Books As Artifact

Ever since I was a young child I have been fascinated with books.  My grand parents were dutiful in the procurement of many volumes of Golden Books, those wonderful hard cardboard bound children’s volumes that so many of us, including adults, love to thumb through.  My earliest memories of these books emerge from the age of three and continued into my daughter’s childhood.  We shared the same volumes, albeit new ones, but the content essentially unchanged.  My favorite was Duck And His Friends, my daughter’s was The Three Little Pigs, I suppose more for the sound effects that I, as the Big Bad Wolf, made as I threatened to blow their house down.  So continues that tie today as we discover many of the same authors and read many of the same volumes.  Reading gives us a common bond as does the collecting of libraries.  I have always been a collector of books for my own library and have passed this pleasure on to my daughter.

My Weekly Reader is one of the sources for my desire to have my own library.  Back in the fifties that publisher had the idea of presenting paperback books chosen for children and sold directly to them at a slight discount.  I remember saving my weekly allowance and the money I earned from a few odd jobs around the neighborhood and deciding on how much I would spend each month on books.  Most of what was offered was pablum for all the good little boys and girls, but I managed to select books of a higher quality.  I was not going to waste my time being bored reading The Bobbsey Twins.  I disliked fiction at that time, I wanted to know about the world.  So for a dime or fifteen cents I could buy what interested me.  Then I found at the local five and dime stores the paperback book racks where one could select really neat books that only cost a quarter or thirty five cents  at the most.  My world opened a little further.  Not that my mother and teachers ever approved of my choices.  I read what I could about war, usually some history of battles and memoirs of experience.  Sometimes I could find something on science but most of the volumes for sale were romance novels, disgusting fare for a nine year old.

When my father took a job in the Philadelphia area the house he rented was withing walking distance of the town library.  I spent many nights there, getting away from my parents and exploring the world of books.  When you are ten or eleven a large public library is an intimidating place.  When you are thirteen it has a comfort that is quiet and yet exciting.  The stacks beckon to you, wanting and waiting for your personal touch as you explore the shelves and occasionally selecting a book to inspect.  Three years later I would have a library card for Swarthmore College (now a university) and could spend time roaming the stacks, reading, and meeting the freshmen and sophomore women who thought I was twenty and must be a junior.  And about this time I started to notice the back grounds in films.  Did the room have a bookshelf of any kind?  what books might be oh those shelves.  Oh, I loved the English movies that showed the manor type houses with the library complete with fireplace and wingback chairs.  Did you ever watch Little Lord Fauntleroy  With Dickie More and Cecil Hardwick?  Ever notice the library that they sat in and talked?  That was two stories, had the balcony floor round the room.  And the two oversized chairs in front of that great fireplace with a fire going.  Even the two great danes seemed part of the place.

It is very satisfying to have your own library, to see the books on the shelves and know which ones you have read and which ones are next on the list.  It has been a long time since I have had my current library up, as it were.  I have barely enough book cases now to hold all the volumes and the last time we moved it took almost ninety boxes to hold them all.  We are in the midst of remodeling and all the delays that go with that, so I never have more than a hundred out at any one time.  At last count I was closing to four thousand volumes, perhaps more now.  And when I left telecom and data after the great bust, I ended up giving away over four hundred volumes of technical reference.  God, that was hard.  Books are like old friends and you hate to see them go.  You see, a physical book is something that you can hold in your hands.  You acquire an intimacy with it and its knowledge.  Put it on the table open to the pages you need to read and reference as you write down information, make notes, slip pieces of paper in between the pages you want to come back to later.  Books on shelves are your own personal monument to what you have read and learned, the pleasure of knowing what’s inside each volume, a measurement of accomplishment.  For reading a book from cover to cover is an accomplishment.  We measure our daily progress in pages and chapters.  We see them as old friends as they sit on the shelf along side with those whom we haven’t yet read.  They are reminders of our goals, of our duties, and of our passions.  And when I see very few books left to read I am compelled to buy a fee more, or a lot more, case depending.  My hands cradle the physical intimacy of each book in a way that no electronic device can.  Yes, I can access hundreds of thousands of books on my laptop through the internet.  I know they are they but I can’t see them waiting to be read.  My library creates the physical intimacy that holds my soul midst its meanings in all the volumes it encompasses.  The electronic books may be the future but they cannot compete with a physical library.  The heft of a book, they way it sits in your hands, even the unruliness of the pages as they seek to find their own way of sticking up, The physical book speaks to you from the face of each page, the typeface gives passion or coolness to its content.  I can explore a book in ways that make it impossible to duplicate in electronic media.  And I never have to plug my book in to recharge it, it’s always ready for my hands.


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