My problem with books

I have a books problem.

My parents read Dr. Seuss books to me when I was a child, and that was where it started. Every weekend they would take me to the library. It started with the books on science and astronomy. Once I had read them all, they introduced me to the grownup side of the library. I started reading science books by Isaac Asimov. Then I found out he wrote other books that were fiction.

That was the beginning of the problem.

Because once I had read every science fiction book in the library, I was stuck. So I started going to bookstores. And I started to buy paperbacks.

By the time I was in college, I had a few dozen. I lined them up in my dorm room. I peered at them. I wondered when the next Philip K. Dick or Harlan Ellison or Thomas M. Disch would come out. Big chunky Heinleins in black covers. Asimov robot novels. Skinny Robert Silverbergs in bunches. What money I had, I spent. I began haunting used bookstores looking for finds, but always, always buying, never selling.

I moved to Boston. I got a job. I got married to a woman whose stepfather was was Ben Bova, the science fiction writer and editor.

Now I had money. I joined the science fiction book club. And I bought bookcases.

Eventually, I got divorced. When I picked up my stuff and moved out, most of the books were in there. She kept the furniture and TV; I didn’t care. But she never returned the Science Fiction Hall of Fame collections, because they were edited by Ben Bova. I was sorry to see the marriage end, but I was really angry about those books. I had bought them, they were mine. I went to Wordsworth in Harvard Square and bought them again.

After a few years, I met a wonderful woman and eventually, we decided to get an apartment together. She knew I had books; she’d seen the bookcases. When we were packing up the last of her room in the Victorian house she shared with seven other people, I noticed that there was a window seat . . . and space under it. I picked up the covering on that space and saw there were boxes there.

In the boxes were scraps of fabric. Hundreds of them.

I wanted this relationship to work. I knew it was important. I accepted her and her fabric, and she accepted me and my books.

That was a better deal for me than for her.

We got married. We bought a house. We had children. We read books to our children.

We built bookcases into our sunroom. They filled a whole wall.

We moved to a bigger house. We bought more bookcases. There are bookcases in my bedroom, in our guest room, in our media room, and in our living room. But the paperbacks were a problem. They are shallow, and there are a lot of them.

There is this room at the front of the house on the second floor that has very little use. It’s small, about 9 feet square, and has a big window that lets the sun into the second floor. It’s just about big enough to solve my paperback book problem.

We found tall, shallow cases, designed to hold CDs. I bought seven of them and bolted them to the wall. And now that little room looks something like this:

I recently had to pack up all these books and take down the cases so we could paint the room. And then I put them all back.

Every one of those books was a memory. I remember when I bought it. I remember when I read it. I was on Martha’s Vineyard. I was staying up late reading when I should have been studying. I was alone and lonely. I have nearly everything Philip K. Dick has ever written, and five books about his life and work. I have my grandfather’s hardback collection of the works of Edgar Allan Poe (Raven edition). I have pulps by William Tenn, the hack science fiction writer who was my professor for the science fiction literature class at Penn State, and broad shelf full of Stephen King, which I read for the style, not the thrill, honest. There’s everything silly by my friend Craig Shaw Gardner, including the Batman novel that has a character with my name in it. I have the books I loaned to people and then bugged them years later to return. The new Neal Stephensons are cheek-by-jowl with my wife’s John Steinbeck, my Michael Moorcooks next to her Anne McCaffreys. Vonnegut shares a shelf with Voltaire.

There is, of course, the full set of Harry Potter in hardback.

On other shelves are the great nonfiction prose of Mary Roach, Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Wolfe, and of course, Asimov again. There are lots of business books, but also books on politics, math (a whole shelf of puzzle books), physics, philosophy, travel, culture, and history. In my mind’s eye, I’ve been present in Nineteenth Century China, at the discovery of the double helix, and for the birth of the Oxford English Dictionary. (I have my own bookshelf of dictionaries, thesauruses, style guides, atlases, and collections of slang, naturally.)

