It’s painful to weed a book collection. As one librarian said, “It does feel good to remove books that haven’t been read for over 10 years or maybe never, but if I think a book is worthy I put it on display hoping some child will save it by checking it out.” The heartbreak of the librarian! Even if their careworn pages suggest having at one time been cherished, the date stamp dictates whether a book remains on ever-shrinking shelf space. When I visited my own bookshelf, a favorite title jumped out — one that examines the book-reader influences.
What is it like to save a book, or be saved by a book? It is like going through an airlock. Francis Spufford describes it like this in “The Child that Books Built.” “As my concentration on the story in my hands took hold, all sounds faded away....Deep in the mysterious ductwork an adjustment had taken place with the least possible actual movement, an adjustment chiefly of pressure. There was an airlock in there. It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside.” A good book takes us inside — a story, a character, and ourselves.
This makes it difficult to cull a book collection. Behind each book lies an experience of discovery — the airlock — though even the stories and characters of reading legend need to circulate. They come in and out of favor, save for a few classics. Ah, the shelf life. “I went to the door of the hobbit hole with Bilbo as he let in more, and more, and more dwarfs attracted by the sign Gandalf had scratched there in the glossy green paint,” writes Spufford. “He was my passport to the mountains, and the caverns, and the hollow halls that the dwarfs had sung about back at Bag End, in a kind of promise that the book kept.”
Hopefully, everyone has a book that has promised you something; that lives on your shelf, real or imagined, and that reminds you of being taken to the caverns inside. It suggests we should consider ourselves guardians of an experience, rather than of a particular book. This keeps the collection fresh for new, up and coming readers — and we are each, always, an up and coming reader.
I enjoy seeing what other people keep on their shelves. In a Rolling Stone article, well-known readers cited particular book inspirations. Al Gore cites Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Jane Goodall liked Dr. Doolittle and Tarzan. Are we surprised? Bill Gates read science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke and Robert Heinlein. Bruce Springsteen read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the U.S.” George Clooney liked “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Meryl Streep chose “The Fate of the Earth” by Jonathan Schell. The list makes perfect sense. Behind each great man and woman lies a great book that launched them on their path of inquiry, creativity, discovery or work — they went through the airlock. And everyone mentioned also happened to recall the day they first heard “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Me too. But that’s a whole ‘nother collection from the shelves of memory; a whole ‘nother airlock; a whole ‘nother archive of sonic experience.
And so, as I inspect my groaning bookshelves and books stacked like skyscrapers on the floor, and wondered what I could part with, I simply broke down and ordered more shelves. This is the grown man that books built.
Todd R. Nelson, an English major, lives in Penobscot with more than enough books. He’ll be reading from his recent book, “Cold Spell,” at the Blue Hill Public Library on March 2 at 7 p.m.
Todd R. Nelson, an English major, lives in Penobscot with more than enough books. He’ll be reading from his recent book, "Cold Spell," at the Blue Hill Public Library on March 2 at 7 p.m.