my library to be a place, filled with the kind of books that if you don't bring them back, it's not the end of the world. This is one of the reasons I love used books--there's no inherent worth in them. They're only worth what they mean to me. None of the books I own are worth much money. Of course, there are books on my shelf that would break my heart to lose, those that are written and signed by friends, those that are rare in some fashion. But barring accidents that render them unreadable--fire, spilled mugs of coffee, cats who chew on paper, like Maeve--I'll probably be thrilled that you liked the book well enough to not return it. At least that's what I'll choose to believe. It's better than thinking you just forgot. I once lent a student my signed copy of Joe Mackall's book Last Street Before Cleveland and he never returned it. I hope he got something out of the reading.

Books are living, breathing things in my world, in my apartment, on my shelves. They bear fingerprints. They bear the stories of being read. Stories make the world go 'round.


  1. I love your books and I love libraries but I have to be honest that many items in that small of a space would drive me bat-shit crazy. I get claustrophobic fast which wars with my deep, deep love of books, especially used books. As a compromise I tend to keep only my favorites on shelves and the rest get boxed and stacked where I can get to them but they don't press on me. I also have to admit that I love my e-reader for exactly that reason, I can keep so many book in one space. Someday I will have a large open space I can fill with books and I'll go nuts.. until then I'll keep trying to find ways to fit more books into my space without driving myself nuts.

  2. Actually, it's not as claustrophobic as you might think. You'll have to visit one of these days!

    But you might be interested in this article I came across: http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/homegarden/101181499.html?page=all&prepage=1&c=y#continue.

    "A St. Louis Park bibliophile and his wife bought the house next door to tear it down and expand their own. Instead, they kept both houses, joined the two structures and turned an entire house into a library."

    That's dedication!