I am, alas, a frequenter of used bookstores. While I like new bookstores, I find them too bright, too organized, almost clinical. They are garish and ostentatious, and all of them share the great sin of not selling my own (as-yet-unpublished) literary works.
But used bookstores: crowded alleys of poorly organized volumes stacked on end waiting for a new home—these places I love even before I’ve been there. The best ones, of course, contain bookmongers sporting ill-kempt beards or softly flowing cotton dresses (or occasionally both), with a stray cat warming in the sun and a game of chess crammed into some antiquarian corner. The best bookstores, I believe, are found on forgotten alleys or dying main streets, with hand-hewn boards sagging beneath the weight of thousands of stories: the discarded, the once-loved, the accidentally forgotten, and the terminally lost. These old bookstores don’t just house all the stories of human history, but are actually one of those beloved stories, told only in life but rarely in word.
The result of being a bibliophile, alas, is a house full of my own books. My bedside table is, of course, overflowing with good intentions. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., E.L. Konisgberg, Paulo Coelho, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesteron, Chaim Potok, Holly Black and always another Terry Pratchett fantasy or peer manuscript: these are just a few of the books that beg for my immediate attention, that are at the top of a very long queue.
By a sworn affidavit, the main level of our home is free of bookshelves, but the basement contains my office. My desk is a tiny closet in the deepest, darkest corner of the cellar. This way, I have room for the books. And my books fill each wall so that the cheap MDF shelving sags under their weight. Even the basement ledges found in homes of this age—that 4 foot high inset that makes wall space for hidden wires and water removal—is covered with piles of books. Theology, biblical studies, Jewish studies, sociology, philosophy, popular culture, Inklings books, some literary books and pulp fiction, and rows and rows of children’s books: these are my constant companions as I translate wisps of thought into ruefully obedient word in the tiny corner of our downtown basement.
Unfortunately, the books are not confined to my home. At a college where I am an adjunct professor, I have filled an entire wall with the bulk of my biblical studies and psychology books. And there is more. My office at the university where I teach looks like it houses very few tomes. Don’t tell my wife, but I have stacked and hidden there a rapidly increasing collection of religious studies and C.S. Lewis books—my duplicates of Lewis, mostly, just in case I need them. The other desks in the office are clean; mine is covered with rows of books.
It is here that I must offer an apology to my wife. She is eminently practical: if you will not read a book again, or have no real intention of reading a book in the first place, you should not own it. This is a mentality I simply cannot understand. Books are not just for reading, they are tactile—you can touch them, open them, flip through them, smell them. The reading of books is not a linear activity: books do not follow the intrepid pace of 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day. Books are there for reference, for recollection, for comfort, on a whim or in great need. Why would a person limit book collecting?
Well, there are two good reasons, actually. The first reason is space. I simply have no more space. Any day now, I could be banished from my academic haunts and left with vanloads of homeless tomes. Our house simply has no more space for books.
The second reason is financial. The greatest evidence of Adam’s curse in the Fall, I believe, is that there is never enough money for the purchasing of books. When I was younger, and a student with almost no income, I had plenty of money for books. But now that I am grown up—whatever that means—the money simply isn’t there. Every time I discover a bookstore on my travels, I leave behind books that desperately need a home. I simply cannot afford them.
There are moments when that wretched curse of Adam chokes my life even more dearly. In the winter of 2007, I had to sell my books. Not all of them, but enough that I still feel their absence. I sold my ministry books, my youth work and popular theology and leadership books. The $450 I received seemed a pittance compared with their worth, but we needed the money. As Adam’s children we were fighting thorns and thistles, and the thorns and thistles were winning.
How do I communicate to my wise and practical wife this boyish crush I have for books? I still remember my growing-up books. My father had built a set of shelves into the head of my bed, so that, quite literally, I slept with my books. I still remember the covers of my edition of Narnia, the books about Arthur, my Robinson Crusoe which I’m certain I never ever finished. Only one book remains from the collection—we lost everything in a fire when I was fourteen—but I cherish that volume. It is Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and I read the water-damaged copy to my son almost weekly, voicing the characters that filled my childhood.
Fortunately, I am not alone. There are others that share my affliction. Bibliophilia isn’t a DSM IV illness, but I would wager that many of those who have read this far share this disease. It is an itch that cannot be scratched, always an inch or two away from satisfaction.
Like most writers, C.S. Lewis shares this love for books. His letters are filled with stories of his books: where he purchased them, how much they cost, the quality of the print and binding, and, of course, a review of the content. He read voraciously, but also collected shamelessly. The Wade Centre in Wheaton, IL has much of his book collection, and I had the great pleasure this past spring of thumbing through some of his books, reading his notes and scratches in the margins.
C.S. Lewis was a bibliophile, a trait that was built into him in childhood. In the first chapter of Surprised by Joy he shares the founding moments of this love:
“The ‘New House,’ as we continued for years to call it, was a large one even by my present standards; to a child it seemed less like a house than a city….To me, the important thing about the move was that the background of my life became larger. The New House is almost a major character in my story. I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.
“Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass. Where all these books had been before we came to the New House is a problem that never occurred to me until I began writing this paragraph. I have no idea of the answer.”
While I relish in giving my own son a hint of Lewis’ childhood book environment, there is still my wife: frugal, solid, wise, unsympathetic. I wish I could change, for her sake. While I’ve curbed my purchases to the bare minimum, I’m certain my absolute minimum seems to her a luxury. It might look to the objective outsider that I’ve changed, but I really haven’t. The itch is still there, and I leave every used bookstore empty handed, even though I’ve purchased a book or two (or three). I mourn the ones I left behind. I even mourn the ones I haven’t yet found, or have never heard of. I am probably guilty of missing the books that have not yet been written. ‘Tis the nature of the disease, I’m afraid.
So, my dear, patient wife, I am sorry. But I am helpless before the unending labyrinths of waiting novels and unread scrolls. I cannot help it. This is my poor confession, my insufficient apology. I am a lover of books, and I can only hope this note explains why.