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The Books Inside Us

 My Bookworm is having a grand time protecting some of my publications. He has an appetite for books but refuses to cull or devour any of them. He likes the way they look on the shelf. It's cozy there.  photo © Carol Bergman 2024




Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves.

 Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader


Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It's like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture's books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.


― Susan Orlean,  The Library Book





Once again, I have been culling books. I'm not moving again, but over the years I have stored books on my daughter's shelves for safe keeping, or to pass them along. "This is a good one," I'd say, usually about a novel. But I also have enjoyed reading biographies of writers and artists, and I read a lot of history. Some of the books are in hard cover, some in paper, the pages of many browned and brittle with age, others in good condition. The books I have stored on my Kindle are safe in cyberspace, but they are only a miniscule sampling of what I have read over many years. My libraries—electronic and paper—are a personal canon, which is no more than a list of preferences and judgments about a book's value—to me. I follow my interests and curiosity, keep wish lists and read all the time, mostly to deepen and expand my knowledge base, to experience a fiction writer's gifts, or a poet's narrative voice. But books—the tangible objects—are heavy, too, and require culling, especially when one moves overseas, or from one side of the United States to the other. No move this time but my daughter has been renovating her house and asked if I would oblige.


I had not expected so many piles, but there they were, accumulated, dusty, sticky, awaiting my decisions about where each book should go: to the dump, to a library, to a friend, but hopefully not to my still overflowing shelves and TBR stacks. Fortunately, three libraries in my 'hood accept donations and host celebratory book sales once a year to raise revenue. But some books are ready for the recycle bin. And that's hard. I turn them round and round, flip the pages, and say goodbye. It's strange to be so attached in this way, to feel aggrieved at a book's departure, and to savor those still lined up neatly by subject and author at home as I sit down at my long table to write early each morning. Every book I have kept is worthy of rereading, I tell myself.


Oddly, I was not a reader as a child or even a young teen. I have no memories of being read to at bedtime—my mother was always working. Maybe I was drawing, or practicing dance steps to music on the radio. And, of course, there was television, street games with friends, and homework; I always did my homework.  I never understand how boring homework had anything to do with the books on my mother and stepfather's shelves—some in English, some in French and some in German. They were refugees having arrived in the United States without material possessions except a few photographs, clothes, bits and pieces of memorabilia if it could fit into their suitcases—and  their lives, the most precious possession of all. My mother's books became a synecdoche of her survival and she became anxious whenever I borrowed one and forgot to tell her. The space of the missing book felt like an amputation—or  even worse—a death. Maybe books were so weighted with emotion in our household that I avoided them.


So, I've answered my own question, I suppose:  Why did it take so long for me to become a reader? Books and what they contained—the whole world, an ancestry, and a future, a sense of safety and belonging—came into my life so late, beyond high school and into my first year of college, or the summer before to be precise. My first boyfriend was smart, musical, politically engaged, and read constantly. His family owned a chicken farm in Tom's River, NJ and I'd go down there to see him, or he would travel to see me. To my surprise, he read books, lots of them. Books spilled onto my lap and the floor whenever I climbed into the puttering, orange tin can he called a car. It was his car; he'd worked for it, earning money as a troubadour at café's and clubs. The proceeds were putting him through college and buying his books. They became my first library, a portal beyond the borders of my nuclear family.


He did a laisser tomber, as the French say—a dump—and I never could find out what happened to him after college. But, Steve, I have to thank you here for sharing your books at a formative time in my life. They live inside me.










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