Books and animals are my life passions. Maybe it’s because they give so freely, so innocently, yet ask for so little in return. Just to be enjoyed, appreciated, and gently scratched behind the ears. To the casual passer-by, a book may just be a book, an animal just an animal, but open up the cover, peer into the soul, and you have the opportunity to learn something more about the author, about the animal…and perhaps about you.
Because I am now semi-retired, I prefer paper, hand-held books. I am totally addicted to them, still. Pages I print out from a computer never give me the same comforting, warm feeling. I am just beginning to occasionally read e-books. The experience has become more comfortable, but I do not look forward to on-screen reading like I do to holding a book while I nestle into the corner of the couch.
The other day as I was gathering up a few books to sell I looked inside The Wilderness Cabin, and read its inscription. In my mother’s hand, dated 1962, it said,
“Good luck on your dreams. With my love, Phyllis.”
In a flash, I realized I could never sell this to anyone. Am I sentimental? Yes. I was 14 in 1962. The book was a gift for my dad, who wanted such a cabin. Eventually, he did construct one on a hillside in Vermont. Not a rustic, hand forged one as described in the book; however, he met his dreams with a bit of a compromise. The hope, his dream, the encouragement from my mother and their love was simply shared with 9 little words.
In a book.
I was so touched to see this inscription, which I had never before noticed. My dad died 15 years ago. I had forgotten he wanted to build a cabin, and the salutation, “with my love,” warms my heart. Even through a few rough patches, Mom always loved and forgave him, and vice versa. They both taught me so much about marriage. Theirs lasted 60+ years.
I’ve been married quite a long time now although, by parental comparison, not so long -only 30 years. My husband, Bruce, and I live in northern Vermont in an adorable cottage-type home which we completely renovated. Bruce built floor- to- ceiling bookshelves in our living room, one of the last steps to complete the first floor.
Because our books had been in dozens of boxes for more than two years, bringing them out was like greeting old friends.
As Bruce was suffering from a herniated disk on the couch for a couple of weeks after he finished the bookshelves, I did most the hauling and shelving of our volumes. I thought I had finished yesterday when I discovered, in yet another closet, six more full boxes.
I tried to put the books in our favorite categories: art, photography, animals, James Salter, May Sarton, E.B. White, Barbara Kingsolver, Paul Auster, women’s fiction and memoirs, Paris, poetry, military memoirs.
Because we have more than 1,000 books, this organizational attempt often seemed futile, and I nearly gave it up. In Vermont, we have five-month winters and are often looking for such projects to get us through the long, dark nights. I knew I’d have plenty of time to re-organize to my heart’s content.
Still, we realized we had to get rid of many books – those we would never read again, those from people who don’t really know us, a few duplicates, a few outdated pieces, a few picture books with faded Technicolor photographs.
Some of the choices were easy; we felt no strong attachment. For example, we had two Paris coffeetable books, no match for black and white photography books about the City of Light by Eugene Atget or Weegee. We had two copies of Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez; we kept the one in the best condition.
We had a few silly books given us, like Barbie Unbound, A Parody of the Barbie Obsession. However, no local bookstore wanted to buy that one – the shops in our town take themselves seriously and don’t appear to have much of a sense of humor.
Another book I attempted to sell was Sonnets to the Portuguese by Robert Browning. Not that we don’t like some of the poems. We do, but they were given to my husband a hundred years ago by a former girlfriend. She signed the book using a make- believe name only the two of them knew. The relationship did not end amicably, and we don’t need any reminders of this woman in our home.
We’ve all moved on.
As I was shelving books, from my own past came a memory of my college freshman roommate, Joanne. When asked what she would take if our dorm room caught on fire, she said with no hesitation, “my Beatles posters.”
For me, it would be books. Getting rid of books is much harder than unloading clothes, dishes or tchotchkes. Books make me feel better and know more; they transport me to other cultures, other centuries, other lifestyles, other ways of thinking. They introduce new vocabulary and imagery.
These days the new vocabulary helps me occasionally win at Scrabble.
Poems and novels make me realize I’m not alone in feeling a certain way. They help my writing by serving as role models, and some of them, read year after year, offer more life lessons on each successive read.
I think of May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, one of my favorite books (she later became my mentor) and E.B. White’s funny and profound essays. For Bruce, the same holds true for James Salter’s work and for much of Jean Giono’s.
We could not part with these books.
Also, books as objects are so beautiful, so tactile, so appealing to the touch. I love the shape of them and many of their covers, particularly those that include a reproduction of a famous painter’s work.
Shelves of books make a room feel warmer, more lived in.
Last week, a bookseller told me that looking through people’s collections is akin to doing an archaeological dig. Our books remind us of where we’ve been, of the developmental stages in our lives, of what we’ve tried to accomplish. I have dozens of writing books and others containing interviews with famous writers. I refer to at least one — like Sarton’s Writings on Writing weekly as I try to improve my writing or as I encourage my college-writing students.
Bruce has dozens of coffee-table format photography books and those about his favorite painters: Balthus, Alex Colville, Wolf Kahn, Claude Monet. He also has dozens of printing and typeface books from the time he ran a letterpress operation in our home. He once made handmade books with silk and linen papers from Japan and India.
Together, we spend hours looking at the artworks in his books and fondly remember our visits to museums in Paris, Ottawa, Toronto, or Washington, D.C.. Looking at these exhibit books is almost like revisiting the museum.
When we’re not on the road or in the air, the books’ reproductions make us realize we have traveled quite a bit.
Three days ago, as we gazed fondly at our photo books of Paris in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we made a plan. As we have not been to our favorite city in two years, we hope to go again next spring. We promised each other we will do this even if it means not going out to restaurants often here in Vermont. Social excursions here are not vital anymore-; Paris is critical to our well-being, and we cannot wait much longer to be there again.
So, like my father’s gift of wilderness cabin plans, which translated into a rustic summer camp in Vermont, our books bring us closer to the kind of vacations we always dream of – walking, sleeping and eating our way through Europe.