Earlier this week my closest friend from high school put this on my facebook wall, and I felt relieved as soon as I read it. I have, these past few years, found it oddly impossible to articulate the importance of physical books in my life. Their impact is far, far more than simply the impact of a story or a set of facts on the human mind. Frenemy's post jogged many memories of my life with the paper book. I don't like to be more than an arm's reach from one; they are talismanic to me, magical, life saving. To imagine my life without physical books is an impossibility. I would be a completely different person. I don't think I love anything in the world as much as a great book, except possibly a great swim. Go back and forth between the two and you have a perfect day. I do not read while I am waiting to do other things. I do other things while I am waiting to read.
As a child I used to lie on my parents' bed to read picture books with my father; as he'd fall asleep the pages we'd already read together would flutter haphazardly in the wrong direction, and I didn't have to turn to his face to know he had fallen asleep. My mother used to take us to bookstores and libraries on any free afternoon (actually, she still does, even though we are all in our twenties) and I specifically remember the moment I moved from looking at Sweet Valley Twins covers to Sweet Valley High covers. I knew, even then, that those books were trashy, but they signified something about adulthood to me, with their sheer thickness and pink and purple spines running down the shelves to an infinite point in the distance. I read so many of those books, largely on the floor of bookstores themselves. And in libraries I found subjects I didn't know existed, or allowed myself to drift back to the books I had loved as a child, or see with a jolt that someone else I knew in our small town had checked this book out before or-- even better-- that I was the first one to take this one home in ten years. I had a teacher who required us to write papers on ten different French impressionists, and going through those Matisse and Seurat prints all spread out in a library was one of the great intellectual thrills of my life, to be replicated in college with French revolution political cartoons and original editions of The Yellow Book. I worked at that college library, checking in brand-new books and wedging them Dewey-decimal in with books that had been at Skidmore for many decades. To shelve a book was to immediately place it in a historical context.
I love stories, yes- I love movies and improvisation and a good old tall tale told at a dinner table. But I love books more. For most books that I've read since I was a teenager (and that's a lot, trust me) I could tell you where I read some or all of that book. With that kind of tactile memory, I can place these books within the context of myself. It is important to me that I read Anna Karenina on the beach in Wells, Maine, sitting in a chair because it was just too exciting to read belly-down on a towel. Or that I turned the last page of the huge The Executioner's Song sobbing, in my first apartment in Hartford as my boyfriend walked in the door. I have thrown scary books across the room in terror, I have passed many paperbacks back and forth with friends who have all signed the inside covers. Every Christmas, my family has more book-sized shapes piled up than any other kind of present by far. I learned how to nurture kids when I was a teenaged babysitter by reading to them in bed. I read the same four books over and over in Ghana because that was all I could carry. I read them on buses, in cities, by a lantern in a village with no electricity. In China I read anything I could find in English just for the pure sweet understanding, and I would hold those books in my hands and think Thank God. And speaking of God- I turned thin pages of Bibles and hymnals with more reverence for the beautiful binding and paper than the text itself. I used to read many books about books- The Neverending Story and Farenheit 451 and Fun Home-- and in all of them books have a transformative power that nothing else in the world does. They are more than story. They are to be interacted with, to be saved from burning, to be discovered. The book I am reading now I found randomly on a shelf in New York last Sunday, and I love its font, its thickness, the person who sold it to me, the way I have read it at lunch tables, and the people who have commented when they have seen it in my hands.
These things are meaningful. Books are not just books; they are art; they are artifact. My shelves tell me what I have tried to know and what I have promised myself to know someday. They have weight and they take up space, but that is what they are supposed to do. They are not just a transfer of one human mind to another. They are a physical part of the world, and I will never forget that. Before they are in my memory they are in my hands.