I recently started to pack up the bookshelves of my son, a recent college graduate, who will be rejoining us in this house for a few months before heading off into the world. His collection is already bigger than mine was at his age. I spotted Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, which he told me had blown his mind when he was a teenager. There were also a whole bunch of books I’d taken off my own shelves and recommended to him by Dick and Silverberg and Stephenson. But most of the books he’d acquired on his own.

Now that I have been an author for a decade, I have a different perspective on books. As I reshelved this whole collection, I reflected on what the authors thought. Each author slaved away on the text. Each one eagerly awaited its publication. Each held the newly published book and felt the pride of publication. Each book is an accomplishment. They communicate, they titillate, they elucidate, they thrill, enlighten, expand the mind and soothe the spirit and stir the emotions.

These books of mine are heavy and old and dusty and faded. They take up a lot of space. I should probably get rid of them.

But somehow I just can’t . . .

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  1. I am attempting to downsize and have discovered that I no longer need to own every book I have loved. I donate books to the public library, which sells them at a local book sale in support of the library. I feel good knowing that others are discovering my favorite books at a reasonable price, and that I am down to three bookcases. When I enjoy a new library book, I still buy it to support the author and own it for awhile, but then pass it along to be read and loved by others. No judgment here, I understand owning and loving books but thought I would share my book-related thoughts for those who need or want to reduce their possessions.

  2. I love this post.

    I recently retired after having been an academic librarian for 35 years (and having worked in libraries for 40). My mother was amazed when I became a librarian because it upset me so much to go to the public library as a child. The reason it upset me was because I had to return the books. Then I discovered that I could check out a book from the library and buy it if I loved it. I do periodically go through my collection (now distributed among 7 rooms in two houses) for duplicates or books I had a “meh” reaction to and donate those to Denver Public Library, where our son works. The apple does not fall far from the tree–our daughter is about to begin a grad assistantship at the archival collections at UNC Charlotte. My husband and I met at University of Chicago where we were both working at Regenstein Library.

    When I was told by a campus administrator to get rid of at least half of my college library’s books within a couple of weeks (i.e. without carefully weeding) because they “intimidated the students” I decided that I did not want to end my career by dismantling collections I had carefully built (like the poetry and graphic novel collections) and decided it was time to retire.

    A lifetime love affair with books is not a problem for me. If it is a problem for other people, that is *their* problem.

    (P.S. I also am a knitter and have boxes of yarn, so your wife is A-OK with me too). And we have built a wine collection together, as well as raising two book-oriented kids.

  3. A school teacher once overheard me telling a disobedient daughter that if she didn’t start behaving, she wouldn’t be able to read all weekend. The teacher was appalled and said, “You should NEVER discourage a child from reading!” She didn’t understand that with our kids, the problem was getting them out of their books! But overall, it’s a love that has benefited them and will continue to serve them well.

  4. This has been one of my favorite blog posts! I’ve moved a lot, and have always found it a pain to pack and move my books; however, it’s so worth it for me! I’ve always liked the idea of my owning more books than material things like clothes & shoes. They’re precious jewels.

  5. What a fabulous post! I have loved to read from the moment I learned to. I recall being so annoyed when I was about 7 that I wasted all that time as a pre-school child when I would have had more time to read without all those hours in a classroom. So, logic wasn’t my strong suit, but it tells you something about me.

    My mother would punish me by taking away my reading time. It was the only thing I cared about, so it worked.

    Today, I manage a large book sale for my local library. The collections that we get donated when someone has died can break your heart. You can tell the love that went into it. It sounds like your children will treasure your collection. I hope so.

  6. Wonderful reflection, Josh. Having just completed a rewrite of my first novel, I particularly enjoyed these words,

    “Each book is an accomplishment. They communicate, they titillate, they elucidate, they thrill, enlighten, expand the mind and soothe the spirit and stir the emotions.”

    One request, for those of us who were not introduced to books at an early age, might a future blog post detail your top five or ten from each genre (especially sci-fi)?

  7. Amazing post. My collection is not as big, but I can understand your feelings. Now I have mixed feelings with my Kindle. It is great, I save time, space and money, but… My collection is not growing and… That is a pitty.

    I love your blog BTW!