Or, why am others and I like me, obsessed with books? Yesterday I think I startled a friend with my guttural reaction to her having ripped apart some old used children’s books we had found together for a project we are jointly working on. She is not careless or indifferent to the written word. On the contrary, she reads constantly, loves illustrated books, and treats them with respect. She is absolutely normal. She explained about her scanner not able to accommodate the full book, how they were old and falling apart, but none of that registered with me. All I knew was there were now loose pages floating around that were once bound in between boards. Didn’t matter if the book smelled of mildew, or was hanging on by a thread, so long as it still retained the semblance a book, it’s sacrilegious to pull it apart and forever destroy the magic it held.
Which is all crap—to other people. I recognize my fanaticism, and am trying to accept that not all books are equal; some are too damaged to save. And I myself have taken apart books and had the illustrations framed. In the past when I located my favorite Mother Goose with Anne Anderson’s illustrations, then found it was missing loads of pages plus pictures, I didn’t think twice about framing some of the remaining plates. So what changed? Nothing. If a book is intact and has all its plates and pages, even if ready to crumple up and die, I become irrationally upset if someone decides to utilize what they can.
So where did this love, or obsession as some would see it, come from? It’s not genetic, if such a thing were possible; no book lovers’ gene has been found—yet. And I wouldn’t possess it, if it existed. Intellectual voracious readers my family is not. My dad, as I’ve mentioned before, didn’t read anything other than the newspaper and Mickey Spillane. My mother read mysteries, but not voraciously, I can’t remember ever seeing a book within her hands as I was growing up, but then, she was raising a family and I’m sure reading time was scarce.
Of my two grandmothers, one was constantly traveling around the country and had no time for a sedentary activity, the other we ascertained later, was nearly illiterate. Grandfathers—the companion traveler, the other—better educated but not a reader.
However, my mother and her father, read to me. Somehow between laundry day and ironing day, my mother would sit and read me a story. And I had plenty of books. By books, I mean Golden, Elf, whatever was cheap. I never possessed a handed down classic, or any of the hard-covered titles that were published at that time. I had, like millions others, small treasures of fairy tales, alphabet books, puppy tales, and little engines that could, as well as the ubiquitous Disney distortion of Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty.
I believe the key factor for my love of books derives from my early years visiting the library, which I have described before. And school. We had access to books from school, and I took full advantage. I don’t remember partaking of any classics—for example, I’ve never read Little Women or Charlotte’s Web, however in third grade we read aloud almost the entire Wizard of Oz series, at least the ones that Baum himself wrote. Still, none of this explains my inability to throw a perfectly ok book away. When one of my bosses sat stacks of books on the curb to be picked up by the trash men, I rescued as many as I could carry. Why? What’s the big deal if a cheap reprint of a John Stephen Strange is tossed out? Nothing, except that would be one less copy of a title left in the world. And if everyone who had one felt the same, and disposed of their copies, we’d have none. And in the unlikelihood that does occur, does it or should it matter? I can only answer that question for myself. It does matter. The wackiest old encyclopedia of insects matters. An etiquette volume from the 1830s, matters. And the worst written mystery by Harry Stephen Keeler, matters. Because they are documents of our history as human beings. We have written documentation of what we thought and how we lived, even if we no longer think or live in the manner old books describe. And I firmly believe, that for every title there is someone somewhere who would delight in its ownership, no matter how obscure or boring the rest of us may find it to be.
I’ve not answered my own question. I don’t know that I can. Books have been an important part of my existence for a very long time and that’s the best I can make of it. No one thing stands out as a turning point where I could say, ‘Aha! Here’s where the adoration of all things books began”. I only know that the books my friend and I picked out she hadn’t torn apart to scan are now in my possession. Luckily, I have a scanner that works with book intact.