A life without books? Unimaginable!
I didn't grow up in a library, but sometimes it felt that way.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
"I should be doing a lot more reading." This thought flashes through my mind every time I sit down at my desk and stare at one entire wall that is lined with books. There's probably 150 feet of shelf space, entirely filled.
People who come downstairs where my desk is located usually make the same comment: "Wow! You've got a lot of books!" It's true, but not as many as I once had. The collection is just a fraction of its original size.
I didn't grow up in a library, but sometimes it felt that way. My parents met and married during World War II. Both were avid readers. In 1948, they settled into a large colonial-style home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and for the next 30 years a steady stream of books flowed into it.
If a major earthquake had struck during that period, it's possible that an avalanche of paper would have poured down from every direction.
It wasn't until about the fourth grade that I realized what a tremendous resource I had all around me. I was doing a report on the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish that was believed to be extinct until rediscovered in the early 1950s. An encyclopedia gave me the title of a book, "Old Fourlegs: the Story of the Coelcanth" by J.L.B. Smith, a scientist who played a key role in the hunt for a living specimen.
I asked my dad to drive me to the city library, but he said we didn't need to. Then he went and pulled a copy of "Old Fourlegs: the Story of the Coelcanth" from one of the shelves in the living room. I was astounded. It had never occurred to me that grown-ups would buy a book about an exotic fish for their own personal enrichment.
Reading habits can tell you a lot about someone's character and worldview. My dad was interested in almost everything: history, natural science, crime, biographies, mysteries, westerns, politics – there wasn't a genre he hadn't explored.
As a teenager I made a modest effort to familiarize myself with some of the famous titles in 20th-century American fiction. While kids at my high school were reading "The Greening of America," "Siddhartha," and "Love Story," I was plowing through "Arrowsmith," "The Jungle," "The Sun Also Rises," and "Winesburg, Ohio."
When my mother thought a book was significant, she sometimes jotted a notation on the title page. Her copy of "Gone With the Wind" includes this comment: "September 1936 – Everyone this year is super-enthused about this book – one of the most talked of in my lifetime."
I never think of people in the 1930s using the word "super" in conversation, but there it is.
Some of the books are signed by total strangers. A copy of "The Virginian" is inscribed, "To Marilyn Bishop, congratulations from Joe and Grace Borden." This is a clue that one of my dad's favorite pastimes was browsing the aisles of used bookshops. How many secondhand bookstores even exist anymore?
World War II was the central event of my parents' lives, and I saw evidence of it on shelves throughout the house. The titles "Up Front," "Here Is Your War," "Last Train From Berlin," "A Soldier's Story," and "They Were Expendable" lined the shelves.
One of my favorites is a racy bestseller from 1951 that seems to have vanished from our national memory: "The Revolt of Mamie Stover," by William Bradford Huie. It's the story of a prostitute who becomes a force to be reckoned with in the freewheeling society of wartime Honolulu.
My dad read for one or two hours in bed every night. His mind was like a stadium filled with fascinating writers such as John O'Hara, Robert Graves, Raymond Chandler, Agnes Newton Keith, and dozens of others sitting side by side, ready to speak up if their name popped into a conversation.
When my mother passed away, my dad sold the big house and moved to southern California. Many books went with him, and a lot more stayed behind in a storage unit he rented for me.
I've moved three times since then. Over the years, the library my parents created has dwindled as my wife and I sorted through the shelves before each move and decided which volumes we should keep and which ones could be sent back into circulation.
What's left is still impressive, and I've got a few special targets in my sights. I'm positively going to tackle the "USA" trilogy by John Dos Passos, and after that I'll try for James Boswell's "The Life of Samuel Johnson."
Books connect a reader to all of humanity, to people in faraway places during the cavalcade of recorded history. It would have been nice to keep every one of my parents' books within my reach, but having hundreds of them doing nothing but sitting idly on shelves year after year isn't a good idea.
The best place for any book is in the hands of an avid reader, someone who enjoys seeing words on paper, and can't wait to find out what's going to happen on the next page.