May 1, 2006
He buys me many books â€“ but begs me not to read them â€“ because he fears they joggle the Mind.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â â€” Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â American poet, on her father
They are everywhere, my books, arranged on shelves and collected in baskets, left open on a table or stacked in piles on the floor. Some are categorized â€” autographed items and books about the nineteenth century in the living room, cookbooks and food narratives in the kitchen, books on writing instruction and the writing life in my study. The room the builder called the family room but which I call the library has eighteen feet of built-in bookshelves floor to ceiling with fiction on the right and nonfiction on the left and poetry and music somewhere in the middle. Some of the shelves are organized by subject and alphabetized, but sometimes when I need to clear another space I wedge things in where they fit.
Every once in a while the spirit of organization seizes me. Professional organizers advise the messy and the overwhelmed to get current and stay current, filling in the past as there is time and energy. In August of 2004 I began a database with the books I bought at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference that year, and every new book has been added (58 so far). I also have a “Books Already” list that I add to with some regularity, sometimes when I dip into a book for pleasure or research, sometimes as something to fill the odd half-hour or so between my shower and the night’s ten o’clock drama.
I’ve loved books since before I could read them or even hold them. My mother read to me while she nursed my sister. Or so I’ve been told â€” I was three when Rosie was born, and remember little except the way the light streamed in through the bay window in the dining room while the living room, shaded by a porch along the front wall and an overhanging tree on the side, remained dark all day.
Possibly the oldest personal possession I have is a copy of Better Homes and Gardens Second Story Book, pictured here along with its companion, the green-bound Better Homes and Gardens Story Book. The green one was my sister’s, the orange one mine. It is inscribed with my name in a handwriting I am absolutely certain is that of my Aunt Jeannette, not a relative but a friend of my mother’s who was devoted to us as children and gifted us with many wonderful things.
When I was seven years old I stole a book from my second grade classroom, slipping it into my bookbag instead of the box being prepared for summer storage. It was a volume of Grimms’ Fairy Tales that I had chosen during reading time again and again, and I could not bear to be without it over the summer. Ten years later I stole again, this time a slim volume by MacKinlay Kantor that hadn’t been checked out of my high school library for twenty years. I returned the fairy tale book in 1968. I still have the Kantor book. Some girls steal clothes and makeup, hit records or cigarettes. I stole books. Mea culpa.
With my first paycheck from my first teaching job I bought books. I joined the Time Reading Program, a book club that delivered four books a month from a wide variety of titles chosen by Max Gissen, the magazine’s erudite book editor. I still have some of those volumes. I reread one recently, Three Came Home, Agnes Newton Keith’s 1947 memoir of her confinement in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The glossy illustrated board cover (a hallmark of the series) snapped off in my hand.
Reading for pleasure and reading to learn are the same thing for me. Any how-to book for the aspiring writer that doesn’t advocate reading isn’t worth the space it takes up. This morning I used an exercise on expressing tenderness from Creating Character Emotions, a book by Ann Hood. One of the examples was an excerpt from a short story by Andre Dubus. Those few sentences were so beautiful that I wanted to read the piece in its entirety. I went downstairs, ran my fingers along the spines of the books on the second shelf down from the top in the fiction section, and plucked from between Pat Conroy and William Faulkner Dancing After Hours, Dubus’s eighth and last collection of stories, published in 1996, three years before he died.
That was the year I worked with Robert Olmstead, then writer-in-residence at Dickinson College. He must have recommended this book, and I dutifully bought it, though I know I never read it. Yet there it was, waiting for me.
“When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears,” says a bit of ancient wisdom. I sat in my study and read the story the had sent me looking for the book, and then another, and then three more.
They joggled my mind.
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