Why do I keep books? I’d like to believe that I’ll return one day to the books I loved and bask in them in my backyard on breezy summer days. In fact, when we buy books, according to some source I won’t be able to dredge up, we’re really buying the time to read those books, a satisfying illusion that often enough becomes reality. Maybe the same holds true for keeping the books on the shelves around us.
But rarely do I reread the books I’ve kept. So rarely that I can list them. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Michael Ondaatjie’ English Patient, devouring them, yet reading only the first half of each—because I have so many others I need to get to? Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and American Pastoral. The short stories of Ethan Canin and Raymond Carver. And I return fairly consistently to parts of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. If I scan my shelves, I can maybe add a few more, but the list won’t get much longer.
I do like having the books around me, the sentences tidy and polished, reminding me, as I glance at the scattering of notes on my desk, of possibility and hope.
One certainty: the impulse to collect began early. When I was young, I would scrounge the neighborhood for empty bottles that earned me two cents a pop, which I promptly exchanged for Superman and Batman comics at the dime store on Wood Street in Chicago. I can still smell the pink bubblegum on the counter. As I grew older and turned to paperbacks, I hauled the comics, pristine because I wouldn’t even bend back the spines while reading, to the attic, which seems odd, I know. I’d taken care of them for so long, you’d think I would have found an honored place for them, like under my bed. Of course, the day came when I yearned to return to my hundreds of comic books, which would be nothing less than rapturous, I imagined, only to find that my mom threw out every single one. I’m filled with ache every time I think of this. My adult impulse to collect books could stem from that loss, my pathetic attempt to compensate for the stupidity of storing my colorful little superhero library in the sweltering attic.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Citizen Kane, you might have an inkling of what I mean by compensation. I think you need to see the movie several times before you become emotionally attached to Kane, who is more pathetic than sympathetic. On my fourth or fifth viewing, though, I focused on his maniacal pursuit of ancient artifacts, his futile attempt, we find out in the end, to recapture a part of his childhood. My book collecting is not as compulsive, and hopefully not as pathetic, but the books do provide a similar, primitive sort of security.
Another certainty, though harder to grasp and express. The need to save books, for me, runs deep. As I take in the titles on my shelves, many of them remind me of the person I was at the time I lost myself in the book, which is ironic, pining for the person I tried to “lose.” Or, to put it another way, I collect books for the same reason I write: to preserve. Not only the past, but to preserve the beauty of the spines and the covers and the elegant strings of sentences that unspool with a kind of majesty that makes me glad to be alive. Each day when I come home, I get to be surrounded by all of that.