Friday, March 4, 2016

Lives written in books

Remain in the stacks long enough and your whole damned life passes before you.
Ward Just, My Bookstore

Our lives are written in the books we read, especially in those we love. I wrote a few days ago about the difficulty of parting with, or even thinking about parting with, my personal library. This may be the principal reason why that will be so difficult when the times comes. My life is written there in much the same way the lives of other people are written in photo albums, old letters, furniture and the knickknacks and souvenirs on the shelves of their home. That's where memories are stored for instant recall.

Wendy Welch puts it this way in The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, "Bibliophiles recognize that books are not just ideas trapped between covers, but artifacts, mile markers on our life journey." When I see certain books on shelves in my home, I am taken back to a particular place and time. 1984 reminds me of a small reading room in my college dormitory. The Catcher in the Rye returns me to the library at my high school where I first discovered it. Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates speaks to me of my aunt, still living in California, who sent it to me as a Christmas present so many years ago. Perhaps the memories would remain without the books, but perhaps not. Sometimes memories require triggers, and books, like photos and souvenirs, make excellent triggers.

Welch quotes a friend as saying, "I think of my bookshelf as a trophy of accomplishment. I look at their spines and remember where I was when I read them, and what I got out of them." Perhaps a mere list of these books or a photograph of them would work as well as the books themselves. Yet it just doesn't seem like the same thing.

I know some people who actually read more books than I do yet dispose of their books as soon as they are done reading them. I have also known people who keep relatively few possessions of any kind. If they don't need it, they don't hang on to it. Where, I wonder, do they store their memories?

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