The summer before my 8th grade year, I found myself running with other neighborhood kids, for the first time in my life. I don’t remember how it happened, that I came to spend most of every day hanging out with Sandi, Kevin, Todd, and Becky, but it was a brand-new thing for me, and a wondrous one.
“How come you never used to come out of your house?” one of them asked one day. “Yeah,” another one said. “We used to call you The Hermit.”
I didn’t know why. I still don’t, really. I think partly I didn’t know what I was missing and partly I didn’t feel I was missing anything. I had been perfectly content with the company I usually kept: There was Anne (with an “e”), a hot-headed red-head who lived up in Canada; and Beany Malone, youngest of a large family living through the years after WWII; and Jane, that brave young woman just trying to get by in the world and living in that horrible place with her creepy boss; and Jo, who I both loved and wanted to be; and, of course, the other Anne–the one hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam with her family.
When I was in 6th grade, we were allowed to read books of our choice during reading time. When we finished them, we’d sign up for a conference with our teacher, Mr. Buer, who would flip through the book and ask a few questions about it.
I had a lot of conferences with Mr. Buer, especially at the beginning of each week. That was the year I went to the Burien Library every Saturday to check out a stack of books. 6th grade was a hard time for me (is it an easy time for anyone?), and I much preferred living in the worlds of other people than in my own.
One Saturday I made my way to the counter with my usual stack of books, a pile that stretched from my extended hand to my chin. Something happened, and I tripped, and the books and I went sprawling everywhere. The librarian smiled as she helped me pick them up, saying, “You know, Rita, we have a rule that you can only check out as many as you can carry.”
I was mortified. “Really?” I asked, anxious that they wouldn’t let me take home all the ones I’d chosen. I needed them all, every one of them.
Some things haven’t changed much since 6th grade. I no longer get to spend whole days lost in the pages of a book–but I wish I did. I no longer check out huge stacks of books from the library–but I would if I had time to read them. (I regularly check out books I have to take back before even cracking the covers.) I miss the kind of friends I used to make curled up in a corner of the couch or perched in the limbs of the neighbor’s plum tree or hidden away on the floor of my closet.
That’s why today I am grateful for my reunion with old friends this week. On Friday, this is what my new bookshelf looked like:
This is what it looks like today:
Our long, hot day of moving back in August was remarkably tension-free until our last stop at the storage unit I’d been using since cleaning out the house to stage it for potential buyers. As we unloaded the unit, I noticed that Cane was losing his usual easiness. That he was starting to shove boxes at me with something that felt like annoyance. A lot of annoyance. I didn’t say anything at the time (I’ve learned a few things over the years), but when I asked him about it later he said, “You’ve just got so many boxes of books. Do you really need all those books?”
Yes, I do.
I did not realize how much I missed my old friends until I began releasing them from their boxes this weekend. It doesn’t matter that many of them haven’t been read in years. It doesn’t matter that some of them will never be read again. There’s just something about having them physically present with me that brings me deep pleasure. I have missed Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins, and Ivan Doig, and Barbara Kingsolver, and Anne Lamott, and Tracy Kidder, and Madeleine L’Engle, and E.B. White, and Jacqueline Jackson, and Beverly Cleary, and Alfie Kohn, and so many others. I need them in the room with me, just like I need the people I love.
It took so long to unpack them because I’ve been waiting on the bookshelf you see above. I bought it in August, from our local Border’s as it was going out of business. I had to wait until the doors were actually closing to pick it up.
Such mixed feelings I had about buying it. Trolling through the aisles of what was our city’s only real source of new books (the paltry book section at Fred Meyer does not count!), I felt like a vulture picking over a carcass. But part of me really wanted a piece of that place. It’s not hard to see that book publishers are an endangered species–the kind who publish books on paper, anyway. And book sellers, too. I have a hard time believing that print books will go away entirely, but I can believe that they will become rare, something that might be considered a luxury (because they’ll be so expensive). I like the idea of keeping my treasures on an artifact of something that is, if not dying, surely being transformed.
Today, as I sit next to my full bookshelf writing these words, I am grateful for so many things:
I am grateful to have had parents who took me to the library all the time when I was growing up, and a family who regularly bought me books.
I am grateful for libraries. I could never have bought all the books I’ve read, all those words that have kept me company and shown me the way through all kinds of things–love, death, divorce, and puberty, to name a few.
I am grateful to have lived in (and been formed by) the age of books. While I’ve been all about reducing possessions and clutter for more than a year (and I did recycle a lot of books that didn’t mean much to me), there is something about having the physical object that matters to me. Just like having prints of photos does something for me that a digital image can’t.
I am grateful for my bookshelf, and for the books that sit on it. Today our house feels more like home than it did on Thursday.
And I am grateful that just down the hall from the bookshelf, there is right now a sleeping man who may not fully understand why I needed to move all those boxes of books, but who understands that I did, and that I need places to keep them. (And who will likely help me move in another bookcase soon, because this one isn’t big enough to hold them all.) After the summer of Sandi and Kevin and Becky and Todd I knew I needed people as much as books; I’m grateful that I’m not The Hermit anymore, and that my life is full of both virtual and visceral pleasures, all in one place.