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A home for books

GLANCING one recent morning through a cluster of daily suggestions arranged in the form of a calendar, I paused at the one for that day: ``Do something nice for yourself.'' Not one to ignore advice that I find agreeable, I took the suggestion to heart and, after defeating the temptation to go forth and buy a cherry pie, decided that I could show kindness toward myself in a comparatively innocuous way by answering a question I have long waited in vain for somebody to ask: Why do you bother maintaining an ambitious collection of books in your modest, overcrowded house when the nearest public library is only a mile away and there are many large metropolitan and university libraries reasonably close by? I realize that having almanacs, atlases, encyclopedia, and other reference books not far from your kitchen table may preclude your having to go outdoors in the sleet of a subzero day, but aren't you overdoing it in trying to imitate a public library?

In reply, let me explain first that adverse weather has never kept me from visiting a public library; nor has the frequent unavailability of the family car. I own snow boots, overshoes, an umbrella, a bicycle, and a pair of legs that consider walking a fine way to get from here to there as well as a recreational end in itself.

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My reasons for having a sizable home library are introduced in its name - The Library of the Three Joys.

The first joy is that of self-expression, realized through accumulating several thousand books in subject areas holding particular significance for me. History is one, biography another. Many of the titles deal with architecture and the physical characteristics of cities. Nature, mythology, language, and Bible studies are well represented. Books on ships and the sea consume most of a shelf; those on baseball, well more than a shelf. Three wide bookcases rising four feet from the floor along one wall are devoted to novels, plays, and anthologies of short stories.

There are numerous weaknesses in the collection - for example, many subjects are unrepresented. But after all, this is nothing more than one man's library, stocked with the tastes of a lone, imperfect bibliophile. The point is, this library is something he built himself, from scratch, without a blueprint, without being skilled with tools or having to acquire a building permit from City Hall. All he needed was his love for books, which long ago sparked a quiet excitement that has endured.

The desire to build seems to be a strong human need, pressing for fulfillment through any number of ways - building a house, a family, a business or profession, a fortune, muscles, an attachment to some cause or organization, a name for oneself. In the popular senses of building, my life's ledger shows me to have been either in absentia or an underachiever.

But in this I have truly built - in erecting, mostly of loose boards and bricks - a home for books in a house built by others. It helps, to be sure, that I have an understanding wife, who only occasionally says things like, ``Don't you dare bring another bookcase into this house!''

The second of the joys is in playing librarian and caretaker. A professional librarian could easily point out the egregious defects in my arrangement of books - once he or she stopped laughing - but I've discovered a few benefits in bypassing the alphabet, in not even trying to embrace the mysteries of the Dewey Decimal System, and in generally being casual about form.

The result is that, far from being exasperating, the experience of looking for a specific title or even a subject area in a library whose books have been ranged whimsically is usually a winsome adventure, one that can lead a make-believe librarian down some bewitching paths of print. I suspect that I eschew a rigid rule of order on my shelves because I'm drawn to life's irregularities, to the defiers of categorization - and because I like a bit of hunting (provided the quarry is a book, not a deer).

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Running the eye along two or three shelves while seeking a book can be something like walking slowly through a neighborhood that displays a medley of architectural styles. There is much to stir wonder and provide excuses for lingering and unhurried observation.

In taking care of a home library, I've discovered that dusting books overcomes the aspect of drudgery while bearing a resemblance to reviewing a parade. With a large collection especially, there are ample opportunities to lay aside the cloth and, while remaining in a standing position, examine a table of contents that you hadn't looked at for several years. Soon you're sitting in a nearby chair, lost in some tale you simply must read, or reread, before you dust another book.

Besides owning hardcovers and paperbacks that I like to read more than once, there is the joy of maintaining a bounty of books as yet unread. Housing books that you probably won't be getting around to reading for some time is like nurturing a savings account - in different ways you're planning for the future. Gazing at the unread books while hunting or dusting, mentally adding them to the ones I borrow from the public library, I soberly face the truth - that I'll never find hours enough to read all the way through my collection.

And while it's regrettable that works like ``Guard of Honor,'' ``The Flowering of New England,'' ``Selected Letters of James Thurber,'' ``Rome of the Caesars,'' ``The Wisdom of Thoreau,'' and ``The Story of Mankind'' - to name a few - must collect dust while awaiting their turn, it's also reassuring to approach my tomorrows knowing that so many worthy books are but an arm's length away; that under my roof, stacks of gold await. They have the force of daily sustenance and represent an everlasting antidote against boredom and loneliness.

``Do something nice for yourself'' today? Being the founder, owner, librarian, purchasing agent, caretaker, and chief patron of The Library of the Three Joys is doing something nice for myself every day.

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