I have a very good memory for images and phrases. I have largely relied upon that memory when it comes to one of my favorite hobbies, used book stores.
I will find a book by an author I like, or simply something sitting in the $1.00 bin that looks interesting. I will then mentally compare it to images in my head, deciding whether or not I already it. Is it one of the hundred books I own that I have yet to read? I buy books at nearly the same rate I read them, if not more quickly, meaning the gap between read and owned just keeps getting larger. Thus, I found myself returning a copy of The Resurrection by John Gardner, of which I found an older edition already upon my shelves.
It’s not my fault, really. I am a book addict. I walk in to a used bookstore and I breathe in the pages. The bookstore is a comforting smell and a comforting sound. Despite being a mercantile establishment, the bookstore is quiet and serene as a library. I walk the aisles and find books with worn spines. These books were once read passionately. If I listened closely, I could probably hear the dreams of its past readers.
I open the book and flip through the pages. Sometimes I am lucky and find artifacts of the book’s past life. Here, an inscription to John, from his mother, who gave him the book. John, in turn, apparently sold it to the bookstore. I found entire papers on literary theory written in the margins and blank pages of As I Lay Dying. My favorite recent find was a postcard used as a bookmark within Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Someone visited a place they loved enough to buy a postcard. Finding it inside a book on the writing life was like finding seeing another person’s life in object form.
A friend suggested I try tracking the books I owned on Goodreads.com. Last night, I logged them. I own around 350 books. If you add the collection on my Kindle, that puts me well over 500. It’s amazing how quickly the count snuck up on me. It didn’t seem like I had that many books, even though the wall of my bedroom is lined with shelves, straining from being overfilled by paperbacks. Most of them are in their second life, having been purchased used.
As a writer, I find them comforting. They represent a successful writing project for the author, as in successfully published. Some of the books aren’t exactly successful, if you know what I mean. They also represent a past reader. Within the bookshelves exists hundreds of examples of the writer-reader relationship. It is a reminder that people still care about books, and what is written in them.
I can’t imagine trying to move again. Books are heavy and the last time was a real pain. Ironically, for a used book lover, I have a very hard time selling books. Although before long, space might force my hand, or risk dying under a heap of collapsed oxidized-yellow pages.
Next time you are in a used book store, don’t shun the books with writing in the margins, or names written inside the covers. Realize they were loved once, and you may love them again. Be suspicious of perfection in a bookstore. Books without cracked spines and dog-eared pages can’t be trusted.
Happy hunting. You may find yourself lost for hours, or at the very least, with a very space-consuming habit. Just don’t blame me for the weight of the UHaul boxes the next time you move.