Perhaps it is possible to divide the world into those who cannot part from their books and those who have no such compunction? I’m in the former category. And I have run out of bookshelf space.
Hardcovers and paperbacks coexist democratically on nightstands in every bedroom; the chair beside my bed whines under their weight; they are under and on top of ottomans and coffee tables, in Tupperware boxes (I admit to owning at least 200 truly crummy, but very gratifying historical romances residing in said containers) that also contain mountains of our now-adult children’s books – strange that we still have them. They litter desks and occupy basement storage and hidden corners in our horizontally-challenged Edwardian house.
In short, it’s time to move, because I can’t imagine a life without enough bookshelves.
I have actually relocated multiple times over my now considerable years - some dwellings like university apartments, or our first flat as a young married couple, have been rented. Some have been our own houses. The one constant was that no matter what roof was over my head, it was not a home until my books were unpacked and placed on IKEA shelves, custom-built shelves, boards on top of teetery-cinder-block shelves, or the lower shelves of nightstands and other occasional tables.
The magic of books not only transformed my own houses into real homes, but also created many alternative ones to abide in. The list is endless – Where the Wild Things Are, The Railway Children, Linnets and Valerians, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, The BFG (unedited), Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Hunger Games and mountains of YA dystopian literature, Harry Potter, British and Nordic Noir writers, A Little Life, The English Patient, my first “adult” novel from the grown-up library — an endless list and such endless delight.
All of those books still inhabit my shelves, reminders of hours in bed before going to sleep, minutes jealously stolen between family obligations, those escapes always accompanied by cups of black tea sweetened with honey, as well as those too-rare lazy Sundays.
That first “adult” novel which I read at age twelve or thirteen, “Angelique: Marquise of the Angels” by Anne Golon, was a romp involving doomed marriages, lustful kings, slavery, wicked pirates, rampaging soldiers and true love with large dollops of sex thrown in. It felt scandalous and much too old for me, and I adored each book in the series.
I would go to the lending desk with my much-creased library card, studiously avoiding the eyes of the librarian; I desperately hoped she would think I was borrowing on behalf of my mother, and then would go home and hide that volume from said parent.
In a small aside, last summer, my sister-in-law’s mother asked me if I remembered Mrs. So-and-So, who now lives in Ottawa. I did not. She explained that her friend had been the librarian at my local library in Montreal and that she remembered that very solitary girl for whom the library was a second home.
Hours spent there were hours when all good could find me – books were safer than many people. That this most excellent librarian remembered my name testified to the innumerable hours I spent there, and to the immense kindness and patience she showed an awkward pre-teen.
Books, books, books — they seek a place to rest. My own diverse and highly eclectic accumulation of tomes most often stands in proud vertical order, occasionally gathered geographically - Europe, North America, Asia - sometimes in more general categories like Wine, Art and Design. As the shelves fill, some books begin to rest horizontally on top of their upright companions, and the odd quirky object might crown an indentation where no book could fit.
I look and I see my past — the boyfriend who gave me my now tattered hardcover copy of Lord of the Rings, the Nobel prize-winning trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter that I am named after, gifts from my parents, each of them happy and ardent readers, my husband’s choices for me and mine for him, our friends’ and children’s thoughtful acknowledgment of our literary interests and weaknesses (wine, travel, gardens and libraries), and my deceased brother-in-law’s love of painting and beauty.
My life unfolds in all its complexity and depth, one book at a time. I see its growth from innocent enjoyment of plot, to an adult struggle to absorb multiple and contradictory concepts, whose lyrical, ferocious, and soul-illuminating beauty makes my brain hurt and my soul fly.
Books need a place to remind us of the infinite comfort involved in pulling out an old favourite, of adding a new one to cherish, of considering whether those who inherit them will find the same pleasure in their stories, or at the very least, love them as avatars for their owners.
Objects too require a home – just not one necessarily purpose-built for them. They can disport themselves serendipitously on tables everywhere, in niches, even in the occasional bookcase. At their very best, they can provoke our admiration, remind us of those who crafted them or cherished them before we did. In the end, however, they are only accessories.
It is books that contain man’s finest ideas. They illuminate, provoke, and encourage our promise as a civilization, while simultaneously exposing the beast that lies within us all. They make time travellers of their readers, helping us to enter the past and jump into the future.
When we return to our muddied present, we have been transported, changed and enlightened. We reach for yet another volume on a friendly shelf in a library, our homes, a bookstore, our neighbourhood outdoor lending cupboard, and we know that our choices tell the story of who we are and what we might be.
Thanks for reading A Considerable Age!
I was that kid in the library too. We should have formed a club. Exquisite writing, as always.
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I enjoyed reading every word and sentence. Keep it coming!