Friday, July 8, 2011

My Love Affair With Books

Even bad photos bring back memories as does this one of the Northfield Public Library, my favorite haunt during my years growing up on the Minnesota plains. I always considered it ironic that it was my mom who first introduced me to borrowed books and ever after, was always scolding me to "get my nose out of a book and go outside and play." Quite unknowingly, she had created a bookaholic--and then blamed me for being one.

I was in the third grade when I fell in love with books. Up until that time, a book was something read only in school and then stuffed onto the single shelf my wooden desk afforded me. I considered the school books boring, what with Dick and Jane constantly running up and down that grassy hill, playing with their dog, Spot. Young as I was, I realized that even I had a far more exciting life than they did and for some unknown reason, I assumed that all books must be as boring as those about Dick and Jane.

And then I got the mumps. Worse yet, mom insisted I stay in bed and rest. I don't recall being in a lot of pain--only that it was impossible to eat and at best, swallowing was a chore. What I do remember is that I was as bored as any third grader could ever be. Coloring books were good for about fifteen minutes; paper dolls not even that long. Modeling clay was no fun and drawing pictures lasted about two blinks of an eyelash. By day two, mom took pity on me and presented me with five books from our local library. I have to confess that I wasn't thrilled to see them. I figured they were just more of dumb ole' Dick and Jane. Still, I thanked mom for getting them and tossed them at the foot of my bed.

Mom would have none of that. She picked up the biggest one and put it in my hands. On the cover was the cutest puppy I'd ever seen and inside, were picture after picture of that little puppy having all sorts of adventures. I was hooked. I read the book five times that first day and who knows how many more the day after?  And while I don't recall what the other books were about, I read every one of them over and over. On day three, I asked mom if she'd go to the library and get me more books. She kept me supplied with stories until the mumps were gone and I was ready to go back to school.

But then the unthinkable happened. My sister, who shared my room, had come down with mumps and given it back to me--on the other side of my face. I would be home another week and if I knew mom, I'd be in bed the whole time. It wasn't long before I began the book begging routine. Mom rolled her eyes and mentioned, sort of under her breath, that I read them so fast it was hardly worth bringing them home. I suggested she bring me as many as they'd let her take. To my utter joy, at least eight books ended up on my bed. I was finished with them in two days but didn't have the heart to tell mom. I figured she was tired of taking care of two mumpy girls and running to the library in between. I kept silent. At least I had my sister to talk with now, so being home didn't seem so bad.

Then came the day when I asked mom if she would take me to the library. I didn't actually know what a library was but I'd figured out it was a place where they kept books and I wanted to see it for myself. The following Saturday, she walked my sister and me across town and introduced us to the big brick building that was known as a library. As quickly as my short legs would carry me, I climbed the many steps up to the door, waiting impatiently for mom and sister to catch up. How could I have guessed that the whole world was about to open up right in front of me?

Once inside, the scent of thousands of books hit me, mesmerizing my soul. I didn't realize at the time that I was addicted to the smell of paper and printer's ink and leather bindings. I only knew that this was surely the grandest place on earth and on that day, I promised myself that I would one day own as many books as the library did--just so I could sit and inhale their fragrance. It was a promise that pretty much came to pass. But more about that later.

These days, most of my friends and relatives read books on electronic gadgets. They swear they're wonderful and cost much less than purchasing the physical book. Maybe so. My guess would be that these are people who have never been mesmerized by a library or a bookstore or the feel of a book in their hands or the smell of freshly printed paper. These are probably book readers but not book lovers. There is a difference. If you're a book lover, you understand what I'm talking about. Readers borrow and give back; lovers purchase and keep, adding row upon row to their collection until there are so many books stacked in every nook and cranny that in desperation, they gut an extra bedroom and line it with shelves--just so they can keep each book on display. In time, the shelves fill up and with no place else to go, the books are stored in odd corners with the hope that more shelves will magically appear.

"Your books are running us out of the house again," my husband said one day. I knew he was right. Not only had I filled every shelf in my in-house library, but books sat atop books and in odd corners and stacked atop tables. In desperation, I spent nearly a week going through every shelf, determining which books I could live without. I wasn't very successful. How could I give away Heidi or Heidi Grows Up or Mother Carey's Chickens or my Agatha Christie collection? And what about the classics? Great Expectations had to stay. It was one of my favorite books of all time. In the end, I had packed up three smallish boxes and not knowing what to do with them, hauled them to the garage.

Is this your new book depository?" asked my husband. Just by his tone I knew he wasn't thrilled. Thinking fast, I replied, "Just until I figure out what to do with them." His reply was to call one of the charities who come around in a big truck and haul away things people want to get rid of. I was aghast. GET RID OF THEM? Book lovers do not get rid of those things which they love. I had to find them a good home. One evening, hubby suggested the library might take them. I considered that an inspired idea. A quick call to the library's main branch to see if they would accept them, and I was off and running. Since that time, my shelves have filled again and again, forcing me to donate hundreds of books to the city library. And guess what? I'm happy to do it--just as long as I can keep my treasured volumes.

I figure it brings me full circle to that third grader I once was. In some small way, I'm helping to fill an entire building with the aroma of those inanimate objects which I fell in love with as a child. And while today's recipient is not the library I grew up with, it is still a place where any youngster can discover a love of books that can be taken home and held, smelled, touched, and read over and over again--sometimes by the light of a small bulb held under the bedsheets.

Some books are so loved they become keepsakes of our past. Heidi is a book like that and I still have the 1940s version tucked safely away. It was a gift from a friend who knew I loved to read as much as she did and had talked her mom into buying it for me as a birthday present. I took it to bed with me that night and slept with it beside me, just so I could smell its newness. That was more than sixty years ago. Little has changed. I still fall asleep with a book beside me and too often, glasses askew. Times like that I ask myself why I persist in reading in bed rather than a cozy chair. And in my mind's eye I see a blond youngster with a puffy face, tucked in bed, reading to herself and relishing every minute. Some habits are just hard to break.

Copyright 2011 by Sandra L Keith, All rights reserved