The Private Life of Books
“When we are collecting books, we are collecting happiness.” — Vincent Starrett, 1929
One of the joys of my childhood was visiting our town library.
Week after week, I remember finding my way to favorite sections and shelves, taking favorite books down, and browsing through them.
They greeted me like friends, welcoming me into their pages and embracing me with the warm hug of familiarity. There was a sense of belonging in those books. A sense of comfort.
But on occasion, I’d discover a new friend—a book that the librarian recommended, or one that suggested itself, through the power of the card catalog and the magic of the Dewey Decimal System.
After gently extracting the book from among its brethren, I’d look at the cover a bit, soaking in the art from the dust jacket.
But rather than shaking hands with the title page or table of contents, I’d open the back cover and pluck out the checkout card.
Those cards, with their columns for names and dates, have always seemed like the literary version of a rap sheet. Where you went, who you were with, and on what dates. No alibis.
By the way, did you know that you can purchase checkout cards for your own books? If you’re in the habit of loaning them out, pick up a pack of those and a date stamp, and you’ll be your own librarian.
Anyway, when I happened upon a book that hadn’t been checked out in a while, in my head, I would immediately feel a sense of pity and try to imagine the reasons for the neglect. Was its card missing from the card catalog? Had it been repeatedly mis-shelved?
Or maybe it was simply unloved. And if it was unloved, did it feel anything? Did it silently cry out to patrons as they passed by its place on the shelf, begging to be checked out, or at least thumbed through?
And when I selected and read long-shelved books like this, a strange thought used to occur to me: when I pass my eyes across a sentence that hasn’t been read in a decade, do the words jump for joy as they jump off the page?
It’s a rather silly thought, I know, but to me, it speaks of the value and personality we assign to books. They are more than objects, perhaps even more than experiences.
Books are old friends. Perhaps friends we haven’t met yet.
Edgar Guest captured this in his 1915 poem “Faith:
“I believe in the purpose of everything living,
That taking is but the forerunner of giving;
That strangers are friends that we some day may meet,
And not all the bitter can equal the sweet;
That creeds are but colors, and no man has said
That God loves the yellow rose more than the red.”
Anyway, I was reminded of this childhood (or is it childish?) notion when I watched the wonderful documentary The Booksellers last year. If you haven’t yet seen it, add it to your list.
The film ends with a haunting poem by Henry Wessells called “The Private Life of Books” read by the author himself. I think it speaks to anyone who enjoys books.
“In silence between writer and reader a memory of words and hands takes form.
We learn substance and worth through others’ eyes.
Cloth, flesh, ink, skin, paper, dust.
These are but material forms in which ideas dwell.
In the roar of a crowded shelf of books, desert sun and Arctic night, distant seas of thought awaken, mingle, and are still.
Minds meet where the reading hand grasps the void and inks its passage in empty margins.
Lost, forgotten, thumbed, split.
We beat the scars of patient decades and centuries’ dreams.
Whose hands will next hold me, I do not know.
The book too, reads its readers in real time.”
One More Thing
If you enjoy the sight of books adorning shelves on Zoom calls, you might check out Books by the Foot.
As the name implies, they sell books in bulk, so you can complete your library or create the look you’ve been seeking.
Selected from a 3-acre warehouse that contains more than four million books, they offer books by color, by subject, wrapped books, coverless books, modern books, vintage books, book sets, bundles of books, and more.
Whether or not these volumes attain the joy of being held in loving hands, they ought to be content in knowing they serve a higher purpose.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.