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“A book is not an isolated being:  it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.”

Jorge Luis Borges

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I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that I feel compelled to buy books I’ve read but do not own, despite knowing that I probably will not have time to read them again.

Most of the books I read now come from my local library; weekly I stop there to pick up and drop off stacks of fresh, wonderful books of my own choosing.  It hasn’t always been like this.  Years ago when I worked for a huge company downtown, I used to buy handfuls of books on a whim; I often came home from work with multiple acquisitions, a harvest of lunchtime browsings.  You know how some women love to shop for shoes?  I loved to shop for books.

Being promoted into a national role with my firm had me working from home and traveling too much to do more than grab paperbacks from airport bookstores (ah, but I’ve found a few gems amongst those spontaneous grab-and-dashes!).  I was too busy to read much except while waiting for flights, waiting for taxis, waiting for sleep to come in unfamiliar hotel rooms. Then, unexpectedly, I was laid off, and suddenly found myself with lots of time but a sharply reduced income.  The library became my lifeline.  It took a while to get used to having to give “my” books back when I was done reading them, but the tradeoff was the exhilarating number of titles right at my fingertips.

Now, seven years later, the library and I are the best of friends, plus I “friend and follow” numerous publishing pages, author blogs, literary sites, to keep on top of new and upcoming works, and subscribe to a few “deals of the day in books” notifications to scoop up free or $1.99 ebooks.  These are often works that I have read but don’t own, or popular books where the library queue is so long I’ve given up on getting them anytime this century.

But I also find myself inexplicably unable to resist sales on hardcopy books that I have already read from the library.  Despite these books being memorable – even beloved – I must admit that I most likely will not have the time to read them again.  While I simply can’t fork out $25 or more for a new hardcover book (except for a very few of “gotta have its” from my favoritest of authors), and cannot allow myself to become comfortable with buying $15 trade paperbacks (else they might become like literary crack – I know I shouldn’t indulge but just can’t say no), when I see, say, Ready Player One selling for $5 and I remember getting it from the library and absolutely loving it but realize I’ve become a little sketchy on the details, then oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a copy to just have on hand?  Well, I find that hard to resist.

But I look at my bookshelves, and I see all these volumes I’ve been acquiring over the last few years that I likely will never read again, and I have to wonder – why?  Why, when funds are so short, and the water heater stopped working and the car is making funny sounds again and higher heating bills are just around the corner, why am I still buying something that will just sit on a shelf and gather dust?

I’ll tell you why.

Every time I glance over at the bookshelves, I see this hodgepodge collection of books – these titles I love, these stories that captivated me – and I feel a profound sense of satisfaction.  Seeing these books brings back memories of the places they took me to, the characters I met there, the new things I experienced, the thoughts and sensibilities and hurts and joys that they gave me, and it fills me with both comfort and delight.

Some people collect postcards of their journeys to remind them of the exotic lands they’ve traveled to, the strange places they’ve encountered, the lands of their forebears that they’ve visited.  Or they take photographs, and set them in galleries, or print them out and display them on stairwell walls, on mantles, on hallways or counters or desks, reminding them of people they love, events they cherish, sights so beautiful as to make the heart ache.

These books on my shelves, these embossed spines and shiny dust jackets — they are my postcards from places I have traveled, my photographs of both celebrated occasions and intimate moments that have warmed my heart or allowed me to soar higher than is possible in my own staid existence.  They are the reminders of those others – so very different from myself – whom I have come to love, those whom I have lost, and who will never fully be removed from my life.  That these memories are from the world of Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire or the experiences from Carol Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit, the characters from Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being or the spellbinding beauty of James Smythe’s The Echo, makes them no less precious to me.

To have them present on my shelves, to be able to reach out and touch them, makes me happy.  When I see them, they re-manifest in my mind, and for a fleeting moment I relive their stories, and they remind me of how blessed I am to have experienced them.  Even if I never crack these books open again, their being here gives me such inestimable joy that I will not apologize for their flippant cost, their inherent waste of space, or even the dust that gathers on their still surfaces.

I love looking at them, and remembering.  Over and over and over again.  My own genre of postcards, my own genus of photographs.  My own cherished memories.

~ Sharon Browning

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1 comment

Diane LaGrone 26 August, 2016 - 7:19 am

Beautiful piece! You articulated some feelings that I have always had but never knew the words.

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